Last night, Elon Musk’s SpaceX achieved a spectacular milestone in the history of space travel: its Falcon 9 rocket launched 11 satellites into orbit, performed a spin and landed back on earth, six miles from where it launched. Why is this ultimate recycling feat so consequential?
Quite simply, this could revolutionize space travel as we know it today.
and “then we could resume the journey”…to Mars and beyond. Watch the interview, starting at 35:00
The back story of SpaceX
“I always thought that we’d make much more progress in space…and it just didn’t happen…it was really disappointing, so I was really quite bothered by it. So when we went to the moon, we were supposed to have a base on the moon, we were supposed to send people to Mars and that stuff just didn’t happen. We went backwards. I thought, well maybe it’s a question of there not being enough intention or ‘will’ to do this. This was a wrong assumption. That’s the reason for the greenhouse idea…if there could be a small philanthropic mission to Mars…a small greenhouse with seeds and dehydrated nutrients, you’d have this great shot of a little greenhouse with little green plants on a red background. I thought that would get people excited…you have to imagine the money shot. I thought this would result in a bigger budget for NASA and then we could resume the journey…”
On negotiations with the Russian military to buy two ICBMs
“They just thought I was crazy…I had three quite interesting trips to Russia to try to negotiate purchase of two Russian ICBMs…minus the nukes…I slightly got the feeling that was on the table, which was very alarming. Those were very weird meetings with the Russian military…’remarkably capitalist’ was my impression (of the Russians).”
Why he chose to create his own rocket company, SpaceX
“I came to the conclusion that my initial premise was wrong that in fact that there’s a great deal of will, there’s not such a shortage. But people don’t think there’s a way. And if people thought there was a way or something that wouldn’t break the federal budget, then people would support it. The United States is a distillation of the human spirit of exploration. People came here from other places…people need to believe that it’s possible, so I thought it’s a question of showing people that there’s a way…There wasn’t really a good reason for rockets to be so expensive. If one could make them reusable, like airplanes then the cost of rocketry (and space travel) would drop dramatically.”
Last night, the long awaited Tesla Model X was launched and Elon Musk took great pleasure in underlining its clean air qualities. Musk reiterated the mission of Tesla: to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport and show that any car can go electric. But he couldn’t contain a smile, as he talked about air quality and referred to “recent events” i.e. the VW DieselGate scandal.
Musk showed off the SUV’s giant air filter (10 times the size of a typical one) and said:
“Recent events have illustrated the importance of air safety…(in the Model X) you can have air quality levels comparable to a hospital operating room.”
Musk then got somber, put on his superhero hat and showed the massive crowd estimates of how air quality can reduce life expectancy in some of the world’s most polluted cities: Beijing, 22 months; Los Angeles, 8 months and Paris, 7 months.
According to Musk, using the high quality “X-size” air filter plus a smaller one (still larger than an average car’s air filter) gives the Model X a 700 fold improvement in city smog filtering. The company claims it’s also 300 times better at filtering bacteria, 500 times better at filtering allergens, and 800 times better at filtering viruses.
But the biggest cheer of all came when Musk made this surprise announcement:
“If there’s ever an apocalyptic scenario, you just press the bio-weapon defence button – this is a real button.”
“Who else is going to think in that magnitude with something as normal as an air filter? These are the kinds of things that Elon pushes to the limit and delivers products that no one else can deliver. The reason he’s doing it is to save the planet. It’s all about the survival of this planet and the atmosphere.” George Blankenship
We discussed how VW’s emissions cheating scandal might impact electric car makers like Tesla.
“It’s unfortunate that others feel they have to do things like that in order to compete. It’s the absolute opposite of what Tesla does…they find a solution. It reinforces that innovative companies that come up with a solution that others don’t…there’s a reward for it: 5 star crash ratings, cleaner air than a surgical room. That’s what innovative companies do as opposed to companies that try to figure out how to bend the rules to get an advantage.” George Blankenship
After a thorough tour of the Model X features, including the elegant falcon wings, Elon delivered keys to some of the first Model X buyers. This time round, Elon beat his friend, and first Model S owner, Steve Jurvetson and got the number one Tesla Model X. There’s definitely admiration, perhaps a little envy, captured in my photo below.
Update: Jurvetson told me this morning that Elon had a check made out in advance at an early Tesla Board meeting, to make sure he secured the first Model X.
Read more about Tesla and Elon Musk at Fresh Dialogues
Technology has the potential to bring us a mind-blowing world of innovation, from self-driving cars to re-engineered food, and even colonies on Mars. Elon Musk and Steve Jurvetson are two of tech’s most influential minds. Here’s my BBC World Business Report on their vision of the future. Spoiler alert: It isn’t all good news.
BBC Presenter, Mike Johnson: Colonies on Mars, self driving electric cars, re-engineered food… How will technology change our lives in the decades ahead? It’s certainly bringing us an extraordinary world of innovation. It’s known in the jargon these days as “future shock.” Many worry about the consequences, especially the toll that increased use of robots will take on jobs. Alison van Diggelen, creator and host of the Fresh Dialogues interview series reports from California
Audio: [Sound of Tesla Factory welding, metal on metal, robot sounds…]
Tesla’s Gilbert Passin: See the robot is bringing the flat panel into the press…they are in slow motion …[factory sounds]
van Diggelen: The pioneering carmaker, Tesla Motors, has now produced over 70,000 all-electric cars and is gearing up for the release of the new Model X, a futuristic SUV with falcon wing doors. This summer, it will also start shipping Tesla Energy storage batteries for homes, businesses and utilities. Gilbert Passin leads the Tesla manufacturing team and is proud of the numerous red robots at the factory.
Passin: What we do here is really kick-ass. I mean, look around…. does it look to you like a boring old-fashioned car factory?
van Diggelen: Absolutely not.
Passin: We’re using the latest and greatest and even in some cases innovate in manufacturing techniques.
van Diggelen: The Tesla production team is so fond of its heavy lifting robots, they’re named after action heroes like Wolverine, Vulcan and Colossus.
Venture Capitalist, Steve Jurvetson drives the first Model S to come off Tesla’s production line. He has a reputation for putting his money where his mouth is and backing successful startups like Hotmail, SpaceX, and PlanetLabs. He’s a self-described “raging techno optimist” and has a front row seat on the future of innovation. I asked him what we should expect in the next 50 years…
Steve Jurvetson: (If you look far enough in the future) All vehicles will be electric. We’ll have a Mars colony. We will have to grow more food than since the beginning of agriculture. That will be largely driven by GMOs and a variety of roboticized forms of farming…and moving off meat production in the way we think of it: killing animals. We will “grow” meat in different ways within 50 years and that will have pretty profound effects on Greenhouse Gases to… everything. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, are changing the world. In that 50 year horizon, the world’s going to look markedly different than today. Future shock is a perpetually occurring phenomenon.
van Diggelen: As well as being CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk leads SpaceX, the aerospace company that recently launched its 6th mission to resupply the International Space Station.
Ambi: [SpaceX rocket countdown and blast off]
Tesla announcer: 5,4,3,2,1…and lift off…the Falcon soars from its perch to the international space station. [Rocket blasting….]
He envisioned a philanthropic mission to Mars to install a greenhouse…and jumpstart the space race. Here’s Musk:
Musk: You’d have this great shot of a little greenhouse with little green plants on a red background. I thought that would get people excited…you have to imagine “the money shot.” So this would be the furthest that life’s ever travelled, the first life on Mars and I thought maybe that would result in a bigger budget for NASA and then we could resume the journey…
van Diggelen: Of course, in order to get to Mars, Musk and his team would have to invent a low cost space rocket. Enter, SpaceX.
Jurvetson: Being a multi planetary species, (having a colony on Mars and probably the moon) is one of those “greatest hits” in human evolution, up there with the opposable thumb…the neuron, multi-cellular beings.
van Diggelen: These grand visions are all very well, but what will life be like here on planet earth in 50 years?
For now, the tech economy is bringing manufacturing back to the US and Europe, but in the long run robots will take our jobs. This has huge implications for the world economy, business and public policy. Jurvetson admits he’s deeply worried about the growing rich-poor divide that tech innovation is exacerbating. He doesn’t pull his punches…
Jurvetson: Imagine the robots of the future… It’s inevitable the jobs will go away…and we need to prepare for that future…talk about it now so that the transition isn’t violent and horrible….40% unemployment, 80% unemployment…we’re gonna get there.
Here are some highlights of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
Fergus Nicholl: Elon Musk…you’ve met the man. How would you introduce him to a global audience?
Alison van Diggelen: He is a genius inventor…the (Thomas) Edison of our day…incredibly sharp minded, a big old geek, but he’s very personable. He has grand visions and wants to make it happen…he has the ability to paint a picture, and motivate a team and build a team. He’s changed the world of electric vehicles and he’s now planning to change the world of power, utilities and battery storage.
Fergus Nicholl: That is an application that would apply in many many countries, beyond India. The idea that you could weather blackouts, brownouts…you’re saying you could bank it, use it when you need it and not necessarily get hit by little domestic crises?
Revathy Ashok: Absolutely. It’s pretty common in India for a normal household to have a one to three hour battery back up.For the last 12 hours it’s been raining heavily…we’ve had no power at all, so all connectivity is lost. I have three hours of battery backup which is all gone…
Alison van Diggelen: The main idea is, if you’ve got solar panels on your roof, or windpower, your house can become a power station with the addition of these batteries. No matter what natural disaster, earthquake etc. is happening, you will have a reliable source of power. You won’t need the utility anymore. You can just disconnect from the grid, go “off-grid.” So that’s the huge potential and that’s why people are really excited about tonight’s announcement.
Fergus Nicholl: The Gigafactory (in Nevada)…tell us more about it…a net zero energy factory…it’s quite an extraordinary project.
Alison van Diggelen: Yes, a net zero energy project means it will be solar powered itself and will produce as much energy as it uses to make these batteries. It’s definitely quite revolutionary and has Elon Musk’s fingers all over it.
Fergus Nicholl: In this picture, the entire roof is vast solar panels, kind of like a solar farm laid perfectly flat. I guess Nevada is probably the best place to be for that?
Alison van Diggelen: Indeed, several states were actually fighting over it. California was hoping to get it too, but Nevada won out because they gave some very juicy incentives…The Gigafactory will produce more batteries, once it’s fully operational, than the world’s supply of batteries in 2013. That’s what they’re predicting. It’s a mind blowing amount of batteries and Tesla board member, Steve Jurvetson told me they’re planning to build more Gigafactories around the world, once this one is operational. As well as being Net Zero, they’re going to be creating a lot of employment, so there will be a lot of communities wanting them in their back yard too.
Fergus Nicholl: They’ll be lining up in different countries…
Note: We didn’t have time to discuss the competition that Tesla will face in the battery storage space. There are already major players like Samsung, LG Chem and Mitsubishi working on energy storage solutions and a slice of what Deutsche Bank estimates is a $4.5Bn market. The question is, will Tesla’s strong brand and reputation for quality emulate what Apple achieved in the cellphone market, and leapfrog over the existing competition? In his usual hyperbolic (Steve Jobs) fashion, Elon Musk said last night that “existing battery solutions suck.” But the success of his high risk venture in the energy storage market will depend on swift execution and competitive pricing that makes the Tesla Powerwall a viable solution for a wide spectrum of potential buyers, from wealthy consumers and businesses in California to rural communities in India, Africa and beyond.
Elon Musk has been hailed as the next Steve Jobs, a serial disruptor and a genius. Others call him just crazy. Yet Musk has defied the naysayers and made remarkable innovations in both electric cars and spaceflight over the last ten years. But just how accurate is the Steve Jobs comparison?
“Most innovation is like a new melody,” writes Ted curator Chris Anderson. “For Jobs and Musk, it’s the whole symphony.”
Anderson’s analogy is right. Neither men do things in small measures. They seek to change the world.
I interviewed Elon Musk last year in one of his most revealing public appearances, and he exposed a complex character that is both deadly serious yet comedic at times; driven yet sensitive; single minded, and yet eclectic in his desire to change the world in multiple ways.
That sensitivity was apparent several times during our dialogue when his eyes welled up in response to my questions about the future of NASA, Neil Armstrong, and candlelight vigils for the EV1 (@28:35, 1:04:00 & 39:50 in the video). Steve Jobs was also known to weep.
Here are five revealing moments from our conversation that emphasize the common threads between the two businessmen.
1. Ability to Sell Great Ideas
Jobs used his infamous “reality distortion field” to push his teams hard to achieve much more that they thought was possible. His oft-quoted phrase was “insanely great” and his product launches were passionate and brash.
Musk is more pragmatic in his approach, he rarely uses buzzwords*, and although his product launches are often equally dazzling, his delivery is less assured, more halting.
*Granted, he does talk about getting a “money shot” of his greenhouse on Mars idea (@30:00 in the video).
“In the beginning there will be few people who believe in you or in what you’re doing but then over time… the evidence will build and more and more people will believe in what you’re doing. So, I think it’s a good idea when creating a company to … have a demonstration or to be able to sketch something so people can really envision what it’s about. Try to get to that point as soon as possible.” Elon Musk
This Word Art of our 90-minute conversation reveals no catchy buzzwords, though the word THINK stands out prominently.
His rage also turns inward. For example, when he discovered the wrong type of screw used in the Model S sun visors. He reportedly said, “they felt like daggers in my eyes.”
While doing pre-interviews with Musk’s colleagues, I heard a revealing story about his obsession with the Tesla Model S key fob. A colleague described how he agonized for weeks over the shape, the girth, the weight of the fob till it was just right. Take a peek at the end result and see if you think it was all worth it.
When I visited the Tesla factory (on assignment for KQED), I heard a similar story from the mechanics working on the iconic Model S door handles. Responsive door handles that sit flush with car doors looked like mission impossible, yet Musk and his team eventually prevailed. The result is so highly prized that my tour guide, Gilbert Passin (VP for manufacturing at Tesla) forbade me to take close-up photos of the components, for fear of copycats.
3. Ability to Think Differently Stems from Splendid Isolation
When I asked Musk if he was a lonely kid, he replied:
“I wasn’t all that much of a loner…at least not willingly. I was very very bookish.” Elon Musk
As a kid he was consumed by his own world, reading books like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and playing Dungeons and Dragons for hours. Musk found coding a piece of cake and created his own software at the tender age of 12. Thanks to his bookish childhood, his innovative ideas could flourish without being squashed by friends or family.
Similarly, Jobs had an isolated childhood, and was bullied at school. He did no competitive school sports and was obsessed by electronics and gadgets.
4. Deep Thinking
Although Jobs was less techie, more visionary; and Musk is a geeky engineer who prides himself on innovation using scientific first principles, both are deep thinkers.
Elon Musk explained how Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy inspired him while he was looking for the meaning of life as a teenager.
“It highlighted an important point, which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer. And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part. To the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask. Then whatever the question is that most approximates: what’s the meaning of life? That’s the question we can ultimately get closer to understanding. And so I thought to the degree that we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness and knowledge, then that would be a good thing.” Elon Musk
Walter Isaacson, the author of Jobs’ biography wrote that Jobs felt throughout his life that he was on a journey — and he often said, ‘The journey was the reward.’ But that journey involved resolving conflicts about his role in this world: why he was here and what it was all about. He had a lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism and they discussed whether or not he believed in an afterlife.
“Sometimes I’m 50-50 on whether there’s a God. It’s the great mystery we never quite know. But I like to believe there’s an afterlife. I like to believe the accumulated wisdom doesn’t just disappear when you die, but somehow it endures.” Steve Jobs
During our interview, Musk shared the story of his brief encounter with the great Steve Jobs. The two were introduced by Google’s Larry Page at a party and Musk describes Jobs as being “super rude” to him. Nevertheless, this didn’t dent his admiration for the Apple guru. Here’s our dialogue:
Elon Musk: “The guy had a certain magic about him that was really inspiring. I think that’s really great.”
Alison van Diggelen: “Is it that magic that you try to emulate?”
Elon Musk: “No, I think Steve Jobs was way cooler than I am.”
Although Apple fans will agree strongly with that assessment, feedback at YouTube loudly contradicts Musk. Here’s one of the more polite reactions:
“Sounds just like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Except Elon Musk will probably end up being much more memorable than Steve Jobs :P”
As 2014 begins, Musk is still right, Steve Jobs is generally perceived as being “way cooler” than him. But that could change.
What will the history books conclude, in ten or twenty years from now? Steve Jobs certainly has big shoes to fill, but Elon Musk is already beginning to fill them. A lot will depend on Musk’s ability to see his grand visions come to fruition. First, he must complete his “Secret Master Plan for Tesla,” which includes the creation of a popular mass market electric car; and second, his vision of making space rockets reusable just like modern day jets.
One day, he may even achieve his life’s mission of dying on Mars, but as he describes it, “Just not on impact.”