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Space case

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. Musk 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 the portrayal of Tony Stark in “Iron Man,” but his aspirations seem more like Buzz Lightyear’s -- to infinity, and beyond.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

One of the toughest things I’ve found is to recruit top-notch manufacturing talent. That’s where I’ve had to go overseas. For a few decades, it just wasn’t where the smartest kids in the class in America went. We had far too many smart people in the U.S. go into finance and law!

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Speaking of finance, you must make Wall Street nervous with your companies’ roller-coaster fortunes.

SpaceX has been profitable for four years and probably this will make it a fifth, and Tesla should be profitable next year and for the foreseeable future.

Profit is simply more money coming in than going out, and for a company where that’s not true, it will cease to exist at some point, and it should.

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Commercializing space, electric cars -- aren’t you spread a little thin?

I’ve been going past the red line on the gauge for a while now. It’s honestly not been fun, but I have to continue for a bit longer because for Tesla in particular, we’re at the stage where the company’s survival is in question.

The market has given us a good evaluation. We have great supporters and great detractors. The detractors have a point, that the last successful car company started in America 90 years ago. DeLorean and Tucker brought cars to market, but they were unable to scale up production and reach profitability. The next six months will decide whether Tesla will be the first new [successful] car company in a century.

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Do you think the last best hope of Earth isn’t on Earth?

I’m reasonably optimistic about the future, especially the future of the United States, for the century at least. But it’s important we get out there and explore the stars, both for defensive reasons and ensuring the continued existence of consciousness.

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patt.morrison@latimes.com This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. For more with Musk go online to latimes.com/pattasks.

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