It was disappointing. He has never spoken to us or visited us, and we've made many invitations. I'm optimistic that he will visit us and learn more. We have a photo of the [SpaceX] launch signed by all the Apollo astronauts with the exception of Neil.
The movies provide us with two space future models: "Star Trek," where a government agency governs space, versus "Alien," where a private space mining company makes its own rules.
We need a new archetype. I've talked to James Cameron about this. He's got a script for a realistic Mars mission because there's not been a good Mars movie. That's another thing that bugs me: The Mars movies have been so bad. I mean, honestly! And it's going to be tricky getting funding for another Mars movie after"John Carter." It was a good comic book, and they totally screwed up the movie.
The plaque the NASA astronauts left on the moon says, "We came in peace for all mankind." Would that be true if there were a commercial free-for-all in space?
I think the body of regulation will grow — hopefully not too much. Sometimes we are a little over-regulated, and this can be difficult for new industry, particularly one that involves physical safety. There must be some ability to experiment to advance the state of the art. In the early days of aviation there was a great deal of experimentation and a high death rate. We don't want that — the public would not be accepting — but by the same token we can't have a situation where no deaths are ever allowed, because that would put innovation in a coffin too.
You gave the Caltech commencement speech in June. You said we should approach the future not from the perspective of the best way to make money but the best way to affect humanity.
There's nothing wrong with making money, provided it's done in an ethical and legal manner, which it mostly is. The things we read about in the newspapers are the exception, not the norm. But we need to consider what it's all about. What is the meaning of life? Are we doing things that extend the scope of collective human knowledge and understanding? We should do the things that lead us there.
What part of business do you dislike?
Sometimes the ways rules are set up make people do bad things. For example, the CO2 capacity of the atmosphere and oceans. We've not put a price on CO2 emissions, so the oil, gas and coal industry continue to pretend that CO2 dumping into the atmosphere is fine. [They say] that scientists disagree [about climate change].
The vast majority do not; you can find 2% of any group to disagree with anything — that the sun revolves around the Earth. We saw the same thing with the tobacco industry. The evidence was overwhelming, and yet the tobacco industry would say, "Scientists disagree." Naaah, not really!
Now, if the rules are set up correctly — and those who would lose if the rules were changed would fight them — then business functions well, and the economy functions well.
The whole CO2 thing — we're all culpable because we all do things that create CO2. Even though I've got companies trying to address the problem, I drive cars, I use more electricity than I should. It's tough to tell people you're causing long-term harm to the world, and even if you don't pay the penalty, your children or grandchildren will. So essentially we need to tax it, the way we tax cigarettes and alcohol, for the public good.
Apropos of Tesla Motors, you've said in 20 years half the new cars produced will be electric. What, we'll still have to drive cars? We won't move by means of molecular disassembly?
That'd be nice! There may be something cooler than a car in 20 years, but the most likely outcome is that we'll still have cars and they'll be predominantly electric.
Where will that electricity come from?
I think solar will be the largest source [he owns a solar company, SolarCity]. It's not obvious that solar will be a majority of power generation, but I think it'll be a plurality. [The rest will] come from a combination of some nuclear, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal. Power generated by burning hydrocarbons we'll use more sparingly, as it should be used, as something that's not going to come back; because it's not. We are being complete wastrels [with fossil fuel]. It's like some heir to a fortune who had nothing to do with creating the fortune and so gives no care to its consumption.
When you came to the U.S., it was the primary destination for the kind of enterprise you wanted to do. Is it still?
It is. If you want to have a significant impact on the world, the United States is the best place to do that. I'm not suggesting that things couldn't be better. We should be asking ourselves, have we made the environment better or worse? And I think it's really important that we stop sending college and graduate students back to their home countries.
Don't we have enough homegrown talent for those jobs?
If you're trying to create a company, it's like baking a cake. You have to have all the ingredients in the right proportion. There's certain special skills, especially in advanced engineering, that are the limiting factor in creating new companies; we send these people home after training them in our graduate schools.