Corner Office

Elon Musk on the future of space travel and exploration

Marketplace Staff Jul 8, 2011
Corner Office

Elon Musk on the future of space travel and exploration

Marketplace Staff Jul 8, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: It was cloudy in Florida this morning, but nice enough to get the Space Shuttle off the ground. Atlantis is on its way to the Space Station, the last trip a shuttle will make. Congress has told NASA to come up with a replacement for the shuttle by 2016. But what does the American space program do in the meantime?

The answer, of course, is outsource. Astronauts are going to hitch rides on the Russian Soyuz for a couple years. Supply runs have been farmed out to private companies, including Space Exploration Technologies — SpaceX for short.

Today on Conversations from the Corner Office, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. Musk has taken most of the fortune he made selling PayPal to eBay back in the dot-com days and plowed it into SpaceX and Tesla, the electric car company.

A couple of weeks ago, I went down to the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.

Elon Musk: We’re in the SpaceX rocket factory, which is interestingly just about five minutes from the LAX airport.

It’s huge place — Boeing used to build fuselages for the 747 here. Now an altogether different kind of flying machine is being assembled. Technicians work on the Falcon rockets that SpaceX designed over there, while others tend to the heat shield on the Dragon capsule. Now it’s a cargo container but eventually, it’ll hold people.

Musk: When you are re-entering the atmosphere, you are coming in like a meteor. I mean, you’re a fireball from hell. If you don’t have that heat shield, you’ll get vaporized.

Musk has a $1.5 billion contract with NASA to resupply the Space Station over the next couple of years. But beyond that — since he’s the guy building the rockets — I asked him where the United States ought to be going in space.

Elon Musk, good to have you with us.

Musk: Thanks for having me.

Ryssdal: There is a clear answer to this question and then there is the existential answer to this question. What are you guys building out there?

Musk: We build rockets and spacecraft.

Ryssdal: Now give me the existential answer.

Musk: Well what we are aspiring to do is to help make humanity a true space-faring civilization and ultimately become a multi-planet species. Is that existential enough for you?

Ryssdal: That’s quite existential. I like that, but here’s the thing: you’re doing it on the cheap, I mean that’s, you know, there’s an award out there in the lobby that says Elon Musk. You get the award for economic space flight.

Musk: Yes, well the fundamental problem with space rockets is they are far too expensive and so that’s the thing that has to be improved dramatically by ultimately at least a factor of a hundred.

Ryssdal: That’s a pretty good chunk of change you are taking out of the cost of this thing.

Musk: Yes, absolutely!

Ryssdal: How do you do that?

Musk: Well in order to achieve that level of improvement, the great breakthrough that is needed is a fully and rapidly reusable rocket. No one has ever succeeded in building this; in fact no one has ever succeeded in building a reusable rocket of any kind; at least that is capable of getting into orbit. This is, I think, whether SpaceX does this or some other organization, I think it will be one of the most important inventions in the history of humanity or life itself really, because it is the pivotal thing that is needed for life to extend beyond earth permanently.

Ryssdal: The key word there is “fully reusable” because people look at the space shuttle and say, “Oh you can reuse that.”

Musk: Yes in fact I’d go a little further and say that it has to be “fully and rapidly” reusable. There are two problems with the space shuttle. It is not fully reusable and it is not rapidly reusable; even the bits that are reusable. But if you think of something like an airplane, an airplane is fully and rapidly reusable. Or if you consider what did the Wright Brothers invent? They actually did not invent powered flight. They did not invent controlled flight. They invented controlled, powered flight. That was important.

Ryssdal: What role then does NASA have, because NASA has not been able to master that reusable and rapidly reusable part?

Musk: I think NASA has an important role and SpaceX would not be where it is today without the help of NASA. A lot of the technology that we’ve developed is really built upon what NASA has developed and NASA has been our single largest and most important customer. So we have a huge debt of gratitude that we owe NASA. And I think NASA will continue to be an important part of the future but I also think that a company like SpaceX is important to bring sort of an entrepreneurial fast pace of technology, sort of a Silicon Valley approach to things and to pair that up with the traditional sort of approach to space in order to achieve substantial breakthroughs.

Ryssdal: You look at NASA though, and it’s one of the shining stars of American technology of the past fifty years, right? John Kennedy, we’re going to the moon, the whole deal. You come along and say, “I can do it cheaper, faster, and I would imagine you would also say, better.” Traditional supporters of NASA would say, “Wait a minute. This is the death of an American icon.” How do you respond?

Musk: I think that’s really inaccurate. What I would really say is that I think there’s an evolution that’s necessary and that evolution involves a public and private partnership. There are lots of really smart, good people at NASA but they are somewhat tied up in the constraints of a government organization. In fact, many of our people at SpaceX came from NASA. So there are limits on what you can do as a government organization and at a very large one and there are limitations on what can be overcome by partnering with a fast-moving, entrepreneurial company like SpaceX. And then I’m sure there will be other companies as well. And so I think that is what yields the best result for the American people.

Ryssdal: Should space travel be fully privatized — space exploration?

Musk: I wouldn’t say it should be fully privatized.

Ryssdal: Mostly?

Musk: Yes, mostly privatized. Like the rest of the economy, we’re sort of, I think around 40 percent of the economy is government if you consider all levels of government. And probably that’s about the right percentage for space as well. In fact, if you look at our launch manifest, our launch manifest is about 40 percent government. Roughly speaking we’ve got over thirty falconite missions on contract and of those, 13 are from NASA but the others or actually we now have twenty missions that are non-NASA. So it’s actually NASA is a little less than 40 percent of our missions. If you were making pencils, 40 percent of your business would be with the government. Our percentage is not out of the ordinary with other businesses.

Ryssdal: Space travel and space exploration and space flight in general is a dangerous occupation.

Musk: It is dangerous, yes.

Ryssdal: And I’m sure you remember from your history and your study of this all those old footage of the Mercury rockets and the first experiments. And they go up off the launching pad and they collapse back down. That hasn’t happened to you yet. What happens when it does?

Musk: Well, we certainly will do everything we possibly can to avoid any loss of life but in any dangerous endeavor, that is a risk that has to be considered and likely will occur as it does in any mode of transport. So I guess we’ll just really do our absolutely best to ensure that it doesn’t happen and if it does, understand very carefully what went wrong and take corrective action.

Ryssdal: When the Mercury rocket blew up and all those early test flights blew up, it wasn’t like that rockets backers were going to walk away. The government was never going to walk away. If something happens on a SpaceX flight, do you worry about your backers saying, “You know what Elon, I’m sorry I thought I was in but I can’t do this when we’ve got rockets blowing up on the pad.”

Musk: Well I am the main backer of SpaceX so I’m definitely not walking out.

Ryssdal: So you’re going to be here.

Musk: Yes, absolutely. For the other veteran investors in SpaceX, I think they understand the risks. You know many of them are also investors in Tesla and obviously the car business that a certain amount of loss of life is just occurs every year. It’s impossible to avoid. And fortunately at Tesla at touch where we’ve been we haven’t had any loss of life in any of our cars but that’s certainly something that isn’t impossible to avoid just to the law of large numbers, eventually it’s likely to occur.

Ryssdal: You have a series of rockets: the Falcon 1, the Falcon 9 which has been into orbit and this capsule, the cargo capsule The Dragon which is now configured as I said for cargo. What’s it going to take for your company to get human beings into space, send them around the world and then bring them back down safely? How far are you away from that?

Musk: Well actually if our safety threshold was equal to that of the Shuttle, then we could do that this year. In fact the Dragon spacecraft that we flew in December, if we had put someone in there with a seat, they would have had a fine journey. However we think that there needs to be an additional level of safety which is that there should be a launch escape system which the Shuttle does not have. And so that launch escape system will take us a few years to develop and verify all the functionality and so that’s why we’re expecting our first astronaut flight in about a few years.

Ryssdal: Where are you going to get the astronauts?

Musk: Well NASA would be our customer here so I presume it would be NASA astronauts.

Ryssdal: Because they’re looking for work now anyway.

Musk: Well…

Ryssdal: Oh, come on. They are! Right?

Musk: We actually do have some astronauts at SpaceX that are very experienced and have flown multiple flights and understand both the Russian systems and the Space Shuttle. And they’re participating in the design of the system to make sure that they are comfortable with it. And I think that we are at the point where they say that they would prefer to fly in our vehicle from a safety standpoint over the Soyuz or the Space Shuttle then I think that we are probably in a good place to begin launching.

Ryssdal: One of the ways that you’ve been able to keep down the cost of your operation is that you are not sending people into space. But once you start adding stuff like the launch escape system and other safety measures, it’s going to get more expensive. Are you still going to be competitive?

Musk: Yeah absolutely. It’ll get a little more expensive but not a lot. We are estimating it may get, you know 15 percent more expensive or something like that.

Ryssdal: So quantify that for me. A launch in a Falcon 9 with a Dragon on top is going to cost how much?

Musk: Well we need to have what’s the launch rate per year as well because there are certain fixed costs that need to be divided over the number of.

Ryssdal: OK.

Musk: So let’s say that the launch rate is four per year.

Ryssdal: OK, which is faster than the Shuttle.

Musk: Ah no, that’s the Shuttle’s rate.

Ryssdal: Is it about the Shuttle’s rate?

Musk: The Shuttle is about four per year, but now they do have multiple shuttles.

Ryssdal: Yeah that’s true.

Musk: So with the max rate of clearing all the operating shuttles of the last three years was like four, maybe five at most flights a year between all of them. In our case we said that we would commit to a price of no more than a $140 million per flight and that’s carrying seven people, the same number as the Shuttle. So that would be 20 million dollars per person and that compares with the Russian prices which are at $63 million per person.

Ryssdal: And remind me how much the Shuttle costs every time it goes up into space?

Musk: Well the Shuttle’s annual budget is about $4 billion and its flight rate is usually four. So therefore the cost per flight is about $1 billion.

Ryssdal: Are you ready to take people into space right now?

Musk: As I said, if we are willing to accept the same safety level as the Shuttle then, yes. If but we want to have a higher design safety and have the launch escape system in place, so that would take us about three years.

Ryssdal: Tell me about the Falcon Heavy.

Musk: Sure, so the Falcon Heavy is quite a vehicle. It’s really going to be the most powerful vehicle in the world with more than twice the payload to orbit of the Space Shuttle. So Space Shuttle is like around 22 to 23 tons to orbit, Falcon Heavy will be 53 tons. In fact it will be more capable of more payload to orbit of any vehicle since or apart from the Saturn 5 Moon rocket.

Ryssdal: Payload to orbit, I mean that’s the key thing. That’s how much you can get up to orbit for a given set of thrust, right?

Musk: Right. In fact, two Falcon Heavy flights would be equivalent to a Saturn 5. So you could send people back to the Moon with two Falcon Heavy flights.

Ryssdal: Should we go back to the Moon? Should we go to Mars? Where should this country go in space?

Musk: I think that we should be focused on establishing a self-sustaining human civilization on Mars. I think that should be the central focus.

Ryssdal: How come?

Musk: Well, I guess you could say, “Why is that important?” So it goes to the nature of importance itself. How do you decide that anything is important? I think the lens of history is a helpful guide. And if you look at history on a grander scale across a four billion year history of the earth itself and evolution of life and say, “What are the biggest milestones in the evolution of life itself?” And obviously it’s the advent of single-celled life, there’s multi-cellular life, differentiation into plants and animals, there’s migration of life from oceans to land, there’s mammals, consciousness; you know those are obviously “biggies.” And I think on that scale would also fit life becoming multi-planetary. I think it would be at least as important as life from oceans to land and arguably more important because at least oceans to land you could be a gradual process. If you were too uncomfortable on land you could hop back into the sea. Whereas going to another planet, you have to go over hundreds of millions of miles of the vacuum of space, through radiation to an environment that is extremely inhospitable and then you’ve got to make that environment able to support Earth life. That’s really difficult. And for the past four billion years, life has been confined to Earth and now there’s this, this window’s open for the first time in four billion years. That’s a long time! It’s not clear how long that window will be open. I hope it will be open for a long time but it may only be open for a short time and so I think the smart move here is to take advantage of this opportunity and make life multi-planetary. And you’ll note that I said multi-planetary; it’s not like some escape from Earth or something like that.

Ryssdal: And so we are going to stay here on Mars as well

Musk: Yeah, exactly and I think that will be cool. I think that there’s also sort of an inspiration element to it in that, you know if you think about and sort of look ahead and see about a future where we’re out there exploring the stars and understanding the universe and the kind of things that you see in science fiction books and movies and reading books; that’s an exciting future and much more exciting than one where we’re just forever confined to Earth until our eventual extinction.

Ryssdal: It’s an absolute exciting future and it’s cool to walk in here and see the pictures of the rockets on the walls and you go into the manufacturing center back there and check that stuff out but there are those who will say, “Elon Musk, you can take your money and you can do whatever you want to but my tax dollars and my government money…we have way too many problems here at home for us to be messing around with Mars or the Moon or the Space Shuttle or any of that jazz; importance or none.”

Musk: Right. Well first of all the amount of money we are talking about here is not going to solve any significant earthly problems. NASA’s budget is, all of NASA’s budget is like maybe $18 billion or $19 billion. I mean that’s like, that’s such a tiny portion of the economy that if you considered that next to like the annual budget of what it costs us to maintain a war in Afghanistan or that’s like 2 percent of what we’ve spent bailing out the banks. OK, so that’s not a lot. It’s not going to solve a lot of problems if you took that money and applied it elsewhere. So I think it’s important we need to calibrate the size of what we’re talking about and then by the way, SpaceX gets a very tiny proportion of NASA’s budget. We get maybe a few hundred million a year of NASA’s budget so we’re, again like maybe 1 percent of NASA’s budget. You could take all that money and it just wouldn’t matter applying it elsewhere. But then I’d say let’s sort of push the argument for why it is important for us to spend money on space. And I think there is an inspirational element here that should not be overlooked. If you consider going to the moon: that was a huge expenditure and obviously only a handful of people went to the moon. But actually, in a sense we all went to the moon vicariously. The whole world was part of that journey and it was an inspirational thing. And if you think of one of the great things of the 20th century, that would be one of the things! So life cannot be just about solving problems. It can’t be just about this problem and that problem. There must be inspirational things as well. There must be things that when you wake up in the morning, you’re glad to be alive and that, I think is one of the things that space can offer.

Ryssdal: On the Falcon 9 and its test flights, it’s flown successfully twice?

Musk: Yeah.

Ryssdal: Which is a good safety record. Not enough though, critics will say for NASA and the government to trust you with going to the Space station on re-supply missions. How do you prove to people that you can do this and you are safe?

Musk: Well first of all, do you mean cargo missions is that what you are referring to?

Ryssdal: The whole smash! I mean you gotta be safe whether you are carrying cargo or people.

Musk: I agree. I’m just pointing out that as far as safety is concerned for cargo a mission, that only applies in the region as you are approaching the Space Station. In order to go to the Space Station, we have to pass a very rigorous set of NASA safety standards and reviews. They really leave no stone unturned. They are very rigorous. So anything we do from a safety standard standpoint has got to pass the same level of rigor that a NASA internal system would do.

Ryssdal: Do you have NASA inspectors coming around here and checking your widgets and your wrenches and all that?

Musk: Yes we do, actually we have NASA staff permanently on site.

In the SpaceX manufacturing facility.

Ryssdal: So tell me where we are, what is this place?

Musk: We’re in the SpaceX rocket factory which is, interestingly just about five minutes from the LAX airport.

Ryssdal: The things you build here are going into space.

Musk: Yes. We build giant rockets and spacecraft right here in Hawthorne, Calif., which is basically L.A. County. But I think that most people are just unaware that giant rockets are being built five minutes away from where they are catching their plane in Los Angeles.

Ryssdal: Do you build everything here; soup to nuts, engines and nose cones, flight software and all that stuff?

Musk: We are quite vertically integrated so yes, we build the engines, the airframe, avionics and all that sort of stuff and we integrate that here. We’ve got a big site in Texas where we test the engines and test the rocket stages because we can’t do that in L.A. without disturbing people.

Ryssdal: And then final assembly takes place at a launch site, I imagine.

Musk: We put the stages together at a launch site but the rocket stage’s final assembly actually occurs here.

Ryssdal: Huh! Interesting.

Musk: Yeah, so when the first stage leaves our facility here in Hawthorne, it’s this huge stage that’s around a hundred feet long and at its widest point about 13 feet in diameter so it just barely fits down the road.

Ryssdal: Here comes an idiotic question: do you put it on a boat or train or a truck? What do you do?

Musk: The reason that I set the diameter at 12 feet or the bits that poke out in places that go to thirteen feet was that that’s the largest road transportable diameter without encountering serious issues where you’ve got to mover power lines and can’t get under bridges and that kind of thing.

Ryssdal: And how does it go from here to Florida?

Musk: It goes from here to Texas to get test fired and then it goes to Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg, which is back to California, or we’re considering establishing a third site as well which it might be in Texas or somewhere else.

Ryssdal: Obviously you’re a guy who is not constrained by his imagination but did you think that this is what SpaceX was going to be?

Musk: You know I didn’t have any idea of what SpaceX was going to be, so it’s certainly been a journey of discovery. And I was just completely ignorant in the beginning so I guess if someone had asked me, “Do I imagine that a rocket factory would look like this?” I suppose I would imagine something a bit like this since I made that come into being.

Ryssdal: What are the first things you did? You said, “OK I’m going to start a space company. I need a guy who can build me an engine or a rocket designer.” I mean, how did you do this?

Musk: I just started recruiting great engineers in propulsion structures, avionics, guidance control, launch operations; that kind of thing.

Ryssdal: But wait, you can’t find that on Craigslist. How did you do it?

Musk: I just asked around and you just kind of triangulate and I think I’ve got a pretty good sense of whether somebody is a good engineer or not and I read a lot of books on rocket technology. And initially I tried to find somebody who would be the chief engineer of the rocket and unfortunately, the people that were good wouldn’t join and so I had to be the chief designer of the rocket.

Ryssdal: It’s worth a mention here that your background is in physics and hard sciences.

Musk: Yes.

Ryssdal: Let’s go look at the Dragon Capsule real quick because that, to me is kind of the coolest thing! If you look at this thing and if you’ve been in the Air and Space Museum in Washington and you’ve seen the Apollo 11 capsule that’s there, there is a certain familiarity, right? It’s got the basic shape of a spacecraft and of a capsule that’s going to keep people in it.

Musk: Yeah.

Ryssdal: When you set about designing this thing, I mean rocketry comes from a certain heritage and there is only so many ways to reinvent the wheel, if you will.

Musk: Right. A wheel has to be round or it’s not going to roll very well.

Ryssdal: yeah.

Musk: When it comes to re-entry vehicles, you know there is just two basic approaches. One is with wings or without wings and I think wings are not a great idea.

Ryssdal: And we’ve done both, right? We’ve done the Apollo Capsule without wings and we’ve done the Space Shuttle with.

Musk: Yes. And it’s worth noting that Wernher von Braun, who is sort of one of the key architects of the Apollo program, arguably the best rocket designer in history was well aware of wings. It’s not as though that was a foreign concept and you have to say, “Well why didn’t he and Max Faget and other ones, why didn’t they add wings?” Maybe they weren’t smart enough. I don’t think that was the reason.

Ryssdal: So clearly the non-wing approach is where we go, I mean it’s got the rounded bottom with the heat shield, it’s vaguely conical.

Musk: Yeah there’s a big advantage to a capsule or sort of gum drop or basic in approach without wings which is you can have something which is naturally stable with the primary heat shield down.

Ryssdal: Right.

Musk: So even if you have a systems failure that is quite serious, you are still safe. And when you are re-entering the atmosphere, you are coming in like a meteor. I mean, you’re a fireball from Hell. If you don’t have that heat shield, you’ll get vaporized. So having that heat shield pointed in the right direction is real important! Now in the case of the Space Shuttle, because it’s got wings you’ve got to control it to a precise angle of attack. If anything happens with the control systems or the body flaps or anything, it’s — you’re gone! Plus wings force a heat concentration at the leading edge and so you’re really limited in the materials that you can use in leading edge. In fact, there is no material that will work for re-entering at velocities greater than Earth orbit velocities with a wing. So in other words, if you want to do a Moon, Mars, you have to use a capsule design because the wing leading edge creates such a heat concentration, there’s no material that can withstand it.

Ryssdal: That’s interesting.

Musk: And if you look at the Russian Soyuz where they’ve had numerous problems, you know the Russian electronics are not the most reliable and they’ve had many, many issues on the Russian Soyuz and yet they haven’t had a death since the seventies. And that’s because the capsule design as an architecture is so much more robust. That’s really the reason that we have gone that direction. Now I should point out something important though. People may thing that because it doesn’t have any wings that it’s coming in uncontrolled, which it’s natural to assume. You might think oh yeah, that’s the case but really it’s not the case. We have on-board thrusters that control the re-entry and can actually guide that re-entry to a very precise landing point. And in fact the only dispersion on the landing point is the wind drift from the parachutes. Otherwise we could land it on a helipad. And for the next generation of Dragon, we’re actually going to step up the technology to a new level which is propulsive landing. So we’ll have the parachutes there as a backup, so you can always pull the parachutes if there’s a system malfunction and you’ll be able to manually pull them so even if the electronics have gone all to Hell and there are holes in the craft is barely hanging together, you can still pull the parachutes and be safe. But in a normal case, it’ll actually be able to land propulsively on it’s engines with little landing legs that pop out.

Ryssdal: Wow!

Musk: Just like we’re landing on the Moon.

Ryssdal: Right. This one we’re looking at, this one is going to space, right? It’s got a heat shield with a big sign on it that says, “Do not touch” and I mean all of this.

Musk: Yes. You’re looking at the craft that is going to go to the Space Station. So that’s got all the systems on board; the guidance and navigation systems that are required to do an automated rendezvous and birthing with the Space Station. So this is coming in as a robotic spaceship. It’s basically, it’s kind of like, wow! When you think about it, we’re making a spaceship that’s docking with the Space Station. I mean, how crazy is that?! And it’s doing so automatically. And it’s going to stop at various points and wait for confirmation so it’s not going to go barreling in there. So it’s going to get to within a few miles and then wait and then we’ll look at all the data to make sure everything’s good and it’ll ask for permission to go to the next step and then gradually it’ll get closer and closer to the Space Station. So that’s one of the ways that we can ensure that everything is going to be OK. But it’s got a pretty cool navigation suite. It’s basically got something that is called Lidar, which is laser radar. It scans the Space Station with a laser. It figures out the relative orientation and distance and everything, plots an approach vector and then goes in there. And it dynamically adjusts to whatever the orientation is of the Space Station and the docking ports are and everything.

Ryssdal: So this is a little off the wall question but what is it about you and advanced modes of transportation between Tesla and this company?

Musk: Well in the case of Tesla, Tesla is about helping to solve the sustainable transport problem. I think in terms of terrestrial technology problems, I think that the biggest single problem that humanity faces in the 21st century is sustainable energy. And that’s both sustainable production and consumption of energy and so Tesla is about helping solve the sustainable consumption of energy. It’s a transport thing. But it’s not as though I have a huge transport, because I’ve also got Solar City, which is solar power. So it’s really from the context of what are important problems that I could potentially help solve that would make a difference to the world?

Ryssdal: Elon Musk, thank you so much.

Musk: Thanks for having me.

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