Elon Musk of SpaceX: The goal is Mars
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.
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.
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!
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.
California high speed rail is starting up, but you’ve proposed an alternative — maybe solar-powered, maybe on a pneumatic track — you call the hyperloop?
I’ve got to find the time to write up the details. I’m going to put it on a blog and open-source the idea. Why are we, in the center of high tech, doing such a bad job [with high-speed rail]? It’s embarrassing. It says all sorts of wrong things about our state. I was thinking about what could be better, state of the art? That’s where I came up with the idea for a fifth mode of Earth transport, apart from planes, trains, automobiles and boats. The hyperloop could go from city center to city center in not much more than a half-hour.
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 their production and reach profitability. The next six months will decide whether Tesla will be the first new [successful] car company in a century.
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 [human] consciousness.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.