Elon Musk of SpaceX: The goal is Mars

The craft that made the first commercial flight to the International Space Station was the brainchild of Elon Musk, whose ambitions reach even farther into space.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk with the SpaceX Dragon capsule on display at the Hawthorne-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (Los Angeles Times / April 19, 2012)

As shipments go, it was routine — about half a ton of supplies — except it was delivered by the first commercial flight to the International Space Station. SpaceX partnered with NASA in this new model, the brainchild of Elon Musk, who's behind Tesla electric cars as well. He left South Africa at 17, earned two U.S. undergraduate degrees and then made serial piles of dough pioneering online payment systems, including the one that became PayPal. Musk's persona inspired aspects of Tony Stark in the"Iron Man," but Musk's aspirations seem more like Buzz Lightyear's — to infinity, and beyond.

When the rover "Curiosity" lands on Mars on Sunday, will you be thinking, "That's what SpaceX will be doing one day"?

That's always been a goal of SpaceX. We're hoping to develop the technology to do that in probably 12 to 15 years.

Would you go to Mars?

I would. The first flight would be risky; if I felt comfortable that the company's mission will continue, that my kids have grown up, then I'd be on the first mission.

Did you choose the South Bay for SpaceX because of its aerospace tradition?

That's exactly the reason. I used to live in Palo Alto, and when I told my friends that I was moving to L.A., they all thought I was crazy. They view Southern California as being a little vacuous and Northern California as being more intellectual. But people in the Bay Area have forgotten that there's been a huge concentration of aerospace engineering talent here, for more than a century.

Is there a different entrepreneurial sense between north and south?

In Silicon Valley, startups are such a norm, and there are many success stories. In Southern California that's not so much the case. In the early days of aviation, Southern California was startup city. This was the huge entrepreneurial center.

People mention you in the same breath as Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, but his space effort seems more tourist-driven and yours more industrial and scientific.

I've nothing against tourism; Richard Branson is brilliant at creating a brand, but he's not a technologist. What he's doing is fundamentally about entertainment, and I think it's cool, but it's not likely to affect humanity's future in a significant way. That's what we're trying to do.

The thing that got me started with SpaceX was the feeling of dismay — I just did not want Apollo to be our high-water mark. We do not want a future where we tell our children that this was the best we ever did. Growing up, I kept expecting we're going to have a base on the moon, and we're going to have trips to Mars. Instead, we went backwards, and that's a great tragedy.

Shouldn't government be doing projects like this?

Government isn't that good at rapid advancement of technology. It tends to be better at funding basic research. To have things take off, you've got to have commercial companies do it. The government was good at getting the basics of the Internet going, but it languished. Commercial companies took a hand around 1995, and then it accelerated. We need something like that in space.

SpaceX couldn't have gotten started without the great work of NASA, and NASA's a key customer of ours. But for the future, it's going to be companies like SpaceX that advance space technology and deliver the rapid innovation that's necessary.

But government can fund a space program without worrying about profits or stockholder returns. A commercial company could run into trouble, and there goes the program.

That's why I'm the majority shareholder in SpaceX. When I've recruited investors, I've made sure they're like-minded. SpaceX will create a great deal of value over the long term, but there will be times when that horizon is beyond what some investors would be comfortable with. I'm going to make sure I have sufficient control of the company to optimize for the very long term.

Should regular folks be able to buy a share of stock in space?

That's one of the top reasons I would take SpaceX public, in order to allow people to own a piece of the future. We don't actually need funding — we're doing well — but I do think we can broaden the base of support.

Neil Armstrong, the first human on the moon, was critical of private space ventures.