Lift off with Elon Musk
||04 September 2005 12:00
Linda De Jager
|Show: ||Carte Blanche|
They call him a space age revolutionary, a young man who just doesn't know the meaning of limits...
Elon Musk (entrepreneur): 'SpaceX may be the company that builds the rocket that takes the first person to Mars.'
... his modest goal's to land on the moon, to colonise space, to head for Mars and to back up our biosphere on another planet.
Elon: 'And that's if I were to describe a Holy Grail type of objective... that would be the Holy Grail.'
Extraordinary words for a down-to-earth young man. His name is Elon Musk and he is the small guy throwing punches at the big guys, and the picture on his wall says it all. He is taking on the commercial rocket industry, and big companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin are watching him warily from their launch pads. But before aiming for Mars, he is cutting his teeth on a multimillion dollar industry - the rocket launchers that hurl fancy satellites into space with a lot of noise and at a price. Each time a satellite is launched, it can cost anything between 30 and 80 million dollars for the trip.
Derek Watts (Carte Blanche presenter): 'But then along comes a young guy, 34 to be exact, who says that the huge corporations that have such a tight grip on the launcher business are ripping off their customers. He says he can get payloads into space at a
fraction of the cost. He also happens to be South African, educated at Pretoria Boys High.'
Elon: 'Of all the schools I went to, I would say that Pretoria Boys High is probably the best. I think South Africa is a great country. But it's difficult to do high technology things like rockets in South Africa.'
Right now, Elon's modest rocket factory in Los Angeles is front-page news with his brand new rocket, Falcon One to be launched in a few weeks time.
Elon: 'Falcon One is going to be the lowest cost per flight to orbit of any production rocket.'
Falcon One is like the VW Beetle of rockets, and at a mere $15 million per lift-off, it's looking like an attractive deal.
Elon: 'Which means we're cheaper than the Chinese, cheaper than [the] Russians or anywhere else - and we're doing it in the United States with American labour costs.'
Three years ago, Elon founded SpaceX here in the aerospace hub of southern California. The long term promise is that space travel will become as affordable as an air ticket. He employs 140 people. No bureaucracy. No delays.
Derek: 'You made a fresh start, so what is it that makes your cost per pound going up there any cheaper than any of your competitors?'
Elon: 'I think the reason it's cheaper is, first of all, we are a private entity and we have a very lean system in here. What we have been able to do here at SpaceX is to cherry-pick, you know, the top one or two percent and give them, you know, capital to execute well and a clear mission, which is low cost, reliable access to space, and no other constraints.'
He may not look like it, but this is one of Elon's top rocket scientists [tattooed guy on camera]. And talent like this has helped his company achieve what was deemed impossible. They built a brand new rocket engine in only three years - something which traditionally would have taken up to ten.
Elon: 'Rocket engineering is not like ditch digging. With ditch digging you can get 100 people and dig a ditch, and you will dig it a hundred times as faster if you get 100 people versus one. With rockets, you have to solve the problem of a particular level of difficulty, one person who can solve the problem is worth an infinite number of people who can't.'
Derek: 'This is the Merlin engine [on camera] that will lift Falcon One off the launch pad... It has been designed from scratch, from the very first piece of tubing; in fact, this is one of the only new engines to come out of America in the last 25 years.'
Elon wasn't [yet] born when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Decades later, he says that space travel is still as expensive, and no more reliable than it was at the time of the moon landing.
Elon: 'It costs as much today to get to space as it did 30 years ago. We are used to things improving every year; we are used to having a better cell phone next year than this year; a better lap top. We are even used to some basic things, like we expect more from your car in next year's model than last year's model. But this is not the case in space... reliability and cost - those are the fundamental parameters of transportation - have not improved.'
And then comes Falcon One, and other rockets might just be doomed for that trash can. The components are designed to parachute back into the ocean, to be fished out later. Unlike conventional rockets, he aims for 80% re-usability.
Derek: 'Elon has a very different management style. Bureaucracy has jetted out of the window, jeans and trainers are the dress code and snacks and drinks are available for the taking day and night, which comes in handy when you are working around the clock and you haven't had a holiday for two or three years.'
Elon: 'You know, I think we hire people who want to work hard and I make sure that the environment is a pleasant one.'
Derek: 'One of your guys told me that he gets treated better here than he gets treated at home.'
Elon: 'Ha! Depends on how he gets treated at home... that could be a relative thing.'
Elon is a team player and his management style is paying dividends. A third party study by Futron Corporation concluded that the chances of Falcon One blowing up are only 2.8 percent. But the sceptics disagree.
Derek: 'Some of your critics say this is just pie in the sky, that you don't really know the challenges you face going into space.'
Elon: 'I think I do understand most of the challenges. Although I am new in the business, my team is not. I would say that, person for person, there has never been a better rocket company in existence, in history. I don't think there has ever been a group this talented in one place, in one company, developing a rocket - ever.'
Derek: 'Elon has put a hundred million dollars of his own cash on the line to break the mould of space travel. Now, you may be asking, how does a nice young South African boy get his hands on that sort of start-up capital? Well, the answer is... at your fingertips.'
Elon is a dot-commer. In 1995, he enrolled in a doctorate program in Stanford University, but two days later he dropped out and started a software company called Zip 2. He began to build his fortune by selling his software to media companies like the New York Times.
Elon: 'I didn't really expect to make any money. If I could make enough to cover the rent and buy some food, that would be fine. As it turns out, it turned out to be quite valuable in the end, you know. We ended up selling it for hundreds of millions of dollars.'
He went on to co-found PayPal, one of the world's leading electronic payment systems.
Derek: 'It's a way of paying for goods on the internet?'
Elon: 'It is a way of transferring money between one entity and another entity by specifying a unique identifier - which in this case was an e-mail address - and then doing so securely, but at the same time making it very easy to use. We sold that to eBay for one and a half billion dollars.'
Fortune Magazine rates him as the 23rd richest man under 40 in America.
Elon: 'So let me step out of character for those who say it hasn't changed me at all. Yes, I mean, if you have millions of dollars it changes your lifestyle, and anyone who says differently is talking bullshit. Yeah, well I have this huge house in Bel Air and a McClaren and, like jets and all sorts of things; it's awesome. I don't need to work, from a standard of living point of view, but I do, you know. I work every day and on weekends and I haven't taken a vacation for years.'
As a child, Elon's teachers describe him as quiet and unassuming. He was brilliant at maths and science and in love with his computer. At age twelve he developed a Space Invaders type videogame, which he sold for pocket money. But testing the brand new rocket engine is no game. And the results have been enough to convince some powerful players to back Elon's revolution.
Elon: 'We have at this point about 190 million in launch commitments...'
... the first client the US Defense Department.
Elon: 'And the second launch is for the US Naval Research Laboratory and our third launch is for the Malaysian Space Agency.'
Derek: 'You haven't done too badly for a Pretoria High old boy.'
Elon: 'I think we are doing quite well, given that we are simply alleging at this point that we can put something in space.'
His competitors want SpaceX to fail, and Elon knows it.
Elon: 'I think some of them are a little edgy.'
Derek: 'Aren't you worried about them snooping around here, because it is a very sort of relaxed atmosphere.'
Elon: 'No, we are not too worried that they will snoop around here. I do not think there is much that they can do, even if I give them our blueprints.'
Derek: 'The experts say that SpaceX have got the basic rights and that the chances of failure are small, but the highway to space is littered with brave attempts at building cut-price rockets that have fizzled out along with millions of dollars. So, as launch date approaches, the attention and anticipation is rising.'
Elon: 'I think there is going to be a serious pucker factor on launch day.'
Derek: 'This is what the next few weeks are all about?'
Elon: 'The first stage of the rocket is already on its way to our launch site. We have an island in the middle of the Pacific; it's a remote tropical island. And really, within a few months we should know whether we are successful or not.'
Elon is prepared to reach deeper into his pockets if the first attempt fails.
Elon: 'I want to be able to make sure that we have enough capital to survive at least three consecutive failures.'
Elon's motivation is very different to that of another dot-commer, Mark Shuttleworth, and his space ventures.
Elon: 'It's great from a personal stand point and actually, you know, possibly even for inspiring the general public's stand point. It doesn't do a great deal to advance the goal of humanity becoming a space travelling civilisation, which is my objective with SpaceX, so I could go to the Russians and buy a ride. I believe you would have to spend something like six months in Russia. I would pay 20 million dollars not to spend six months in Russia. And besides this, my interest is how do we enable many other people to go to space... not necessarily me, personally.'
Derek: 'You think that Elon has enough on his plate taking on the giants like Boeing and Orbital Sciences, but taking satellites into space isn't the limit for this rocket man. His ultimate vision is to take passengers, not just into space... to the moon - maybe even to Mars.'
Falcon One's maiden flight will carry an interesting cargo: the ashes of 26 people for the first space burial ever.
Elon: 'If we can build something that is capable of taking people and equipment to Mars, such that it can service a transportation infrastructure for humanity becoming a multi- planet species - which I think is a very, very important objective - then I would consider the mission of SpaceX successful, at that point.'
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.