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Shit Elon Says - Transcript - Elon Musk Mars Pioneer Award Acceptance Speech - 15th Annual International Mars Society

Transcript History  

Thank you very much for the award.

It's great to be before so many people who believe strongly in the establishment of life on Mars.

I think my reason for being interested in Mars and doing SpaceX are really.. they come down to basically just two things. One, which the prior speaker was articulating is, the defensive reason - in that if we are on more than one planet, the probable lifespan of human civilization and the life of consciousness as we know it, is going to be far greater than if we are on one planet. So there's that defensive reason, that life insurance reason, and I think that's obviously a very important thing. Earth's been around for 4 billion years and civilization about 10 thousand years and it's only now that we have this little - this little window has just cracked open where it's possible for life to extend beyond Earth and so - I think it's sort of sensible to take advantage of that window while it's open. Hopefully it will be open for a long time but it could be open for a short time, and so we should take action. And that's sort of the defensive reason.

It's not actually the reason that gets me most fired up about Mars.. The thing that actually gets me the most excited about it is that I just think it's the grandest adventure I could possibly imagine. It's the most exciting thing - I couldn't think of anything more exciting, more fun, more inspiring for the future than to have a base on Mars and it would be incredibly difficult and probably lots of people will die and terrible and great things will happen along the way, just as happened in the formation of the United States. But it will be one of those things that is incredibly inspiring and we must have inspiring things in the world. Life cannot just be about solving this problem or that problem, there must be things that when you wake up in the morning you're glad to be alive, and that I think is, to me, the most important reason we should pursue the establishment of life on Mars.

Now, of course, I'm preaching to the converted here. I expect to hear few objections from this audience. So, I think really, what matters is find a way to do it. In fact, I'll give you a little bit of background of my genesis of how I got into space. Sort of started when I was college, there were three areas that I thought would most effect the future of humanity and space exploration - extension of life beyond Earth was one of those things. I didn't ever expect to be involved in it, because I thought it was the province of governments and besides which, it sort of seemed at least 21, 22 years ago that it was likely to occur because we went to the Moon and then of course there would be people going to Mars and then we'd be establishing a base on the Moon and eventually a base on Mars and that sort of seemed like the natural progression of things. And then amazingly it didn't happen. I kept thinking, well, it's about to happen. And again, it just didn't happen. There's a Monty Python skit about this. Suddenly, nothing happened! Before you know it, nothing happened.

In fact, in approximately 2001 I was with a good friend of mine from college, my college housemate actually, in New York and he asked me what I was going to do after Paypal and I said well, I've always been interested in space but of course there's nothing that I as an individual could do about that, but the question got me curious as to sort-of, to find out what, okay when are we sending people to Mars? So, after I got back to my hotel room I went to the NASA website to see, sort-of, to look up the schedule. Because, of course, there had to be a schedule. And I couldn't find it. I thought the problem was me. Because, of course, it must be here somewhere on this website, but just well hidden. And it turned out it wasn't on the website at all. Which was shocking.

So then I thought, well, perhaps the reason is that the American people have lost the will to explore or if we just got people more excited or interested in the subject then they'd be inclined to want to do it. This turned out to be a false premise, by the way, but that was my initial thought. It was a mistake. At first I thought that if we can do a small philanthropic mission to Mars - something that would get the public excited, then that would result in a bigger budget for NASA and then we could do exciting things and get the ball rolling again. And that's about the time I started talking to Robert Zubrin and a few other people and - so initially, the thought was to send a small greenhouse to the surface of Mars with seeds in dehydrated nutrient gel. They'd be hydrated upon landing and then you'd have this little greenhouse on the surface of Mars and the public tends to be, as they should, interested in things that are precedent and superlatives. So this would be the furthest that life has ever traveled, the first life on Mars and then you'd have this great money shot of green plants on a red background. So that would be - I thought that could get people pretty excited, and so, I started investigating what they would take, and I was able to get the cost of the spacecraft down to low single-digit millions and cost of communications down and I was able to get everything compressed, except for the cost of the rocket.

The US rockets were way too expensive. Something like a Delta II would have cost $60 million and I figured we needed to do two parallel missions, two identical missions, in case there was an equipment failure because then it could be counterproductive - like, look at that fool, he did that Mars mission and it didn't work, now we definitely can't do Mars. So I figured we had to have redundant missions, and I just didn't actually have enough money from the sale of Paypal, from my stake in the sale of Paypal, to actually do that. I just didn't have enough money. So I went to Russia in late 2001, early 2002 to try to buy ICBMs. And that's as crazy as it sounds. So I guess, about 30 years old, Internet guy arrives in Moscow, wants to buy the biggest ICBM in the Russian rocket fleet. I said, I don't need the nuke. Just need the rocket. And then, they thought I was crazy, but then they also thought, well, he's got money so that's - so I was actually able to negotiate a deal to buy a couple of Dneprs and - now, at the end of all that I decided not to conclude the deal. So, negotiated a price but decided not to take the deal, because after my third trip to Russia that's about the time that I realized that my original premise was wrong.

That it is in fact - we do not lack the will. Particularly in the United States, perhaps the world as a whole, but particularly not the United States does not lack the will to explore. Not in the least. In fact, the United States is a distillation of the human spirit of exploration. Almost everyone came here from somewhere else. You couldn't ask for a group of people that are more interested in exploring the frontier. But - people don't think there is any way to do it, if they don't think there's a means, then it's somewhat irrelevant. You know, you're not going to bash your head against a brick wall if you're confident that your head won't break before the wall will break. It's just not going to happen.

So that's when I decided to start the rocket company, because it was clear that we had not made advancements in rocket technology and that was the reason that we hadn't made progress. The rocket technology was actually going worse. It was costing more and more to send things to space than in the past. So we had a negative technology curve. Which is counter intuitive because we're so used to things in the consumer electronics realm, and in everyday life, improving. You know, we sort-of take it for granted, like "it's as though things automatically improve. They do not automatically improve!" They only improve with lots of effort and resources. You saw the picture of pyramids there, Egyptian civilization got to the point where it could create things like the great pyramid of Cheops but then lost that ability and never got it back. Or Roman civilization went through a deep dark period. It's not a given that things improve. There has to be a forcing function. People have to do it.

So anyway, I started SpaceX. I had many people try to convince me not to start the company. Really tried their best. Many of my closest friends if there was anything they could have done to stop me from starting a rocket company, they would have done it. One good friend of mine compiled footage of rocket failures, and forced me to watch it. I said I've seen them all. It was certainly - but I think that they perhaps misunderstood the premise because when I started SpaceX it was not with the expectation of success. I thought that the most likely outcome was failure. But given that the thing I was going to do previously which was the Mars greenhouse mission, I'd expected that would have 100% likelihood of losing all the money associated with it. So if a rocket company has less than 100% chance of losing all the money associated with it then it was therefore quite a bit less risky than the thing I'd been doing before.

Fortunately, things went reasonably well with SpaceX - not at the beginning. The first three launched of the Falcon 1 rocket that we did failed. And, as Bob Zubrin was saying, it's not a good day when the rocket fails. The first rocket failed only - it impacted only 60 seconds after liftoff. Not far from the launch site. Me and the rest of the team spent all of that day picking up pieces of the rocket. Which is a very sad thing. But we picked them up to see if it could help figure out what went wrong. Fortunately, the fourth launch we were able to reach orbit. That's a good thing - it was a good thing we were able to do that because I had no more money left.

Talulah, my wife there, she's witness to the third and then the fourth launch. Yeah, I was so stressed out at the fourth launch, I didn't even actually feel elation. I just felt relief. So, it was a very very close call, but fortunately the fourth launch worked and since then all of the launches have worked. I hope they continue to work, and SpaceX has gotten a lot stronger and we've actually been slightly profitable for the last 4 years approximately, and should be again this year, and the rockets now are much bigger. We've got Falcon 9 which is about a million pound thrust rocket. And we've got an upgraded version of Falcon 9 which is going to launch next year, which will be almost 1.5 million pounds of thrust. And then, the Falcon Heavy which will be over 4 million pounds of thrust, which is about 60% that of a Saturn V. In fact, with two Falcon Heavy launches you could actually send people back to the surface of the Moon. Most people probably aren't quite away of the scale of the rocket that we're building. Falcon Heavy should launch, probably around the end of next year or certainly by early 2014 by the latest. That I think will represent a significant improvement in rocket technology, and then, very importantly, we're also working on re-usability.

If you really boil it down to the crux of why don't we have a base on Mars, as I mentioned, there's rocket technology but what really needs to be developed - the key invention that's necessary - is a rapidly and completely reusable rocket. This is a very difficult thing to do on Earth because Earth's gravity is quite high. It's right on the cusp of impossibility for such a thing for a chemical rocket. So if you take an expendable rocket, even after a lot of smart people are using advanced materials, and really approaching the limits of engine efficiency and everything, you'll typically get 2 to 3% of your liftoff mass to orbit. That's for an expendable rocket. Now, if you say okay, we want to make it reusable, we want to bring it back to the launch site, it's gotta survive the rigors of reentry, all the systems have got to be capable of surviving multiple firings and thermal fatigue and it's just really - you add a lot of mass when that happens. Previously, when people have tried to make a reusable system, they found that they would get some portion of the way and conclude that success was not one of the possible outcomes.

In government programs, of course, that program will still continue for quite some time. It's funny but true. The real trick then, is to say can you create a rocket that is efficient enough that, in an expendable form, you can push that, what would normally be 2 to 3% of mass to orbit, up to maybe 4% of mass to orbit and then if then you can get really good about the reusable elements, maybe that can only cost you 2 of those four points. So on net, you would still get 2%, roughly, of your liftoff mass to orbit. That's the thing that needs to happen. In order for that to happen, you have to really get straight A across the board in all elements of the rocket design. Every little tiny thing. The engine efficiency, thrust to weight, the engine, the tank mass, the pressurant mass, the secondary structure, the wiring, the weight of the computers, everything matters immensely. But if you do all those things right, then it is possible to make this work, and this is what has given me hope recently in the last few years. Because I wasn't sure whether it was possible, but in the last few years I've become convinced that it is possible. Of course, just because something is possible doesn't mean it will occur, but I think it can occur. Success being one of the possible outcomes is very important.

That's the breakthrough that SpaceX is really trying to achieve. The stuff we've done so far is good, I think it's - but it's evolutionary, it's not revolutionary, and we really need the revolutionary thing to work. So I think over the next few years we'll see if we're going to be able to do that rapid and reusability thing. But I am quite optimistic that this will occur. I don't want to leave any doubt, I'm quite optimistic that it will occur.

That's for Earth orbit, now to establish life on Mars, I think you really ultimately need to be able to carry millions of people there and millions of tons of cargo. You really need a fully reusable Mars transportation system, which is yet a more difficult step than creating a fully reusable Earth system, and that I was really worried would not be possible. But, last year, I became convinced that it actually is possible. Which made me very happy actually. In fact, I think Talulah was there when I was pacing around the bedroom late at night trying to see if this would work.

Yeah, so that's good news. Now, I could be deluded. But unless I'm deluded, I think we've got something in mind that would be a solution that would work. It really comes down to a cost. What cost does a trip to Mars have to be in order for it to be a self-sustaining reaction? I think you've got to roughly get to around half a million dollars. If people could pay half a million dollars to move to Mars, sell all their stuff on Earth, because you don't need it, then you could move to Mars, then I think that could work because that's basically the net worth of a roughly middle income earning person after about 25 years in the United States is roughly half a million dollars. In fact, it's kinda hard to buy a house in southern California for half a million dollars in a lot of neighborhoods. So I think at roughly that level is where it works. That's where we've got to get to, and my calculations show that it should be possible.

In fact, it is possible, according to me.. but there's a great deal of work that has to occur to make it a reality.

So that, I think, is a reason to feel good about the possibility of life on Mars. I think that's probably what I'd like to leave you with, and in the ensuing years we will reveal more and more about what we're going to do, and there will probably be some ups and downs along the way, but I can finally see a path to that objective.

Like I said, so long as I'm not delusion or haven't made some significant error then I think that will hopefully come as good news to people in this room.

Thank you.

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