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PATT MORRISON ASKS | ELON MUSK

Space case

August 01, 2012|PATT MORRISON
  • Elon Musk with the SpaceX Dragon capsule on display at the Hawthorne-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
Elon Musk with the SpaceX Dragon capsule on display at the Hawthorne-based… (Los Angeles Times )

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.

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.

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?

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