Musk Discusses SpaceX, Mars Settlement and More

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk addressed the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. yesterday. The rocket company founder laid out his vision for humans becoming a multi-planet species, discussed SpaceX’s present and future plans, and took questions about the international launch market, global change and the collapse of the solar energy company Solyndra.

My notes are below. You can also watch videos of his address here.

Reusable Falcon 9 rocket

  • Fully reusable, rapid turnaround rocket
  • Falcon 9 costs: $50 million for rocket, about $200,000 in fuel
  • Could reduce costs by 100 fold through reuse
  • There would be additional costs of preparing stages for relaunch, etc.
  • Process works on paper and in simulations – now need to make it work in practice
  • Animation is mostly accurate – was completed before the analysis was done, also protecting proprietary information
  • Effort does not take away from COTS and CCDev work

SpaceX Future Plans

  • SpaceX has $3B in satellite launch orders
  • Moderately profitable over the last few years
  • Primary launch bases at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg — will focus on military and NASA missions there
  • Want to develop a purely commercial launch base elsewhere to focus on those missions

Dragon Mission to ISS

  • Launch delayed from end of November until probably January due to Progress freighter crash
  • Crew rotation delayed — need to have a trained crew to deal with berthing Dragon to station — won’t have that until end of December

Can you fast track Dragon development to launch crews to ISS in 2 years or so?

  • If NASA was willing to accept launching a crew on same level of safety as the space shuttle, we could launch astronauts on the next flight — fully capable of biological cargo carrying
  • Dragon has no launch escape system
  • Will take about two to three years to dev and qualify a launch escape system
  • Escape thrusters are built in the side wall of spacecraft — can use those for propulsive landings
  • In discussions with NASA on using Dragon as general science delivery platform for missions to Mars and other bodies

International Launch Market

  • U.S. has been uncompetitive in international launch market for several years
  • Russia has been the leader, followed by Europe, India and China (China is coming up quickly)
  • U.S. has been improving due to SpaceX
  • U.S. has the most competitive launch due to SpaceX

Reliance Upon Russia for ISS Transportation

  • Russian Soyuz rockets are very reliable
  • In the long term, reliability concerns because many Russian rocket experts have retired
  • More profitable to go into oil and gas industry
  • “So that expertise is tailing off, and I think that may lead to decreased reliability for Russian rockets in the future. Hopefully it doesn’t.”
  • If you look at Russian rocketry, no significant developments since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991
  • As soon as that technology level is exceeded, then they’re rendered redundant and they’re no longer able to compete
  • Without any changes, Russia has “5 to 10 years” of launch vehicle competitiveness left

Competition From China

  • “China is the serious competitor long term”
  • China said it is going after SpaceX as a competitor
  • Chinese program is heavily subsidized, difficult to compete with
  • SpaceX files the minimum number of patents possible because there’s a history in China of absconding with IP
  • Almost impossible to enforce patents with the Chinese government
  • “I’m quite confident we can take on China.”

NASA’s Role

  • SpaceX wouldn’t be where it is today without NASA
  • Both NASA’s historical contribution and its funding of SpaceX through COTS and CCDev
  • U.S. still leads the world in space spending
  • Space budgets will shrink in years ahead

U.S. Military Launch Contracts

  • U.S. Air Force wants to extend the sole source monopoly by Boeing and Lockheed Martin (through ULA) to 2013
  • “The reasoning given for that is preservation of the industrial base, although for some reason, oddly enough, we’re not included in the industrial base”
  • Main Boeing/Lockheed Marin rocket is Atlas 5
  • Atlas V has main engines built in Russia and interstage and forward air frame made in Switzerland
  • “So which industrial base are we talking about preserving, the one in Russia?”
  • Have 1 percent of the lobbying power of Boeing and Lockheed
  • “If this decision is made as a function of lobbying power, we are screwed.”

Openness of Private Commercial Companies

  • Very open company, but ITAR restrictions and competitiveness.
  • NASA and FAA get detailed information about flights we do for NASA.

Mars Colonization

  • Mars colonization – mining wouldn’t be cheaper on Mars (send back to Earth)
  • Develop intellectual property on Mars, other products
  • Mars is life insurance for life as we know it in case humans (or asteroids) destroy Earth
  • Should spend ¼ of one percent of GDP on backing up humanity in the cosmos
  • If 1 out of a 1 million would go to Mars to set up new civilization, would have 8,000 people – probably be more
  • Reduce cost to maybe $500,000 then people would be willing to go to Mars

Climate change

  • Can’t be entirely sure that humans are causing climate change
  • However, we’re conducting a massive uncontrolled experiment in seeing how much carbon the atmosphere and oceans can absorb. Why do that and just hope everything will be OK?
  • Need to get off oil eventually – finite resource
  • Oil is going to become increasingly costly as India, China and other countries develop and drive up demand

Have you made any changes in operations as a result of failure of solar energy firm Solyndra?

  • Solyndra has become a political football
  • Energy Department is making investments as part of a portfolio
  • By definition, some of those investments would fail
  • Private venture capitalists lost twice as much on Solyndra than the government
  • First-rate VCs involved in Solyndra
  • Commodity price collapsed due to heavily subsidized Chinese competition
  • They’re spending $40 billion into solar industry
  • Drove cost of solar power from $4 per watt to $1 per watt
  • I thought that Solyndra wasn’t a good bet because he expected solar prices to fall
  • Solar City operates on a different model from Solyndra
  • Solar City is growing at 50-100% per year and positive cash flow
  • I just show up at Solar City board meetings and smile at results
  • Tesla Motors received a guaranteed loan from government through a different program
  • Tesla doesn’t have the same problem Solyndra has in terms of someone driving down costs