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Shit Elon Says - Transcript - SpaceX Dragon 2 Unveil Q&A

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We're planning to do a Dragon v2 abort test where Dragon v2 will take off from, essentially launch vehicle height, so it simulates something going wrong on the launch pad. The astronauts are just about to take off, it's maybe a few seconds before liftoff, and there's a fire on the launchpad, you need to make sure that the spacecraft can fire the SuperDracos, get to a safe altitude, and then take the astronauts to safety. That test is due to occur later this year, then next year we expect to do what's called the high altitude abort test. That's where we launch the rocket, it's at a very high altitude, very quickly, at something called Max-Q which is the maximum dynamic air pressure, and then we want to initiate an abort. This is considered the hardest time to do an abort. Obviously, these are tests, so they could go wrong. That high altitude abort test is due to occur next year. Conceivably we could do the first flight to orbit, and we'd initially do it without people, at the end of next year, and then the first flight with people, in 2016 we think is very achievable.

I don't think we need to send any monkeys. One funny little - even with Dragon version one, we actually do have a moderate life support system in Dragon version one, and sort of a fun thing that I think is happening on the next mission to the space station is that we're going to be carrying 40 mice. The mousetronaut mission is going to be happening fairly soon. With Dragon version two, we'll actually test the life support system, so even when it's unmanned we'll simulate the output of a person. So, like the CO2 output and the water vapor and what-not, will all be simulated. We'll have crash test dummies and that kind of thing, but in terms of the first people, I think approximately two years from now.

I think we're in somewhat of an ignominious situation here. It's not really the fact that Russia is taunting the United States, for lack of manned access to space, but they're also massively overcharging. I think it's gone even above $70M, I think it's sort of $76M/seat that the Russians are charging. The quote that we've provided NASA would allow the cost per astronaut to be potentially less than $20M, and that assumes a low flight rate. In a high flight rate it could potentially get to the single digit millions.

I think it is - we are in a very questionable situation that a lot of the national security launches being done by United Launch Alliance dependent upon Russian engines and the Russian deputy prime minister is threatening to withhold those engines. Which, obviously, is not a good position to be in. I think, from a SpaceX standpoint, we stand ready to support the US air force and intelligence missions with our Falcon 9 rocket and we look forward to launching a lot of satellites for the defense department and the intelligence agencies and eliminating that Russian dependency.

I'd first like to say that I think, on balance, we have a great relationship with the air force. I think we have some strong differences of opinion with a few individuals, but with the vast majority of the air force we have very good relations.

Long term, we really want to get to the point where there can be thousands of space flights a year, and ultimately where we can have a base on the Moon and a base on Mars and become a multi-planet species and a true spacefaring civilization. That's where things need to go in the long term.

The thing that got me to start SpaceX was that I was disappointed that we'd not made progress beyond Apollo. There was this incredible dream of exploration that was ignited with Apollo and it seemed - it just felt as though the dream had died. Year over year, we did not see improvements in rocket technology and I kept expecting that we'd send people to Mars, that we'd have a base on the Moon and that the things that were projected in science fiction movies and books would come true, and they unfortunately did not. Even before starting SpaceX, I can tell you like my goal was to figure out how do we increase the NASA budget in order to make that happen. As I learnt more I discovered that unless we improve rocket technology, it's just not going to matter. We might do a small number of missions but that's not the thing that really changes Human destiny, the thing that really makes the big difference to humanity's future is, are we a spacefaring civilization? Are we a multi-planet species? That's the thing that makes all the difference in the world, because eventually, there will be something that happens on Earth - either a man-made or a natural calamity and humanity's history will fundamentally bifurcate - are we going to be the multi-planet species that is out there among the stars, or will be one of perhaps the many single planet species that never went anywhere and just eventually something terrible happened and that caused the end of that civilization.

My dream of space is that humanity becomes a multi-planet species. That we'd have a self-sustaining civilization on Mars and perhaps on the Moon and elsewhere in the solar system. Once you have that established, I think over time, that would create a forcing function for the continued improvement in spaceflight technology and eventually we'd even go beyond our solar system. To me, that's a really exciting, inspiring future and it's one to which we should aspire.

In terms of thousands of flights per year, I think probably 20 years.. for thousands of flights. I think we can probably get to the hundreds of flights level in about 12 to 15 years.

The biggest technology challenge for Dragon version two was the SuperDraco engine. That's an engine that has to produce a tremendous amount of thrust and yet be very light. It's also got to throttle over a wide range - from a very low throttle range, to a very high throttle range. It's got to be able to react very quickly. It was quite a tricky thing to develop. We are essentially - we're almost complete with that development.

It's really hard to reduce a complete rocket development program to a few soundbites.

One of the technologies that was "really critical to the development of the SuperDraco engine was the ability to do 3d metal printing", because it is quite a complex engine and was very difficult to form all the cooling channels and the injector head and the throttling mechanism, but being able to print very high strength advanced alloys, I think was crucial to being able to create the SuperDraco engine as it is.

I'm extremely confident in the SuperDraco engine. In fact, we've designed it to be super robust.

There's certainly a reduction of parts count in the SuperDraco engine because it's printed. In the normal way they have to make an engine is you have to machine a whole bunch of separate parts and then try to weld them together and so it makes it heavier, less robust and much more sensitive to make.

Who's 3d technology are we using? We're using a variety of printers. We use EOS, SLM and Concept. They're all German by the way. Germany's doing quite well on the 3d printing front.

I certainly didn't expect to be unveiling Dragon version two, ya know, looking back to 2008 and we still only had the Falcon 1 rocket and we were at really low stages of practical experience and morale after the second failure of our experimental rocket. Fortunately, things have come along since then but man, that was a super low point and I never expected to be up here on stage talking about version two of our spacecraft that can dock with the space station.

It's really difficult to comprehend. I find this a very nice fact of circumstance.

With SpaceX, fortunately, we are at positive cash flow and we have been for several years. So, we don't have to go public and unlike the case of, say Tesla and Solar City, "SpaceX has a very long term mission. We want to just keep improving our technology until there's a city on Mars. Well, that could take a long time." I think the public markets, I suspect that is beyond their normal time horizon.

How many flights can Dragon v2 fly without any refurbishment? We're aiming for ten flights without any significant refurbishment and then the thing that would have to be refurbished is the main heat shield, but that remains to be seen. The heat shield material is called PICA-X version three, which is a phenolic impregnated carbon ablator. With each version we've been able to reduce the amount of recession that occurs in the heat shield. You can think of the heat shield like it's a giant brake pad, basically. The better that material technology gets, the more uses it can go through - just like a brake pad on a car, eventually it does need to be replaced, but I think we can eventually get up to, maybe, 100 flights or something like that.

We're aiming for - what really matters in terms of the reusable elements of a vehicle, it has to be done rapidly. We want this to be able to fly the same day. So it has to be able to arrive and depart the same day.

"I'm trying to get back to my home planet, ya know."

"I think America is probably the only place where this would be possible, for a private company to get this far." We've been able to attract an incredibly talented team at SpaceX. We've got a brilliant team of engineers and technicians that really did the design and construction of this spacecraft. I think that having that critical mass of talent is really what's enabled me - if you can call it me, it's not really me, it's other people - but I think having that critical mass of technical talent is what has enabled us to get this far... and capital, certainly, I mean, in the case of SpaceX, I think something that was very helpful, coming out of PayPal I had a bunch of capital that I could spend developing rocket technology, even though I had no experience in rockets at all. If I'd tried to get funding from a venture capitalist, they would have been angry that I met with them, probably. Even in the best of circumstances, space is outside the comfort zone of most venture capitalists. Although, a few years - I think five years after starting the company was when the first venture capital came in. We raised some good partners there, and then about five or six years after the start of the company we started getting support from NASA and in the last several years NASA has really been crucial to our success. In fact, really I think this is something I should have mentioned on-stage, we really would not be where we are today without the help of NASA. That's an important acknowledgement.

If we don't win the next NASA contract, we'll do our best to continue the development and still make it happen.

I personally don't expect to leave California. Certainly, there are probably things California could do to make it easier to manufacture and do things here, but I think, overall, California has a lot to offer. I think the biggest thing about California is it's got a lot of really talented people. As long as the talented people are in California, I think California will do okay.

In terms of lessons learned from Dragon one, there's certainly a lot that we learned in every aspect of the vehicle - whether it's the heat shield technology, the Draco engine technology, orbital maneuvering, de-orbit and trying to achieve a precision reentry path through the high velocity entry, that's quite a difficult thing. Although Dragon version one lands with parachutes, before the parachutes open it actually is executing a very precise guided path with the engines firing during reentry.

Over time we expect Dragon version one to be phased out, but we're going to carry both of them in parallel for at least a few years.

Something that's worth noting is a lot of what is needed on a rocket or spacecraft is actually software. We actually hire a lot of our best software engineers out of the gaming industry. In fact, for myself, I started off when I was a kid - in terms of engineering, I wrote games, that was the thing that I did. I think, in gaming, there's a lot of smart engineering talent doing really complex things. In fact, I think a lot of the algorithms involved in a multi-player online game - compared to a lot of the math that's involved there, doing a docking sequence is actually relatively straight forward. I'd encourage people who are in the gaming industry to think about joining SpaceX and creating the next generation of spacecraft and rockets. Also, probably, in the future we'll create, like, droids on the surface of Mars and the Moon to do things like an automated propellant depot and that kind of thing. We sort of need those features to have a base on Mars.

I think I was just feeling really proud of my team for creating such an incredible piece of technology and also it just felt like here we have a shot to advance space technology and take things to the next level. To some degree, maybe this helps revive the dream of Apollo.

Well, cheaper is one way to say it, another way to say it is we're trying to make space accessible to everyone. We want it to be such that if you want to go to orbit or beyond, then you can do so. "We want to open up space for humanity, and in order to do that, space must be affordable."

[Question about big rockets.] I think today is not about those, but there'll be some future stuff.

[Question about going to space.] Well, it's certainly tempting to go up soon. I used to do lots of things that were personally risky, but now with kids and responsibilities, I do a lot less of that. I used to have, like a fighter jet and do all sorts of crazy stunts and I was like, I want to see my kids grow up and all that. I have responsibilities. I think it'll probably be a couple of years after the first astronaut crew goes up, maybe four or five years, I suppose. If the first crew flight is in roughly two years, then I'll probably go up a couple of years after that.

As far as the soft landing of the boost phase, it was interesting, when we got the corrupted video back, because we really actually had a real difficult time getting the telemetry. In fact, I'll tell you a funny thing. We actually had to - because normally we get the bulk of the telemetry from a boat. We also have a backup, an AP3 that was going to go up, and the P3 got iced up, the boats couldn't go out, so I sent my plane up with my pilots, and... we had to design and fabricate an antenna that exactly fit in the window of the plane. We started off with a pizza dish and we were able to do a double loop antenna with a pizza dish and point it out the window to get the link. The data came through really well but the video was corrupted because unfortunately when you compress video, it's hard to uncorrupt a compressed video because you actually have to figure out the compression algorithms and all these things, so we weren't able to get very far, but we put the video up online and then we crowd sourced the cleanup of the video and people did a really great job of fixing it. "I actually tweeted out a link to the latest thing. Mostly the people on the NASA Spaceflight forum were able to fix the video."

Yes, this will land on land. In fact, much like the video you saw. We want to land this back at Cape Canaveral ideally. Initially, we may land it somewhere else, but it's a normal condition landing. Except for emergency landing, all landings will be on land.

There was a little bit of water ingress from a pressure relief valve because it got dragged a bit through the ocean, so there was a pressure relief valve that got some water in it. To my understanding, none of the cargo was damaged, so it's okay.

The heat shield material is called PICA-X and it's version three. It was initially developed at NASA, the original version of PICA, for the Stardust mission and it's called phenolic impregnated carbon ablator and it's the highest heat flux material known to man. This can take more heat than any other material that anyone has ever developed. It was specifically developed for the Stardust mission, which was coming in from interplanetary velocity and was coming in at such a high speed that normal heat shield materials would not work, so they had to develop something new. We started with that as the base line and created a very tough PICA called PICA-X version one, and then with each successive mission we've experimented with improvements on the heat shield material. So we're now up to version two and we'll be flying version three on - version three of the PICA will be on version two of Dragon. I can't talk about the details of the technology because it's protected by ITAR.

It can take essentially seven passengers, if it's in that configuration, and I think, something around - if you really cram stuff in - about a ton of pressurized cargo and two to three tons of unpressurized cargo.

The first crew version will be driven by NASA, I think. [Question about SpaceX test pilots.] It really - we will defer to NASA in terms of the first people on-board. If NASA wants us to fly SpaceX test pilots we'll do that, otherwise we'll fly NASA astronauts. It will carry trunk cargo. As I said, it can carry up to a ton of internal cargo too.

There's the temperatures that it will sustain and there's the temperatures that it could sustain. The proper way to think of a heat shield material is watts per square centimeter and there's the peak heat flux and the sustained heat flux. The PICA-X version three is capable of over a kilowatt per square centimeter, which is a crazy lot and sustaining that for a long time. It's really driven not by the recession rate but by the conduction of the heat to the back of the tile where it could potentially damage the heat shield's support structure. A top temperature, well, I could estimate that pretty well, I'd say about five or six thousand degrees Fahrenheit, something like that. Top speed, it's going to be coming in at roughly 25 times the speed of sound, as a sort of rough point. It could probably handle twice that kinetic energy, maybe more.

Most of what you see here is flight hardware.

I'll give you some precision with respect to costs. In terms of what we've bid, it is contingent upon flight rate. If you assume four flights per year...

... touch screens, there are four of them in the vehicle, actually two pairs of two, I should say, the great thing about this is you can configure the interface to have a wide range of controls and a wide range of feedback and you can really have an almost infinite amount of information that you can access and any amount of control that you'd like, with a touch screen, as anyone who has used an iPad can attest. The range of things that you can use in that device is really unlimited. In the unlikely event of all the screens being destroyed, the critical functions will be controlled with manual buttons. In terms of manual chute deploy and reserve oxygen - backup system for any kind of life support, that stuff can all be controlled with manual buttons.

We will be using Tegras to power the screens. The Tegras power the screens, but not the spacecraft. From a SpaceX standpoint, we expect to be ready to transport crew in 2016 - about a year sooner than NASA needs it. I think NASA wants to be a little bit cautious about the timing of things. They don't want to count on us being there by 2016 but we feel fairly confident that the vehicle will be ready in two years.

[Question about other customers.] Well, Bob Bigelow I guess, he's here somewhere I think.

[Question about development cost.] You mean the Dragon spacecraft? You mean including version one and everything? Or just version one to version two? So far, it's probably been $400M or $500M and it'll probably be that amount more to get through first flight. Something on the order of a billion dollars.

For the spacecraft itself, it's going to be probably something on the order of 70% to 80% NASA funded, but for the rocket it's not NASA funded at all. The development of Falcon 1 and Falcon 9, all of that, that's 100% private. If you say, what's the total cost of development has been, including the rocket and the spacecraft, it's probably something closer to 50/50 NASA and private.

"No, we're not replacing NASA. NASA is our most important customer." I think there's always a role for NASA. There's always going to be things where there's no obvious way to commercialize something - think of something like the Hubble space telescope or the James Webb, or some of the exploratory probes that go to Mars and elsewhere, it's always going to be important for NASA to be doing those things because there's no obvious economic model for those things. I don't think we could find investors for them - an investment means there's an expectation of return.

First of all, I think anything - if you can 3d print something with sufficiently good material properties, then that's the easiest way to do it. Certainly, in the volumes of a rocket company, it's harder to make it work for a car company. In the case of the SuperDraco engine, we didn't in the very beginning anticipate being able to 3d print it. We actually tried a whole bunch of normal methods of making the engine and actually those did not have great success. Then we said, well, let's give 3d printing a try and see if it'd work. Initially, we thought of it as somewhat of a Hail Mary on the SuperDraco and actually it turned out to work super well.

Next launch, I think we're just double checking everything on the rocket and we expect to probably launch on June 10th or thereabouts. We had a helium leak. Helium is a pernicious little molecule, I've got to say. [Question about getting past helium.] Well yeah, so here I'll give you a little bit of a tidbit on the Mars vehicle which will be methane powered. Mars vehicle will be autogenously pressurized with methane and oxygen. So instead of helium pressurization - there's no helium on Mars. So, we'll gasify the liquid oxygen and liquid methane to pressurize their respective tanks. Looking forward to that. [Fully reusable?] Yes, absolutely. Fully reusable.

I'll take a couple more questions and then I'll have to bail out.

For any kind of low Earth orbit activity you essentially protected by the Earth's magnetic field, so the radiation that is dangerous is not super great - particularly for a short flight. We have improved the micrometeorite shielding. When you see the shielding on the outside, it's actually doing a lot of things. It's helping protect against high velocity alpha particles coming from the Sun and even other high velocity particles coming in, but it's also protecting against the heat of reentry and then it also has to be a micrometeorite shield. It's got better shields.

Oh, you're talking about the electronics. Yeah, absolutely. Bit flips. In fact, even with Dragon version one, technically Dragon version one is Dragon version 1.3 right now, arguably. The avionics of Dragon version one have gone through two major revisions, and on the last flight we saw no anomalies with electronics at all. There were no bit flips that weren't automatically and instantly corrected by the system. We've certainly learnt a lot, although it's not externally visible, it still looks the same on the outside, the electronics on the Dragons flying now are much more advanced than the first one.

[Question about SpaceX astronauts.] NASA is our customer really with Dragon version two. It'd be like someone buys a Model S and we're not going to be the one who says who drives it. If you buy the vehicle you get to say who's driving.

[Question about selling vs operating.] These will be operated on behalf of NASA.

NASA is our single largest customer, but if you look at the missions on our manifest, the NASA missions are, I think, 20% to 25% of our missions on manifest. Call it roughly a quarter of our missions are from NASA.

[Question about Texas launch site.] Yeah, I think the FAA just recently, maybe even today, gave the approval for the Texas launch site. So we're pretty excited about building that now. That's going to give us redundancy for any Eastern launches. We can reach the space station from Texas. I should say, we would only do so in emergencies, the default path for space station would be 39A, most likely. We could actually, a little harder, but we could reach it from Vandenberg too. It'd be a real coast hugger, but yeah. We'll actually be doing a lot more missions from Vandenberg, for example the new generation Iridium constellation will be launched from Vandenberg and that's, I think, at least eight missions. We expect to launch Falcon Heavy from Vandenberg as well. Although it does look like the first Heavy - we originally thought the first Heavy would go out of Vandenberg but it's now looking like the first Heavy will go out of the Cape from 39A.

Thank you everyone, and I appreciate you coming.

Yeah it was funny, friends of mine went back for a 20th reunion. I've been back. I've given a couple of talks at Penn.

It's a nice shot, it's a tall rocket. It's as skinny as I thought we could possibly make it. We stretched to it as long as .. [is that for road transport?] Yeah. It's twelve feet in diameter and when you add little bits and pieces, it gets out to almost 14 feet, and then we have to tuck the little bits and pieces in the corners because the key thing is that the total height above the road has got to be less than 14.5 feet. [Question about bigger rockets.] Need a boat. Or they've got to fly themselves. Not going to fit on the roads, that's for sure.

The hard points where the tanks and the parachutes and everything are mounted, there are these vertical blades that transfer load from the heat shield to the pressurized section. So, that's one of the factors and they don't quite line up, so we'd either have to add a lot of mass, so they'd really be symmetric or we could have it not be symmetric and not add extra mass. If the parachutes have deployed, the parachutes - like, do you see these strange lines? [Those are the shroud lines?] Yes, exactly. Behind the dragon here is where the main chute is, and then the drogues are at the top and you can see those lines basically go from where the drogues are to the mains. Where it's held, where the parachute lines attach, is just above where the hatch is, and so it actually comes in at an angle. It'll be coming in through the wind with lateral velocity, and you want the load to be taken up by the legs. You don't want it to land on one leg, because then one leg is going to take too much load. By having two legs closer together actually helps that too. It sort of takes the initial impact on those two rear legs and then onto the front.

[Question about Dragonfly.] Yeah, it'll look almost identical. We intend it to be a lot smokier, with the scorch marks and all, but it'll pretty much look like this. I'm really looking forward to that. It should be fun to see it hop around those pads.

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