The Mind Behind Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity – A Fireside Chat with Elon Musk (Transcript)

Elon Musk: Right, so the big innovation —

Chris Anderson: In fact, let’s roll that video and you can talk us through it, what’s happening here.

Elon Musk: Absolutely. So the thing about rockets is that they’re all expendable. All rockets that fly today are fully expendable. The space shuttle was an attempt at a reusable rocket, but even the main tank of the space shuttle was thrown away every time, and the parts that were reusable took a 10,000-person group nine months to refurbish for flight. So the space shuttle ended up costing a billion dollars per flight. Obviously that doesn’t work very well for —

Chris Anderson: What’s just happened there? We just saw something land?

Elon Musk: That’s right. So it’s important that the rocket stages be able to come back, to be able to return to the launch site and be ready to launch again within a matter of hours.

Chris Anderson: Wow. Reusable rockets.

Elon Musk: Yes. And so what a lot of people don’t realize is, the cost of the fuel, of the propellant, is very small. It’s much like on a jet. So the cost of the propellant is about 0.3% of the cost of the rocket. So it’s possible to achieve, let’s say, roughly a 100-fold improvement in the cost of spaceflight if you can effectively reuse the rocket. That’s why it’s so important. Every mode of transport that we use, whether it’s planes, trains, automobiles, bikes, horses, is reusable, but not rockets. So we must solve this problem in order to become a space-faring civilization.

Chris Anderson: You asked me the question earlier of how popular traveling on cruises would be if you had to burn your ships afterward.

Elon Musk: Certain cruises are apparently highly problematic.

Chris Anderson: Definitely more expensive. So that’s potentially absolutely disruptive technology, and I guess paves the way for your dream to actually take, at some point, to take humanity to Mars at scale. You’d like to see a colony on Mars.

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Elon Musk: Yeah, exactly. SpaceX, or some combination of companies and governments, need to make progress in the direction of making life multi-planetary, of establishing a base on another planet, on Mars being the only realistic option — and then building that base up until we’re a true multi-planet species.

Chris Anderson: So progress on this “let’s make it reusable,” how is that going? That was just a simulation video we saw. How’s it going?

Elon Musk: We’re actually — we’ve been making some good progress recently with something we call the Grasshopper Test Project, where we’re testing the vertical landing portion of the flight, the sort of terminal portion which is quite tricky. And we’ve had some good tests.

Chris Anderson: Can we see that?

Elon Musk: Yeah. So that’s just to give a sense of scale. We dressed a cowboy as Johnny Cash and bolted the mannequin to the rocket.

Chris Anderson: All right, let’s see that video then, because this is actually amazing when you think about it. You’ve never seen this before. A rocket blasting off and then —

Elon Musk: Yeah, so that rocket is about the size of a 12-story building. So now it’s hovering at about 40 meters, and it’s constantly adjusting the angle, the pitch and yaw of the main engine, and maintaining roll with coal gas thrusters.

Chris Anderson: How cool is that? Elon, how have you done this? These projects are so — Paypal, SolarCity, Tesla, SpaceX, they’re so spectacularly different, they’re such ambitious projects at scale. How on Earth has one person been able to innovate in this way? What is it about you?

Elon Musk: I don’t know, actually. I don’t have a good answer for you. I work a lot. I mean, a lot.

Chris Anderson: Well, I have a theory.

Elon Musk: Okay. All right.

Chris Anderson: My theory is that you have an ability to think at a system level of design that pulls together design, technology and business, so if TED was TBD, design, technology and business, into one package, synthesize it in a way that very few people can and — this is the critical thing — feel so damn confident in that clicked-together package that you take crazy risks. You bet your fortune on it, and you seem to have done that multiple times. I mean, almost no one can do that. Is that — could we have some of that secret sauce? Can we put it into our education system? Can someone learn from you? It is truly amazing what you’ve done.

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Elon Musk: Well, thanks. Thank you. Well, I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics. You know, the sort of first principles reasoning. Generally I think there are — what I mean by that is, boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations. And you have to do that. Otherwise, mentally, you wouldn’t be able to get through the day.

But when you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach. Physics is really figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive, like quantum mechanics. It’s really counterintuitive. So I think that’s an important thing to do, and then also to really pay attention to negative feedback, and solicit it, particularly from friends. This may sound like simple advice, but hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful.

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