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NASA at 50: Privitizing Space

SpaceX's Elon Musk
SpaceX's Elon Musk (Courtesy of SpaceX)

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Elon Musk
Founder, SpaceX
Friday, September 26, 2008; 11:30 AM

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, a private firm that is trying to get into the business of flying cargo -- and some day astronauts -- to the international space station and beyond, was online Friday, Sept. 26 at 11:30 a.m. to discuss the future of space exploration.

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He was joined by The Post's Marc Kaufman, who writes about NASA, space and science.

Musk is featured in Kaufman's story: Aiming for Stars, Entrepreneurs May Also Fill Gaps, which is part of a special report focused on NASA's 50th anniversary.

A transcript follows.

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Marc Kaufman: We will be chatting today with Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX (and several other companies.) His program is by all accounts the furthest along of any private efforts to launch cargo and eventually humans into space, and a lot appears to be riding on his rockets and capsules. I understand there will be another test launch of his Falcon 1 coming up soon, perhaps as early as Sunday.

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Marc Kaufman: We're having a little technical trouble, but should have Elon online soon. Thanks for holding on.

Of note, the Senate yesterday passed legislation that could extend the life of the space shuttle, while the House earlier passed a bill that would allow NASA to contract with the Russian space agency to ferry astronauts to the space station between 2011 and 2015, when there are no current plans for American transport. The wild card, of course, is whether Elon Musk and SpaceX can also play a role in filling that gap.

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Cocoa Beach, Fla.: Elon, do you think that in the future, private space companies will work in collaboration with NASA more?

Elon Musk: Yes, that is already happening to an increasing degree. Depends of course on how future administrations view private companies. Public support of this direction is critical.

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Washington, D.C.: If and when you manage to get all the Falcons and Dragon up and running, what's next? Further incremental improvements on these or something more revolutionary? Also, where do you stand on the value of the various X-prizes (and equivalents)?

Elon Musk: Still a long way to getting *all* the Falcons and Dragons flying. We need to get F1 to orbit for one thing :) Then F9, F9 with Cargo Dragon, F9 with crew Drago and F9 Heavy. My interest is very much in the direction of Mars, so a Mars lander of some kind might be the next step.

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South Riding, Va.: I was born in 1972 at the tail end of the Apollo program and wanted to be an astronaut until the Challenger accident which I remember watching in junior high. It doesn't seem like the U.S. government has been making any real progress towards a return to space so I hope that programs like yours can be successful and keep the US at the top of the space race.

Why is space such a difficult challenge? With today's computers and other technologies, I would think it would be easy to make the work of the 1960s and 1970s look like childsplay. Are you able to leverage the work done in the past or are you designing the new equipment from scratch?

Marc Kaufman: I'm responding for Elon, who is still having a bit of technical trouble -- though I'm told he will be answering soon. The way space travel has been explained to me is that one million things have to go right for a launch to succeed, and so it's easy to have a problem. But once the rocket system as a hole launches successfully, then it can generally be copied well without much problem. Hopefully that's what will happen with Falcon 1, and then the real rocket -- Falcon 9. SpaceX says that the difficulties so far are manageable and they expect a successful launch soon. We should know if they're correct in the near future.

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Washington, D.C.: Should not NASA be funding research to make Space Solar Power possible in this time of energy crisis as they did in the 1970's?

Elon Musk: No, I don't believe in space solar power. It will never be competitive with ground solar power. The cost of converting the electron energy to photon energy and then back again on the ground overwhelms the 2X increase in solar incidence. And that's before you consider the cost of transporting the solar panels and converters to orbit!

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think of the future of Space Solar Power, especially built with Lunar Materials?

Elon Musk: Only good for people living on the Moon.

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Akron, Ohio: I know that SpaceX has plenty on its plate right now. However, any thoughts on using your techology after you go public on the construction of a Space Elevator? Private or Public?

Elon Musk: It will be a *long* time, if ever, before the economics of a space elevators make sense. Consider that no one has decided to build a bridge from New York to London and that would be way easier than building a space elevator.

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Stillwater, Minn.: Mr. Musk, first of all, I've been following SpaceX via your website since before Flight 1, and I hope to join you all someday (I'm an undergrad ChEg at Notre Dame). Talk about the inherent advantages of your rockets over those designed by Lockheed Martin and Boeing (reusability, smaller size = significantly smaller cost, redundancies on the Falcon 9, etc.)

Elon Musk: The full answer for why SpaceX is lower cost is too long for this forum and I don't like to give soundbite answers if they are incorrect. The cost of a single use rocket is:

* Engines

* Structures

* Avionics

* Launch operation

* Overhead

We are better on every one at SpaceX vs competitors -- by a factor of two vs most international and four vs domestic. That is before reuse is considered, which could ultimately be a 10X or more additional reduction.

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Marc Kaufman: A question nobody has asked, but I'll raise and try to give some answer.

SpaceX is one of two companies with contracts under the NASA COTS program to develop launch and delivery capability to the international space station. Elon has told me (and NASA) that he expects to have cargo transport capability by 2010, and that he could have crew transport a year or two later. But to do that, he would need some additional COTS funding -- described in the initial Space Act agreement that set up COTS -- to make Falcon 9 human rated. But NASA has not made the funds available to this point, because it has its own budget problems and because, as Mike Griffin told me, he's not sure yet that SpaceX will succeed (though he very much wants it to.)

The additional funds would be needed to develop and build the crew launch abort mechanism, and would entail about $300 million. There have been some efforts in Congress to force NASA's hand regarding this aspect of COTS funding, but no success at this point.

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Baltimore, Md.: Elon,

Huge fan of yours and wish you great success with Tesla, Solar City and Space X. Not to jump too far ahead but when you start having success with Falcon 9/Dragon, do you have astronauts in place to launch and when would be the potential timetable for that?

Elon Musk: SpaceX astronauts will be picked from among SpaceX employees that are able to fix potential problems in space. To the extent that we have more candidates than spots, it will be a function of who has made the greatest contribution to the company.

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Freising, Germany: Gosh, PayPal seems so earthbound compared to space travel.

I was wondering how you came up with the idea for your venture and how you managed to persuade investors and employees to join your venture. I imagine that top notch aerospace experts don't just grow on trees.

Also, do you think that manned space flight is important for the cargo business?

Elon Musk: Fortunately, I had sufficient capital from PayPal and Zip2 to fund SpaceX personally. It was also those prior successes that gave me enough business and, to some extent, technical credibility to attract top technical talent. Also, I had worked informally with several of the key engineers for a few months before starting SpaceX on a detailed technical feasibility study for a US launcher. That gave them a sense for what it was like working with me on technology development. My physics background was very helpful.

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Cocoa Beach, Fla.: Congress mistakenly took the first step towards extending the shuttle program. Anyone in the know is aware that this is impossible given the cost of re-certification. Why then is this being supported at any level. Why isn't Congress saying anything about privatizing our space effort?

Marc Kaufman: Congress has put up some money for privatizing the space effort, and SpaceX has indeed been the main beneficiary. I think that Congress and NASA are waiting for a successful launch before going more deeply into expanding the privatizing.

Those initial steps taken by Congress regarding extending the shuttle program are a reflection of just how strongly people feel about the five-year gap, during which there are no current clear alternatives to paying Russia for Soyuz transport. Extending the shuttle could close some of that gap, and could also allow some very expensive and promising equipment--now absent from the rest of the shuttle manifests- to be delivered to the station. One grounded, $1.5 billion piece of equipment in particular has become very controversial because scores of institutioins and national space agencies helped pay for it.

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Rockville, Md.: Mr. Musk, a few years ago I first read about you in a magazine - it was about your founding of Tesla Motors. The article stated that you owned a retired military airplane.

Can you describe the plane and do you pilot planes regularly?

James

P.S. - Congratulations on Tesla's success; I hope that you all will have a dealership in the DC area someday soon!

Elon Musk: Sadly, I don't pilot myself any more, but do have a (lapsed) multi-engine IFR rating. I have to work when I fly and have too many thoughts in my head to pay the necessary attention to the plane -- I can be absentminded at times, which is a really bad habit for a pilot.

Used to fly an L-39, Piper Meridian and Citation CJ2.

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Washington, D.C.: Are there any plans to launch a Mr. Yogato in space in the future?

Elon Musk: maybe some day :)

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Cocoa Beach, Calif.: After you fly the American Astronauts a few time successfully, are you going to start giving the rest of us a ride. We'd pay you of course.

Elon Musk: Definitely. My goal is to open up space and make it something that the average person (if they save up a lot) can travel to.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Elon. I applaud your vision and efforts towards greener travel on earth -- Tesla -- and of course towards human space exploration. Do you have an estimate of when the common person will be able to take advantage of the fruits of the SpaceX program? Thanks so much! -Eric

Elon Musk: Depends on how common. If we can make reusability work well, I think we can get the cost per person to orbit down to a few million dollars within eight to ten years. If reusability works well and demand is strong, so that we can distribute overhead over a large number of launches, it could one day get to under $1M.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Elon: What's the latest news on Flight 4?

Elon Musk: Launch window is still holding for Sunday through Tuesday.

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Arlington, Va. 22207: Whatever happened to heavy lifter concept that all one had to do was to use large manned if necessary lifter vehicles to carry cargo or whatever into high speed (5,000 mph) 50 mile high insertion profiles. Lifter vehicles then return to earth or water using simple low cost glide systems?

Elon Musk:5000 mph and 50 miles is still a long way from orbit. If you are talking about having a hypersonic airbreathing first stage, I am pretty sure it is much worse than a rocket first stage. Von Braun and others were aware of this as an option and chose to to avoid it. I am quite sure they were right.

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Washington D.C.: Has any cooperation or collaboration been established between SpaceX and the Defense community to avoid interferences or conflicts of interest?

Elon Musk: Our first three Falcon 1 flights were bought by the DoD (although all development costs were paid by SpaceX) and we will certainly do that again. The DoD has been and will be a great customer for us. I am a big fan of the US military :)

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San Diego, Calif.: Elon, many of us are very excited about your efforts and wish SpaceX the best. There has been much academic hand-wringing about the loss of intellectual capital in the "hard" engineering and aerospace fields. What type of public policy measures can get young people to return to the aerospace industry? Do think a lack of a truly inspirational space program is at fault?

Elon Musk: I think we need to change the legislative structure to make the law profession less appealing. That's not easy given that there are more lawyers in Congress than any other profession! (insert lawyer joke)

A truly great goal in space would certainly help draw truly great talent to space. That's why I'm such a big proponent of settling Mars with life. It's arguably the biggest goal of any kind that humanity could attempt to achieve, as it is a goal that is significant on the evolutionary scale of life itself.

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Baltimore, Md.: Do you see profits in space for private enterprise apart from contracting with governments?

Elon Musk: Yes, absolutely. Three of the seven Falcon 9 launches that SpaceX has on contract are with commercial companies. I'm highly confident that commmercial with be a majority of our business in the long term, with govt probably being about 1/3.

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Urbana, Ill.: Right now you have two rockets based on the same first-stage engine (Merlin). To launch Falcon 9 Heavy, you'll need 27 of those engines to fire simultaneously. Do you have any plans to develop a larger engine in the future so that such clustering is not necessary?

Elon Musk: Yeah, I think there is an argument for a really really big Falcon engine or BFE, as we call it :)

That would be equal or greater to the thrust of 27 Merlin 1C engines. Would be exciting to see that fire! On the other hand, lots of small engines can give very high reliability. Google uses lots of small PC computers for their search service and it has never ever gone down.

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arlington, Vaa. 22207: I have a son at the AFA majoring in physics who's hobby is skydiving. It's simple for him to pinpoint land his 200 lbs using 200 sq feet of synthetic material from 12000 feet. Can his talents be useful at your company?

Elon Musk: With talent like that, of course!

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Long Island, N.Y.: Elon. I read a while back you are sizing the Dragon heat shield for lunar return. Is this true? If so, would it be possible to put a Dragon on a F9-Heavy for a loop around the moon and back to carry paying tourists? Just curious. Thanks.

Elon Musk: Dragon is intended for low Earth orbit operations, although it is conceivable that a loop around the Moon could be done at some point. They have also looked at doing that for Soyuz.

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Bethesda, Md.: SpaceX has launched Falcon 1 three times, but has never reached orbit. I understand you are confident you will soon succeed, but I wonder what gives you that confidence? Rocket science, after all, is very hard.

Elon Musk: It is very hard indeed. There is a reason there are ideomatic expressions about the difficulty of rockets.

This is something that is very important to do, so confidence or the lack therof is not a consideration. It simply must be done.

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Calistoga, Calif.: Elon,

Your business plan emphasis low man power as cost savings method, how does NASA documentation requirements impact your man power requirements? In other words, how many of SpaceX staff are on board solely to deal with NASA requirements?

Elon Musk: The documentation does add to the cost per flight, perhaps on the order of 25% or so. However, the NASA people we deal with seem genuinely interested in reducing that cost (without affecting reliability, of course). Since we are not a cost plus contractor, we are incented towards efficiency, much like an airline.

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Baltimore, Md.: Elon,

Do you plan to fly on Dragon one day?

Elon Musk: Yes, although it will probably be several years in the future.

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Marc Kaufman: Many thanks for all your questions. Elon has to run because, not surprisingly, he's a very busy man. We wish him luck.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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