Reusable Rockets, Artificial Intelligence, Space Elevators and More: One-on-One with SpaceX's Elon Musk

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This week, MIT celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Aeronautics and Astronautics department. The closing event included a 90 minute “One-on-One” with Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX.  You may also know him as the guy that Iron Man wants to be when he grows up.  

The One-on-One structure included ~60 minutes of Q&A between Musk and MIT’s AeroAstro department head, Professor Jaime Peraire. The remaining 20-30 minutes involved questions posed by members of the audience, mostly students. At a certain point, it turned into students asking for Elon Musk's thoughts about their personal tech projects. Can't blame them for seizing the moment, right?

In this blog, I’ll summarize the main topics that were covered and copy the transcript of my live-tweeting. The quotes below are not verbatim quotes, but a summary of what Musk said. Also, the full video of the event is available here.

 

On Rockets and Space Exploration:

Musk stated that “Reusability is the critical breakthrough required in rocketry to take us to the next level.”  He also mentioned that SpaceX plans to have at least a dozen launches over the next 12 months with at least one of these launches proving the feasibility of reusable rockets.

Musk spoke to the importance of rockets for getting humans off our planet: “There are no runways and no atmosphere on the Moon. Winged aircraft won’t work there. There’s no runway on Mars, so winged aircraft also aren't great there. Rockets are the best option.”

When asked what he thought about 1-way trips to Mars, Musk said: “What kind of 1-way trip? 1-way trip and you die, or 1-way trip with resupply missions?” An important distinction for sure. But he said that we should instead be focusing on sustainable colonies on Mars. Musk was then asked specifically about the Mars One program. He said “If they want to buy our rockets and space capsules, we’ll surely sell it to them, but from the looks of it, they can’t even afford 1 Dragon. Based on that it doesn't seem feasible."

Musk emphasized his passion for ensuring humans become an interplanetary species.  He said “Yes, there are many problems here on Earth and this should be our priority, but we should still be investing <~1% of our resources on ensuring we’re an interplanetary species.  Healthcare is of great importance, but cosmetics are not. Space travel is somewhere in between.”  Lipstick or space travel? We'll take the Dragon any day.

How do we create sustainable colonies on Mars? Musk said the best strategy is a competitive one because collaboration is simply too slow.

 

On SpaceX:

Musk said the overall goal of SpaceX is to develop what is necessary to bring sustainable cities to Mars.  He said that he started SpaceX to extend life beyond Earth, and actually expected it to fail in the beginning. We’re all happy he was wrong.

On the weakest point at SpaceX, Musk admitted that their rocket engines could use a lot of work with respect to specific impulse, but he ensured us that they will get much better.

Professor Peraire asked how SpaceX could be so innovative as a relatively small company. Musk said that this is likely do to the culture they have nurtured at SpaceX: rapid communication where the best ideas win. He said that, at SpaceX, it’s not the head engineer that always makes the final decision. If an intern comes up with a great engineering idea, it can easily and quickly be brought to the top.

Musk mentioned that they’d love to hire more people from MIT. He also mentioned that they don’t hire many MBA’s.  They do have some MBA’s that work there, but it’s likely in spite of their MBA.

Referring to SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, Musk said “Dragon doesn’t need pilots – we should be sending our scientists and engineers instead.” He said that you should be able to ride in a spacecraft with no training at all – it should be easy.

 

On His Biggest Technical Challenges:

Musk said that one of the interesting takeaways from Tesla and SpaceX was that the hardest part is the manufacturing aspect.  He estimated that it was more than 10 times harder to learn how to create 1000 of the same car than developing the original design. The same is true for developing multiple rockets. Musk said that the field of Manufacturing had gotten a “bad rep” in the past for being boring, but that it is actually a really fascinating/fun challenge that more smart engineers should be studying.

 

On Future Technologies:

A member of the audience asked about the feasibility of space elevators.  Musk suggested that building a bridge from LA to Tokyo would be a much easier undertaking that a space elevator. He said that it doesn’t make sense to pursue one right now, but that he’d love to be proven wrong.

Beam energy research is worth studying, but there are many challenges that come along with this energy source. The primary challenge is likely scalability and the cost effectiveness relative to other options.

 

On Artificial Intelligence:

Musk suggested that our biggest existential threat was Artificial Intelligence. He said that we must be very careful not to do anything foolish in this area. When the next member of the audience asked a different question Musk said, “Sorry, could you repeat your question, I was still thinking about the Artificial Intelligence stuff.” Clearly, this is an exciting area worth extended thought. 

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