Q&A: A Chat with SpaceX Founder Elon Musk The rocket was small, its cargo just dead weight. Yet Sunday night, the successful launch of a privately developed rocket known as Falcon could be a game-changer for the beleaguered U.S. space program.
Elon Musk, Space Exploration Technology (SpaceX) founder and Internet mogul, spoke with Discovery News' Irene Klotz last week about his ambitions, motivations and politics.
Irene Klotz: There's a lot of concern about space shuttle workers who are going to have to move off the government paycheck when the shuttles are retired. Any suggestions for them?
Elon Musk: SpaceX is going to add a bunch of jobs at the Cape. We're growing rapidly. I think within two, three years we're going to have at least a couple of hundred of people there and then in five years ... I think our employee count could approach 1,000 people. SpaceX itself is already 550 people.
IK: What's been the most challenging part of growing this business?
EM: Finding great people. But I find that to be universally true -- at least all the businesses that I'm involved in -- because I have a very high bar for hiring people. In the beginning of the company, in particular, it was hard to convince people to leave their current employers, particularly if they're top performers. They're looked after very well, usually, by their parent company. As time goes on, it gets easier to attract people because the future of the company is more secure.
IK: Is it a concern that Americans won't have access to space after the shuttle?
EM: I think it's a really big deal that Americans may not have access to space following retirement of the space shuttle. It'd be easier to deal with if we didn't have a space station, but we've made this gigantic investment. ... Just when it's done, we won't be able to use it unless we thumb a ride from the Russians and that's just incredibly embarrassing, I think.
While the nominal schedule is for Ares-Orion completion in the 2015 time frame ... if there's a launch anomaly -- that's not unusual in new launch vehicles, speaking from experience -- or even if there is just some glitch in the development process, we could easily be talking about 2017, 2018 before Ares-Orion is ready to take people to station. That's not its design purpose, so you end up having this super-expensive ride for astronauts to visit space station.
Ares-Orion is intended to go back to the moon and it's sub-optimal for the space station, so clearly there is a need to have an alternative American source. We think it would be a really good use of taxpayer money to enable COTS-D (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services -- a NASA program). The COTS program has four parts. COTS A through C refer to the transfer of pressurized cargo, unpressurized cargo and return of cargo to Earth (from the space station). SpaceX won the competition to demonstrate A-C.
What a lot of people don't appreciate is that there's really very little difference in the vehicle we're making to serve as cargo transport to and from station and adding crew capability. We've designed Falcon 9 and Dragon from the beginning for a man-rated system. In the cargo (specifications) for taking stuff to the space station, we have to carry biological cargo, like mice and plants, so we have to maintain temperature, we have to maintain oxygen concentration, it has to be leak-tight. Our vehicle even has windows. Obviously you don't need windows for cargo.
EM: It's basically about 2.5- to three years from when COTS-D is turned on. We're expecting to do the first demonstration flights of COTS-A through C next year and to get to the station in 2010.
The nice thing also is we're testing out so much hardware well in advance of actually putting people aboard, so as far as crew safety is concerned you've got all this flight history to go on, with all these cargo mission flights, and of course a lot of the early teething pains of getting the basic stuff right, is done with Falcon 1. That was really the intent of Falcon 1, by the way ... It serves as technological test bed for launch vehicles to follow so we make our mistakes on a small scale rather than a large scale.
IK: In light of the issues with Russia, our cold shoulder with China and the shuttle's expense and safety issues, it sounds like COTS-D might be a viable alternative. Is there any reason why you think it wouldn't fly? Is there some opposition to it from some sector, or from some group?
EM: Yeah, we've seen some opposition from people like United Space Alliance, in particular. The basis of opposition is that they are trying to create a crisis that would force additional spending on shuttle and -- to the degree that some other path is seen as working, such as COTS-D -- they feel that undermines their ability to create a crisis and demand however many billions are necessary to prolong the shuttle.
I don't think it's in the best interests of the country, but it is in their best interests. And there's some concern ... that if additional funds are not appropriated for COTS-D, then those funds will have to come out of some existing budget that NASA has. And then, of course, anyone whose budget is potentially at risk is oppositional to COTS-D.
IK: Have you gotten jaded by politics? Is it still a big issue for you and for SpaceX to wrangle through the politics and economics of all of this?
EM: Politics is a much bigger factor in space than is desirable. It's just something that has to be dealt with. I much prefer dealing with the technical issues.
We haven't pushed hard on COTS-D yet, even though I think it's like blindingly obvious as the thing to do, because we're hoping to get to orbit and then on the back of getting to orbit, push hard on COTS-D. Otherwise our detractors have too much ammunition. They'd say, 'How can you bet the American manned space program on a company that hasn't gotten to orbit?' That's the obvious attack that's used against us repeatedly.
We hope to get to orbit and then they can't use that attack. Obviously, the next one they're going to do is 'How can you go with a company that only got one out of four?' (Laughs) Right? The carrot to that is 'Well the first three missions were about eliminating just fundamental design issues and once the fundamental design issues are eliminated, only then can you -- on the basis of launches beyond that -- judge the reliability of the vehicle.
EM: I'm fairly moderate, so I think we have two good candidates. From what I've seen, they both are likely to have a philosophy that favors commercial space. I think Obama has been a little more explicit about it about it than McCain, but if you look at McCain's history's as somewhat of an iconoclast and someone who isn't wedded to big industry -- I don't think he's going to be looking to be doing any favors for Boeing -- I think both of the candidates are likely to be at least as supportive of COTS as the current administration, maybe more.
IK: You've mentioned to me before about how you felt that there may be a limited period of time for humans to pursue space exploration. What did you mean by that?
EM: There is a sort of irony actually. Scientists and engineers tend to have a low birth rate. This is sort of side-note, but evolution might foster creationism because if those of scientific mind set have fewer and fewer kids relative to those who have a creationist mind set.
More optimistically, the Internet has created a much greater free flow of information than has existed in the past, so it's a littler harder to maintain an irrational viewpoint with the Internet out there. At least you have some access to the information that might contradict an irrational viewpoint, whereas in the past you had no access to it.
IK: The context we were speaking about before was about why you personally felt like furthering humanity's development in space was important and how the intellectual curiosity and public or private resources to explore space may not always be available
EM: Here's how I would frame the argument for extension of life beyond Earth: First, how do you decide that anything is important? What's the basis for importance? The lens of history is a good way to distinguish the more important from the less important, because as you zoom out and look at a greater and greater span of time, the important stuff stays behind and the less important fades away.
If you look at it on a very long time scale, go look across the 4-billion year history of Earth and the evolution of life itself, and say what are the major milestones that stand out in the evolution of life: the advent of single celled life, multi-cellular life, differentiation of plants and animals, mammals and consciousness, and also the transition of life from the oceans to land. There's maybe six to eight big ones. And on that list would also fit, I think it's fair to say, life becoming multi-planetary. I think it's probably more significant than, say, life going from ocean to land. At least ocean-to-land could be a gradual process where you could hop back in the ocean if you felt too uncomfortable on land.
A necessary precursor of the extension of life to another planet is consciousness because you have to design a craft that's going to go over billions of miles of space and then land in a planet that's different from ours where we have not evolved to live and then turn that into a livable environment, so that requires very sophisticated consciousness.
I'm not a doomsday sort of person, at least in the near-term doomsday. I'm very optimistic about the future of the Earth in the next few hundred years at least. Obviously in the very long term, we are certain to die. The sun is gradually growing in radius and at a certain point that will heat the Earth to the point where life can no longer be sustained, but that's pretty far out in the future. And there are other doomsday scenarios -- big asteroids or super volcanoes, or killer virus, or we discover some technologies that equip our self-destruction. All these are risks, but I think they are very small risks in the near-term.
There's the risk of a dark ages. I think it would be risky to conclude that human knowledge is only ever on an upward trajectory. It's possible we could have some very long sustained dark ages, as obviously has occurred in the past, and during that period of time if there were something catastrophic to occur, some natural catastrophe, then we wouldn't be able to deal with it or recover from it potentially. Those are all considerations, but I think really what it comes down to is: Here we are, first time in the 4 billion year history of Earth that life has had the possibility of extending to other planets. Should we not take advantage of that opportunity? Who knows how long it will last? Perhaps a long time or perhaps a short time.
EM: One-way and I could survive on the other side?
EM: Not like one-way and here's your three weeks of food?
IK: No, not like Laika, or anything.
EM: I think I potentially would. I want to see my kids grow up, so I'd probably only want to do this when I'm in my mid-fifties or something, but yeah, I would love to go to Mars and would do it even if it was a one-way trip, provided it was with the idea of helping build out the Mars colony, make it more viable.
Some people out there think I'm a business person, but I'm actually an engineer. I do business stuff because I had to do business stuff.