Elon Musk Unedited
posted June 1, 2012 by Miles O'Brien
Elon Musk and SpaceX are on a roll. I am glad to see it, but it is worth remembering how risky the space business is. As they say in the financial services industry, “past performance is not a guarantee of future results.” In any case, Musk’s critics owe him something more than silence. He and his team have proven an awful lot with this stunningly successful vanguard run to the ISS.
Perhaps his detractors might want to take a moment to visit the SpaceX factory in Hawthorne, California. It is a hop and a skip from LAX. It is an impressive place.
That is where I met Mr. Musk and interviewed him in January for my PBS NewsHour story on SpaceX that aired in April.
Below is a transcript of the interview. There is no doubt Musk thinks big. But more importantly, he takes action on his bold dreams. We talked about his vertical manufacturing philosophy, his plans for manned flight, the political battle he and other commercial space companies have endured, and his goal to homestead Mars.
Miles O’Brien: Why do you try to build so many of the components yourself?
Elon Musk: Maybe two thirds or a little more of the value of the rocket is manufactured right here at SpaceX in Los Angeles County. We often talk about the demise of the American Manufacturing System as like, “Well, we’re building the most competitive rockets on earth better than China, Russia, Europe, or anyone else, and it’s right here in California in LA.”
We’re trying tocreate a revolutionary improvement in rocket technology and to the degree that use the legacy components, you use the legacy supply chain, you necessarily can inherit the limitations of the legacy parts.
It’s like that pizza at Papa John’s: “Better ingredients make better pizza.” I can’t speak to the quality of the pizza but that it’s true for rockets as well.
If you want to have a revolutionary rocket, the ingredients have to be revolutionary.
Miles O’Brien: So, you got to make your own pepperoni?
Elon Musk: Yeah. I mean, yeah, you do.
Miles O’Brien: Is it cheaper to go to suppliers as you think about ramping up and getting in the production world?
Elon Musk: Well, it’s totally — I mean, well like I said, we’re trying to push the state of the old technology. So, if we use supplies that are just produced in the old technology, then we’re not going to have a revolutionary rocket.
Yeah we’re trying with particularly with the next generation of Falcon 9 to create the world’s first fully reusable rocket. You may think that the Space Shuttle was reusable but actually, most of the Space Shuttle wasn’t reusable. And even the parts that were reusable were so difficult to reuse but the Space Shuttle costs four times as much as a fully expandable rocket.
So that the Holy Grail of rocket technology is to create a fully and rapidly reusable rocket, and it’s very important that one say “fully and rapidly reusable”
With rockets, it’s really the only mode of transport where the vehicle is thrown away with every flight.
You could imagine how expensive air travel would be or cars would be if you — if they were singular use. If a 747 is a $25 billion, you would need two of them for a round trip. But nobody is paying half a billion dollars to fly to London. So that is the fundamental breakthrough that’s needed in rocket technology. That is the pivotal thing.
And once that is invented, then humanity will finally escape the bonds of Earth. I’m talking about sending ultimately tens of thousands, eventually millions of people to Mars and then going out there and exploring the stars
And you can’t just go to the old suppliers and say, “Give me the old parts, because they don’t work.”
Miles O’Brien: What is the advantage that you and a vertically integrated company like this, has over a government entity like NASA?
Elon Musk: Well, I don’t think that comparison is necessarily — compared to a government entity, I mean what NASA will do or has done historically for, say, a new vehicle design is they’ll come up with the overall design and then they will have various government contractors build the elements of that design usually, Boeing or Lockheed Martin or that kind of thing.
So, and then those government contractors will subcontract to smaller companies, and those smaller companies will subcontract to still smaller companies. And so by the time you actually get to somebody who’s doing something useful like actually cutting metal, you have profit and overhead to the fourth or fifth power. And it’s really, really expensive and it’s kind of inefficient.
Miles O’Brien: So critics of this new world order would say that there is something inherently more safe about the way NASA has done business. What do you say to that?
Elon Musk: Well, I think NASA has done a pretty good job on safety but I think if we were to have everyday spaceflight where we’re like travelling to orbit and then eventually beyond to Mars and even to more distant locations, the track record of, say, the Space Shuttle would be unacceptable to most people.
And there were two failures to the Space Shuttle and there are like 140 flights or something like that, so you got a failure rate that’s approaching 2%. You know, 1.5% to 2% and I don’t think people would get on an airplane or get in a car if that has that likelihood of death. So, I think we have to do much better than that to make most people comfortable.
Miles O’Brien: How soon before you think a Dragon Capsule will be delivering people to Space Station?
Elon Musk: Well, I’m hopeful that we’ll be doing that in about three years and it’s partly dependent on NASA. The technology will be ready in three years. Maybe a little less than three years and it’s just a question of how much time will be needed to double check and verify all the systems.
Miles O’Brien: All along you’ve been thinking about human beings being on board, right?
Elon Musk: Yes, absolutely. The whole system has been designed from the beginning to carry people.
Miles O’Brien: I think the one thing that is not finished is the Crew Escape.
Elon Musk: That’s the single largest technology item is the launch escape system. And there, we’re doing something that’s never been done before. I’m really excited about it. We’re building the launch escape engines into the sidewall of the spacecraft. So instead of having this solid graphic tractor motor on top of the spacecraft, the engines are integrated into the sidewall and they use the same propellant that you would ordinarily use for orbital maneuvering. So, you have double use for the propellant.
Miles O’Brien: Interesting. It saves a lot of weight…
Elon Musk: It saves a lot of weight and it’s actually, I think a lot safer as well because if you got that big rocket attached on the nose you’ve got to separate it every time – even if you have a good mission, you still got to separate it. It’s like having an ejection seat that you have to fire on every flight. I mean that — not great.
So, you usually have to discard it about three minutes into flight, so you don’t have escape all the way to orbit as you would with the system that we’re doing.
Miles O’Brien: Is there any doubt in your mind that this is the way NASA and the country should go as it looks towards the future in space
Elon Musk: No, not all. This is — it’s not — this is not a path, it’s the only path that will succeed. There’s just no way, I can’t see any other path that will succeed. If this doesn’t succeed, nothing will.
Miles O’Brien: There’s a sense here that the entrepreneurship that we see in Silicon Valley for example, you’re familiar with that, hasn’t been embraced in space because the government has been there. Are we at an inflection point where that’s changing?
Elon Musk: Yeah, I think we’re really at an inflection point where space is increasingly driven by the private sector. The government still has a very important role to play but it’s going to be a greater and greater percentage of private enterprise – which is a great thing. I mean consider the internet: I mean, the government gets a lot of credit for creating the internet. But it was very slow growth, but when there were commercial applications in the internet and it just exploded – in a good way.
Miles O’Brien: The political buzz that you ran into – did it surprise you?
Elon Musk: It did surprise me. There was about a year and a half ago, quite a significant opposition to commercial spaceflight, basically in opposition to NASA, transitioning to commercial crewed spaceflight in particular. And well, it was a tough battle and we almost lost. And so, I mean fortunately Congress did vote in favor of NASA outsourcing actual transport to the private sector.
Miles O’Brien: How do you explain that opposition? It’s kind of inside-the- looking-glass stuff, the way I see it. You have Republicans defending government jobs programs…
Elon Musk: That’s the — I mean, it was like opposite day of — because the biggest challenge we had was in the Republican caucus in the House that was against essentially the privatization of space transport. I think in part they were against it because Obama was for it. I don’t think that’s a very good reason to be against something. I mean, if the President does something that makes sense, then just support it, and not be against just because the President happens to be a Democrat. I’m kind of middle of the road, personally – a little liberal on the social issues and a little conservative on the financial issues – but boy, did I get beaten up quite a bit by the Republicans. And in some cases Democrats, actually. Yeah, that was a tough battle.
Miles O’Brien: Is there a potential vibrant business in space that you envision?
Elon Musk: Yeah, I think so. I mean, but there is a business for commercial launch of satellites so yeah, right now there’s I don’t know, 30 to 40 commercial satellites that are launched every year. So there’s that business. In fact, two-thirds of our missions are for — are commercial missions. So, one third is for NASA, two-thirds are for our commercial missions but we have on our manifest.
So NASA is our biggest customer but it’s important that, cumulatively, other customers constitute the majority. And so there’s that business for launching satellites, there’s business of creating satellites and then in the long term, I think the thing that’s really interesting is if we can make the cost of moving to Mars roughly equal to the net worth of a middle class person in America, then I think it will just happen because there will enough people that will sell their stuff on earth and move to Mars – to be part of creating a new planet.
Miles O’Brien: Homesteaders to Mars?
Elon Musk: Yeah, pretty much.
Miles O’Brien: Wow.
Elon Musk: And it will not be easy, it will not be comfortable but it would be cool.
Miles O’Brien: They call it “rocket science” not for nothing. It’s exacting business. Were you educated about that? Did you really know what you’re getting into?
Elon Musk: I wasn’t going to start a rocket company. What I wanted to do was to try to get public interest in sending people to Mars. And so I thought, “What is a fun mission that could get people really excited about going to Mars?”
And I came up with this idea to do “Mars Oasis” which was to send a small greenhouse to Mars with seasoned, dehydrated nutrient gel. When you’d land, you hydrate the gel and you have a little greenhouse on Mars. So this would be the furthest that life’s ever traveled. The first life on Mars as far as we know, you have this great shot of green plants on the red background, that would be cool.
And I think people will be like, “whoa!,” they would get pretty fired up about that. And what I’ve discovered as I went through this process was that I could compress the cost of almost anything except for the rocket. And that was really expensive.
I expected to lose everything because it was just in order to get people excited about to go to Mars.
Miles O’Brien: So Mars remains the ultimate goal for you?
Elon Musk: Yes, absolutely. It always has been, yeah.
Miles O’Brien: How are we going to get there? And how are you going to take us there?
Elon Musk: We’ve got the Falcon Heavy that’s going to fly next year. That will be the most powerful vehicle in the world by a factor of two. It’s really epic scale.
I think people as I noticed don’t quite appreciate the scale but the Falcon Heavy will have a thrust in vacuum of about four and a half million pounds. That’s equivalent to 18 747s with all engines roaring at full blast. Like in units of 747, that’s quite a lot.
And with two launches of that vehicle, we could send people back to the surface of the moon. And that’s our second generation vehicle. The third generation vehicle is one that will go to Mars to send people to Mars.
Miles O’Brien: How soon is that?
Elon Musk: Well, I believe in terms of people to Mars, 10 years is probably the soonest. But I think we could do it in less than 15. I’m confident we would do it in less than 15.
Miles O’Brien: That’s pretty soon.
Elon Musk: Yeah, well, I want to see it while I’m still alive, you know.
Miles O’Brien: How does this challenge compare to some of your other entrepreneurial challenges?
Elon Musk: It’s certainly more challenging than Paypal. And frankly, when I started SpaceX, I thought it would most likely fail.
Miles O’Brien: Really?
Elon Musk: Sure. Why I would be crazy if I think it would most likely succeed when I didn’t know anything about rockets.
Miles O’Brien: Why would you start something you thought would fail?
Elon Musk: Because I thought the stakes were important enough.
Miles O’Brien: The stakes are what?
Elon Musk: Well, ultimately, the stakes are humanity. You know, human consciousness; life as we know it. In other words, if we’re not on a path of becoming multi planetary and expanding to the stars, then what we’re effectively saying is, we’re going to consign ourselves to Earth until an extinction event wipes us out.