The Mind of Elon Musk

Living on Mars is the Easy Part

Elon Musk is a billionaire, an inventor, a scientist, a designer, and one of the world’s most innovative minds. He runs two companies that are trying to disrupt major industries that have been doing things the same way for decades.

Aerospace with SpaceX, and automobiles with Tesla. Tesla is making luxury all-electric cars. Cars that have had a bit of controversy of late. Currently, Space X is essentially an intergalactic trucking company, taking loads back and forth from the International Space Station, and bringing satellites up to orbit. In the future, it hopes to carry humans too.

We met on a balcony overlooking the SpaceX factory floor. It was buzzing, literally and figuratively. The workers were preparing for an important launch on Monday.

Interviewer: Elon Musk pleasure to have you on.

Elon Musk: Thanks for having me.

Interviewer: So this is the dragon that goes up into space and is going to go up on Monday, correct?

Elon Musk: Yeah that’s our Dragon Spacecraft Version 1, which is capable of taking cargo to and from the space station, including biological cargo like fish and mice and that kind of thing.

Interviewer: So when do human beings start going up in it do you think?

Elon Musk: So we expect to complete version two of Dragon, which will have national transport capability in about two years.

Interviewer: And most of what you do now is send satellites up into space, right? That’s how you pay the bills?

Elon Musk: Exactly.

Interviewer: But you want to do something much more ambitious with SpaceX?

Elon Musk: Yeah. I mean the long term aspiration is to develop the technologies necessary to transport a large number of people and cargo to Mars, in order to create a self-sustaining civilization there. And that’s really why I started the company.

Interviewer: To create the possibility for life on other planets?

Elon Musk: Yeah exactly. I mean it sort of started off when I was thinking about what to do after PayPal, and I had always been interested in space, but I don’t think there’s anything that an individual could do in space. I mean it seemed like the province of large governments. And I sort of started looking into it and I went to the national website to find out when we’re going to Mars. It seems like obviously, that is the next thing after the moon, and I couldn’t find anything. So I thought, “Wow this seems very strange.” Initially, I was under the impression that we’d lost the will to do that. And they later came to the conclusion that I was quite wrong about that. I think the United States, in particular, is a nation of explorers.

Interviewer: So you decide you want to try and do this. And do you look at it as – Why did you decide transport was the most important thing? I mean think the world guy would be living on Mars.

Elon Musk: No, that’s the relatively easier thing.

Interviewer: Really?

Elon Musk: Yes, yes absolutely.

Interviewer: So we could live on Mars, just getting there is the problem?

Elon Musk: Yes, but getting, I mean right now, getting to Mars is impossible. So I guess kind of doesn’t matter what you do when you’ve got what you do when you get there. If you can’t get there. So the first order of business is to figure out how to get there. And it needs to be in a way that enables large numbers of people and cargo, can’t just be like a handful of people because that’s obviously not going to create a self-sustaining civilization. And Apollo was an amazing inspiring thing for all of humanity. But the last time we went to the moon was like nineteen seventy-three or four I believe. So I wouldn’t want to just have flags and footprints for that and then never go to Mars again. If we just have one mission that will also be a super inspiring thing. But it’s not going to fundamentally change the future of humanity.

Interviewer:  So you have this Grasshopper rocket which, unlike most rockets which can’t which are not reusable, this one gently comes back down in a kind of vertical way.

Elon Musk: Yeah absolutely. You can see the videos of this on the SpaceX website. The fundamental breakthrough going back to the point of developing a Mars transportation system. It has to be affordable to go, like it can’t just be like billions of dollars per person to go to Mars. There’s no way where you could establish a base on Mars at that cost. So we have to develop rockets that are rapidly, and as close to completely, reusable as possible.  As an example the Falcon 9 costs about 60 million dollars. I mean it’s sort of like a jet, you know, it’s like. But the cost of the propellant is only about two hundred thousand dollars. So it’s just like, you can imagine how expensive it would be if you had to buy a new plane every time you went somewhere. Very few people would fly. But refuelling a plane is pretty easy.

Interviewer: We once talked about airplane travel and I asked you why it is that, with all this technological improvement over the last 30 or 40 years, the one thing that doesn’t seem to have improved – and it is in the domain of the private sector, sort of – is jet travel. I mean if you’re flying from New York to London, it takes about as long as it took 40 or 50 years ago, in fact, it takes a lot.

Elon Musk: It actually does take longer because. In the 70s… like, my favorite sort of commercial airliner is the 747, because it actually goes quite fast. And it’s actually incredible that that thing was… I mean the first iteration of it was designed in the 60s. I mean, since then I don’t think we’ve exceeded the 747, which is nutty.

Well, I think in the commercial airliner business you essentially have a duopoly between Airbus and Boeing. And these big airplane programs are really long term and they’re quite expensive. And I think, if you’re in the senior management of these companies, it’s a safer bet to take, to just aim for a little incremental improvement than to try to aim for a radical improvement. Because generally if you aim for a radical improvement and you’re wrong, you’ll get fired.

Interviewer: Why didn’t SpaceX create the fastest jet plane in the world?

Elon Musk: We’ve got to focus on rockets.

Interviewer: When do you think you’ll be able to achieve the aspiration of SpaceX on actually moving people to a place like Mars?

Elon Musk: Well, I think we could probably send the first person in about 12 years.

Interviewer: Wow. Would you be that person?

Elon Musk: Only if I’m confident that SpaceX will be fine if I die. That’s, you know, maybe if I was confident that the mission would continue if I wasn’t around, then I would do it.

Elon Musk on his program to Mars. Lots more ahead from him including his response to all the headlines about Tesla’s cars catching fire.

Elon Musk: New technologies should have a spotlight on it, but it shouldn’t have a laser on it.

Elon Musk says he doesn’t get a lot of sleep these days. He’s not only CEO and chief designer at SpaceX, he’s also CEO and product architect at Tesla. Tesla produces luxury all-electric vehicles. And the company’s cars have been in the news after some model S sedans caught fire early in the week. But after our interview, the National Highway Transportation Safety Board announced an investigation into two of the incidents. The board had previously given the Model S a five-star safety rating – its highest. Listen in to more of my interview with Elon Musk.

Interviewer: You’ve heard all the press about Tesla. So let me first give you a chance to get it off your chest.

Elon Musk: I’ll be like pistol whipped.

Interviewer: Three cars caught on fire. What’s your response?

Elon Musk: So the amount of national and international news headlines dedicated to three Tesla fires that caused no injury Is greater than all of the gasoline fires that occurred in the United States.

Interviewer: And with all the other cars.

Elon Musk:Yes. Which, from mid last year to today, is about a quarter million gasoline car fires, which caused about 400 deaths, something like twelve hundred serious injuries. Our three non-injurious fires got more national headlines than a quarter million deadly gasoline car fires. That’s mad. What the heck is going on? When I realized that new technology should just have a spotlight on it but it shouldn’t have a laser on it.

Interviewer: So when you look at Tesla, the big concern many people have is scale. You’re producing about 30000 cars a year but Toyota is producing millions.

Elon Musk: Oh yeah. We’re minuscule. Way too much attention, good or bad.

Interviewer: So, and your market cap are almost as high as some of these car companies.

Elon Musk: Yeah, Scott, I think in recent weeks. But yeah.

Interviewer: What do you think it’s crazy or do you think it’s an appropriate indication of future growth?

Elon Musk: Yeah, I mean, what if… You know, what I actually said on more than one occasion is that I thought our valuation was more than we had any right to deserve… that we would do our best to fulfill those value expectations and that I thought over time the value of Tesla probably significantly exceed where it is today, or even where it was at the relatively high point a few weeks ago. But it would be, I think, silly for me to assert that Tesla is unequivocally worth, at one point really, worth twenty-two billion dollars. And we’ll have, you know, somewhere over 2 billion dollars in sales this year. That is an enormous amount of credit for future execution.

Interviewer: The heart of what interests you about Tesla, at least as I recall when we’ve talked about it, is that it’s not a compromise, that a hybrid is something of a compromise between an internal combustion engine and a battery-powered engine. And here you can do it cleanly, but batteries just aren’t that powerful enough. And they don’t seem to improve enough to imagine a world powered by batteries right?

Elon Musk: I certainly can see that. And in fact, my opinion is that all transportation, with the ironic exception of rockets, will be fully electric.

Interviewer: Even planes?

Elon Musk: Yes, everything.

Interviewer: When, by when?

Elon Musk: Plains, trains, everything. It’ll never be like a 100 percent conversion, like we still have some steam engines running around it. And some people still ride horses. But it’s a pretty tiny percentage. So I think it’ll be the same with gasoline. I think in the future, we will look back on the gasoline era the way we look back on the steam era today.

Interviewer: So you’re using battery technology. You’re doing Tesla, which is an electric car. You have solar panel. You have an interest in business in solar panels.

Elon Musk: Yeah.

Interviewer: Do you think solar energy is the future?

Elon Musk: I think it’s super obviously the future. Absolutely. In fact, I mean – if you think about it, the world is almost entirely solar powered already. In that, we would be a frozen ice bowl at about three or four degrees Kelvin, or close to absolute zero, without the sun. And the sun powers our entire system of precipitation, the ecosystem.

Interviewer: And the agriculture.

Elon Musk: Yeah. But far from the tiny number of exceptions, almost all life is solar powered.

Interviewer: All right. Another great technology you’ve talked about that most people think of as out of a movie. Explain how it would work. Let’s say it’s New York or Boston or L.A. to San Francisco. I get into a cube and it’s almost like air hockey the way it works is I strap myself into a seat and?

Elon Musk: Well it’s, It would actually feel, maybe like the Space Mountain ride at Disney World, and the g-force would actually be less than what people experience at Space Mountain. So if you can handle Space Mountain in Disneyland, you should be able to handle the Hyperloop. It’ll feel super smooth because, as you mentioned, it would use air skis, like an air hockey table, but with the air jets on the pod side as opposed to the tube side. So it would just be – I mean, it would be smooth as glass.

Interviewer: Ten years from now what would car travel look like in America?

Elon Musk: 10 years from now? I think there’s going to be a lot of electric cars on the road. Well, certainly faster ones than there are now.

Interviewer: Driverless cars?

Elon Musk: I think  we’ll be in the steep portion of the adoption of electric cars in 10 years.

Interviewer: You think hybrids are a transition that will fade away?

Elon Musk: Yeah, absolutely. They’re like a sort of amphibian. I mean there was a role for amphibians when life was moving from the oceans to land. But in the end, very few amphibians remain.

Interviewer: It’s a good, good point to end on. Thank you.

Elon Musk: Thank you.