Skip to content

Instantly share code, notes, and snippets.

What would you like to do?
SATELLITE 2020 Elon Interview

Elon SATELLITE 2020 Interview


Interviewer: Hi everybody! Welcome to SATELLITE 2020. [applause] Sorry we got off to a late start, DC traffic is a killer. But my name is Jeffery Hill. I'm the conference chair, and I'm here with Elon Musk, Chief Engineer and Founder of SpaceX. Elon, thank you so much for being with us.

Elon: Thanks. Thanks for having me. I guess it was eleven years ago that we met.

Interviewer: Yeah! And when we met eleven years ago, we were talking about Falcon 1, Falcon 9 at the time. And when I asked you what's the point of all this, you said to send human beings back into space on a US built rocket, from a US built facility, so that we could permanently resettle other planets. And here we are, we're right on the brink here of sending humans back into space. The Crew Dragon is in Cape Canaveral. How do you feel, that you're on the doorstep here?

Elon: Yeah, it's great that we're about to launch people to orbit. It's been a long time.

Interviewer: Long road.

Elon: 18 years. The kid could be in college by now.

Interviewer: Is it like sending your kid off to college?

Elon: Well, we haven't done it yet, but it's a long time.

Interviewer: You're packing the bags. You're ready to go. Talk about the road from the Space Shuttle to the Crew Dragon. What are some of the challenges that you faced in creating a human-rated spacecraft, for human spaceflight. What were some of the challenges that you encountered along the way?

Elon: Well the thing that concerns me most right now is that unless we improve our rate of innovation dramatically, then there is no chance of a base on the moon or a city on Mars. Yeah. This is my biggest concern. Crew Dragon was, we've already taken it to the space station and back. A lot of people aren't aware of that. We just had like, basically a dummy, you know? And since then, we've done a massive amount of testing, pushing all the corner cases. Just a truly ridiculous amount of testing. Definitely, my hat is off to the Dragon engineers and the supporting team at NASA for going through a truly staggering number of tests. Now, that said, Dragon really is just a low Earth orbit transport vehicle. It's capable of taking a few people at what is still a very high cost, to Earth orbit. I mean, technically we could send people around the moon on Dragon, but I'm not sure we'd want to. It's too small. So it's good to get this done, but I think we need to be very careful of getting stuck in a local maximum. And you know, the Space Shuttle was something that was really stuck in a local maximum for a long time. And yeah, we don't want to be in that situation. I mean, frankly, why does Soyuz still fly? I mean Korolev is probably turning in his grave right now. It was designed in the 50s. If you told Korolev and the other guys that we'd still be flying the Soyuz in 2020 they'd be like, that's crazy. And yet we are. So we don't want to be in that situation. It's a solid vehicle, it's just like, it's time to move on.

Interviewer: Right. I know we started late. I sourced a lot of these questions from the public and the audience. We're also going to do a Q&A here. So I'm just going to jump right in to the questions that we received. So the most popular question we got was, what are the biggest challenges we face in expanding our presence in space and exploring and eventually resettling new worlds?

Elon: There's really just one thing that matters, that is a fully and rapidly reusable rocket. That's the one thing that matters. And it needs to be reasonably big or your payload to non-payload ratio will be kind of whacked. It won't be good. So just like you wouldn't want a supertanker, like you know, container ships. You have a container ship with thousands of containers. You don't have a bunch of tiny ships with little outboards on them cruising across the Pacific. That would be silly. So you have big ships when you want to go long distances with serious cargo. So we need a fairly big but definitely rapidly and completely reusable rocket. This is the fundamental thing. Without that, we're going nowhere.

Interviewer: And what level of reusability is SpaceX actively pursuing for Falcon 9, for Dragon, for Starship?

Elon: I think Falcon 9 and Dragon have, their technology architecture is asymptoting. Meaning that it really would not make sense to have a Block 6 Falcon 9. You know, from where we are right now. It just doesn't make sense. That's why we have a big focus in terms of new technology development on Starship. Falcon and Dragon are kind of like operational vehicles at this point, so they're good products, they're operational. But there's not really, we need a whole new architecture. And that's what Starship is about.

And Starship needs to be fully and completely reusable, and rapidly so. I mean, it's being designed to be relaunched an hour after landing. With zero nominal work. You could have scheduled maintenance. Or you could have something like a [squawk issue?], just like commercial aircraft. But the only thing you expect to change on a regular basis is propellant. And it's got to be fast.

Now for the ship, unless you're launching due east from the equator, you've got to figure out some way to get the ship orbital ground track to pass over the landing site. Otherwise you're too far away. So the ship may be, it might take three orbits, four orbits maybe, to get back over the launch site. But I think we want to aim for a capability of three flights a day for the ship. Most of which is taken up with getting the orbital ground track to come over the launch site. And then an hour for everything else.

Interviewer: You know, everybody's interested in the mission to Mars. Planetary resettlement. We're talking about reusability for the launch vehicle. What are your thoughts about In-Space Resource Utilization, for example water, oxygen, soil, from the moon perhaps, maybe to go to Mars? Do you have any plans to utilize resources in-space for the mission to Mars?

Elon: Nope. I mean, apart from orbital refilling. That's very important. So besides a fully and rapidly reusable rocket, you need to also have orbital refilling, or retanking. That's fundamental. Because then you can essentially recoup all of your mass fraction, delta-v, in Earth orbit. You can leave with full tanks. And it could be from low Earth orbit, or something that's maybe elliptical, or something like that, if you want to go higher energy. But that's crucial for getting to Mars. The moon is neither here nor there. I mean, using the moon would be like, okay, if you want to cross the Atlantic, maybe you want to go to Iceland? Probably not. To visit, sure. But it's not like a mandatory stop.

Interviewer: And also for the mission to Mars, what advancements, we talk a lot about hardware and physics problems, what about advancements in software? You know, the reason I bring this up, recently, are you familiar with the game designer Jonathan Blow? He referenced you in a keynote he was giving [ ] and he said that, you had talked about, technology naturally decays. Because skills naturally fade. And one of the things he identified was decay in software. Degradation in software. Is this something we have to address in doing something like going to Mars? Since all of this stuff runs on software?

Elon: Well, software is an increasing part of any piece of technology. I mean, Tesla, the car is extremely configurable. It's basically like a laptop on wheels. So software matters enormously there. And really, for example, for full autonomy, the only gating factor is software. The hardware is all there that's required, it has been for the last couple of years. Well the final piece of hardware was upgrading the computer to have more compute power. So software is extremely important. The point you're alluding to, that I was referring to, is that technology does not automatically improve. People are used to the phone being better every year. Although, I'm an iPhone user and some of the recent software updates have been like, not great. Certainly feeding into that point. It like broke my email system. Something quite fundamental.

There sure is a lot of software out there. And some of it's like, the people that wrote it are retired or maybe dead. And so now, how do you fix it. It can be an issue. I think we definitely need a lot more smart people to work in software. And not just troubleshooting old problems. It's actually very important to retire old codebases and not just maintain them forever. Because the difficulty of maintaining them becomes extremely high. At a certain point you've just got to redo the codebase.

Interviewer: So we'll come back to the Mars mission, because I know we've got some audience questions on that. You know, we're at a satellite conference. So I'm going to ask you some questions about satellites. Starlink. What's the long term vision for Starlink? How do you see the role of Starlink as it relates to mobile broadband and 5G?

Elon: Sure. I mean, the whole purpose of SpaceX is really to help make life multi-planetary. But the revenue potential of launching satellites, servicing the space station and whatnot, that taps out around $3 billion dollars a year. But I think providing broadband is more like an order of magnitude more than that, probably $30 billion a year. As a rough approximation. And we're still probably below five percent at that point. I want to be clear, it's not like Starlink is some huge threat to telcos. I want to be super clear. It is not. In fact, it will be helpful to telcos, because Starlink will serve the hardest to serve customers that telcos otherwise have trouble doing with landlines or even with cell towers. 5G is great for high density situations. Like being here in DC, or New York, San Francisco, that kind of thing. But it's actually not great for the countryside. For rural areas, it's not great. You need range. And so any kind of sparse environment, 5G is really not well-suited. But it's great for city density situations. So Starlink will effectively serve the three or four percent hardest to reach customers for telcos. Or people who simply have no connectivity right now. Or the connectivity is really bad. So I think it will be actually helpful and take a significant load off of the traditional telcos.

Interviewer: And I was going to ask you what customers were ideally suited for Starlink, but since you mentioned that it would be this three to four percent at the very edge, what is the customer experience like then, for those people? What's the cost of acquiring the services?

Elon: Well, it should be a good experience, because it will be very low latency. We're targeting latency below 20ms. So somebody could play a fast-response video game at a competitive level. That's the threshold for latency. So bandwidth, bandwidth is a very complex question, but let's just say somebody will be able to watch high-def movies, play video games, and do all the things they want to do, without noticing speed. And then, the challenge for anything that is space-based, is the size of the cell is gigantic. Like I said, it's great for very low to maybe medium sparsity situations, but it's not good for high-density situations. We'll have some small number of customers in LA, but we can't do a lot of customers in LA because the bandwidth per cell is simply not high enough.

Interviewer: What does the equipment on the ground look like for this?

Elon: So the ground equipment just looks like, like I said, I think it looks like a little UFO on a stick. At least the version one of the user terminal will have actuators on it, so that it can improve the pointing accuracy. It's very important that you don't need a specialist to install. The goal is that the instructions on the box, there's just two instructions and they can be done in either order. Point at sky. Plug in. Do it either order. Sequence doesn't matter. And it will work.

Interviewer: Plug and play.

Elon: Literally. Also point at sky. If you can't see the satellites, it can't see you.

Interviewer: I just want to talk about some of the design concerns that were raised by astronomers. Can you talk a little bit about how you're working with astronomers to maybe alleviate those concerns? Are you working on the design or altering it? Or are the concerns overblown? How do you feel about what has been raised?

Elon: I am confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries. Zero. That's my prediction. We'll take corrective action if it's above zero.

Interviewer: So you're not giving Orion a hat or anything like that? Everything's...

Elon: No. I mean, some of those people get a little excited because when the satellites are first launched, they're tumbling a little bit. So they're going to blink, because they haven't stabilized. And they're raising their orbits, so they're lower than you'd expect, and they're necessarily going to reflect in ways that is not the case when they're on orbit. Now that the satellites are on orbit, I would be impressed if somebody can actually tell me where all of them are. I've not met someone who can tell me where all of them are. Not even one person. So it can't be that big of a deal.

But to be clear, we are actually working with senior members of the science community and a team of astronomers to minimize the potential for reflection of the satellites. So you know, we're running a bunch of experiments to just, you know, paint the phased array antenna black instead of white, and we're working on a sunshade. Because there are certain angles that, if the sun gets just right, and there's not like, a little sunshade, we're not talking about a lot here, then you can get a reflection. And so we're launching a sunshade. Changing the color of the satellites, and otherwise minimizing the potential for any impact. Even aesthetically, there should not be an impact, I think.

Interviewer: Recently, Gwynne Shotwell was quoted in Bloomberg as saying that you were exploring splitting Starlink from SpaceX. Could you talk a little bit about that, why that would happen. How you see both of these independent companies functioning, and just talk a little bit about that?

Elon: We're thinking about that zero.

Interviewer: I'm sorry, you're thinking about that what?

Elon: Zero.

Interviewer: Zero?

Elon: Zero.

Interviewer: Not thinking about that at all?

Elon: We need to make the thing work. It's far from obvious that, I mean, it's real important to just set the stage here for LEO communications constellations. Guess how many LEO constellations didn't go bankrupt? Zero. Zero. You know, Iridium's doing okay now, but Iridium 1 went bankrupt. Orbcomm went bankrupt. Globalstar bankrupt. Teledesic bankrupt. Am I leaving anyone out? There's a bunch of others that didn't get very far that also went bankrupt. Anyway, they all went bankrupt.

Interviewer: So you're focusing on making it work first?

Elon: And not bankrupt. That would be a big step. To have like, more than zero in the "not bankrupt" category.

Interviewer: But how does it work then with the business of SpaceX? Because you are launching other constellations. Is that an issue? Does that cause a conflict?

Elon: We're launching other constellations?

Interviewer: You're launching other satellites.

Elon: Oh yeah, sure. Whatever. Yeah. No problem. Of course. We're even giving them a good deal. Like, no problem. You want to launch a constellation on SpaceX? Sounds good to me. I mean, the world seems to have an insatiable appetite for bandwidth. So we're certainly happy to launch other satellites, and we don't think Starlink is going to destroy all other satellites or something like that. Definitely not. We just want to be in the "not bankrupt" category. That's our goal.

Interviewer: Since you're now, the company of SpaceX, you're building and launching satellites. Are you looking at expanding the business of SpaceX into other areas of commercial satellite connectivity. Maybe like, we talked a bit about, you're already building technology on the ground. Are there other areas that you're looking to get into in terms of commercial space connectivity or satellite services?

Elon: No, there's just two major new technology programs at SpaceX. That's Starlink and Starship. It kind of has Star in the name a bit too much. Maybe we should have just called it Link and Ship. If you divide the one by the other. The Stars net out, and then it's just Link and Ship. That's it. As far as I know. There may be some secret project that's so secret even I don't know about it. I don't think there's anything major.

Interviewer: So, I want to give time for people in the audience to ask some questions, but we talked about Starship. So development at Boca Chica is moving along pretty quickly.

Elon: Yeah, actually that was the real reason I was late. It's because I was at Boca Chica. My apologies. I was just working on Starship with the team there. It's pretty cool out there, actually. I like it.

Interviewer: Can you tell us a little bit about the work that's underway, what we can expect in the future for Starship?

Elon: Well we're building up a production line. The production line is the hard part. You know, making one of something, you know, at this point, frankly, designing rockets is not that hard. Especially if it's an expendable rocket. It's just not really a hard problem. You can literally read books that'll tell you exactly how to do it. The hard part is now, actually building that thing even once is hard. And then building a production line is a thousand percent harder. Like at least a thousand percent harder. Maybe more. So just in general, production and manufacturing is underappreciated. I think especially in the US, frankly. So we should really pay a lot more attention and care a lot more about manufacturing. This is an honest day's work, let me tell ya.

Interviewer: So what inspired some of the design aesthetics of the spacecraft. I mean, it's stainless steel. It's a striking design for a spacecraft. What inspired your vision for the way it looks, the way it functions? Like, why stainless steel?

Elon: Well, we were going to make it out of advanced composites. And the advanced composites, they cost like $60 a kilogram, a little more than that, maybe $130 a pound. And there were 60 to 120 plies for the tank. It was taking forever. We weren't making good progress. It cost crazy money. And I was like, okay, switching to aluminum/lithium is also a pain in the neck. That's what we use for the Falcon 9 tanks. Because it's hard to weld because of the reactivity of the lithium. So, you know what's easy to weld? Steel. Steel is really easy to weld. And stainless steel doesn't even require paint. That sounds great, because the paint shop's a pain the neck. You wanna try painting something that's going to drop to cryogenic temperatures and then bend a lot? It's like, forget it. That paint wants to come off like there's no tomorrow. It does not like to stick. So then you go use special paint. And then the special paint also can't get, like, when you're going vertically at supersonic, you get static electricity buildup called triboelectrification. Although that always reminds me of The Trouble with Tribbles. But you can basically zap yourself if you have the wrong paint. Listen, no paint is great. Because we'd need a friggin big ass paint job for Starship.

Interviewer: One less problem.

Elon: One less problem. And paint doesn't weigh zero. You know, they used to paint the shuttle External Tank white, but then they're like, we're adding a lot of weight to this thing. And it's a big pain in the neck, so we'll just have it stay orange. So just not painting it is great.

Elon: And we're not the first to use steel. Like, they used 301 in the early Atlas program. Charlie Bossart, I think it was his idea. There were obviously other people involved. Charlie Bossart, by the way, that guy is underappreciated. He kicks ass. He's really great. You should read about his stuff. He's awesome. So, he used 301. So obviously it's not a new alloy. I think we're going to start switching to a new alloy pretty soon. And then just tweak the alloy constituents. Because we should be able to do better in 2020 than they did in like, the 50s. I mean, come on. So I think we'll probably start switching away from 301 maybe in the next month or two.

Now, the funny thing is I actually knew that steel, especially 301 full hard steel, couldn't be that heavy because the original Atlas had a very good mass fraction. Right? So it can't that bad. If you look at the normal standard material sheet for 301, it will usually not tell you that it work hardens dramatically. It improves the strength dramatically with work hardening. And also at cryogenic temperatures, it improves strength dramatically. So if you combine the work hardening with the cryogenic strength improvement, you get an effective strength to weight that is about the same as advanced composite. Now people will generally make a mistake with composites, because they'll look at the material sheet and not realize that with composites you've got to have a big knockdown. Because composites are string and glue. Let's say your problem calls for having four plies of carbon. You can't just have four plies, you need like five or six, just in case you damage one or something like that. And you have to say what's your worst case allowable for a debond or something like that. So the actually knockdown you end up taking for composites is more than you would for a metal structure. So people often, it's like a classic newbie mistake, to overrate carbon fiber. Because you look at the material data sheet and it looks like an obvious move, but it's not.

So at cryogenic temperatures, the steel has a de facto strength to weight about the same as advanced composite. But that's not even counting the fact that you have to paint the composite and you don't have to paint the steel. Then there's another factor, which is if you want to have a reusable vehicle, it's going to get hot. And composites don't like getting hot. So typically, your composite is comfortable around 150-200°C. Something like that. And things start getting pretty sketchy around 250°C. You start having to use advanced resins and all that kind of thing. Whereas steel's pretty happy at 1000°C. And no problem at 500°C. It can sit at 500°C all day. And brief periods of 1000°C, no problem. So then, for a reusable vehicle, you now need zero shielding on the leeward side. Normally you'd need some heat shielding just due to radiative heating on the back. So you don't have a lot of convective heating at hypersonic, but you have radiative heating. And then you can thin out the windward side of the heatshield, because the thickness of the heatshield tile is driven by the temperature on the backside of the tile where it mounts to the primary structure. So if your primary structure can take high heat, that means you can thin out the tile. Think of it like oven mitts or something. How hot can your hand go? And that sets how thick the oven mitt is. So then you can have, like I said, no heat shield on the leeward side and a thin heat shield on the windward side. So now your actual total mass, of a reusable steel spacecraft, is less than that of the most advanced carbon fiber vehicle that you could possibly imagine. This happened by accident, by the way. This may sound like some great insight, but it actually happened because we were moving too slowly on composite, and I was like, we cannot move this slowly or we'll go bankrupt. So do this with steel.

Interviewer: I mean, the design has to be focused on problem solving, otherwise you're going to spend too much time trying to figure out, if you don't start with a, yeah.

Elon: Yeah. I've sort of taken to management by rhyming. If the schedule is wrong, your design is wrong. Which is very true.

Interviewer: Right. With that, I want to go to some audience questions. We asked the audience, through the app, to submit us questions. So I believe we have a few that we pulled here. So we've got some over here. And can you come closer over here so we can see you? Alright, our first question.

Audience Q: Hello, I'm [Jaime Zundle?]. I'm a graduate student at Stanford. My question for you is, as you look back on your career in the space industry, what has been the most surprising or unexpected challenge that you faced. And along those lines, if you were to go back in time and talk to your 20 year old self, would you do anything differently?

Elon: I mean, I think I would make far fewer mistakes. Obviously, if I could go, here's a list of all the dumb things you're about to do, please do not do them. [laughter] I'd need a very long list. Here, let me write it down, or something. I mean, hindsight's 20/20. So it's hard to say. I mean, I've made so many foolish mistakes, I've lost count. I mean, some of these things, I just wish I'd... Like, that simple sort of mantra, management by rhyming, it worked for Homer, okay? Management by rhyming, that thing I was saying, if the schedule is long, the design is wrong. We've overcomplicated many times. And I think we should have just gone with a simpler design, with the acid test being, how long would it take for this to fly? And if it's going to take a long time, don't do it. Do something else. If you look at say, Falcon 9, it's got an aluminum/lithium tank. And the unpressurized structures are carbon fiber composite. And really, one of the worst possible things you could do to a joint is take something with a high coefficient of thermal expansion, a high CTE, take it from room temperature to cryo, and then connect it to something that has zero CTE. You know, basically zero, like carbon fiber. So now you've got a real pain in the ass joint, basically. So in order for that to work, the tank's got to shrink radially. And you've got these super expensive, heavy bolts that are like a [beam in ????], that are then taking load to the interstage. And they desperately want to sheer off. Or snap off. This is crazy. You really should just have a continuous metal structure. That's the obvious way that should be done, that'd be way better.

You know, things expand to fill the available resources. You should say no to things, but you don't. Like the original Falcon 1 team which did the fairing, tanks, engines, everything, was maybe a little over 100 people. Now SpaceX is like 6000 people, I think, something like that. So really just simplify your product as much as possible. And then, think of some of the ways, like, how does a smart engineer make dumb mistakes? You optimize something that shouldn't exist. Don't optimize something that shouldn't exist. People are trained to do this in college. You can't say no to the professor. The professor is going to give you the exam, and you've got to answer all of the questions. Or they will get angry and give you a bad grade. So you always answer the question. A lot of the times you should say this is the wrong question. In fact, the question is definitely wrong to some degree. It's just, how wrong? And I think just generally taking the approach that your design is some degree wrong, probably a lot more than you think. Your goal is to make it less wrong over time.

Interviewer: Let's go to another question.

Audience Q: Hi, my name is Julie Sevensage, and Mr. Musk, you have said in the past that you think that college degrees shouldn't be that important, and that has been shown in job listings such as Tesla, however in places like this industry, including even at SpaceX, in the satellite development area, many of the job listings say that you need at least a bachelor's degree and prefer at least a master's degree. So, my question to you is with more jobs asking for higher levels of degrees, while scholarships are not changing amounts and it's getting harder and harder every year to pay tuition, even with using scholarships, how can colleges and industries make it easier to afford college, but at the same time, being able to pay grad students and employees well, and also to make sure that there's a large-scale access to good colleges, especially to under-privileged communities so that everyone can be a part of the future we're building. Thank you.

Elon: Well, first of all, you don't need college to learn stuff. Okay? Everything is available basically for free. You can learn anything you want for free. It is not a question of learning. There is a value that colleges have, which is seeing whether someone can work hard on something, including a bunch of annoying homework assignments, and still do their homework assignments, and kind of soldier through it and get it done. That's like, the main value of college. And you probably want to hang around with a bunch of people your own age for a while instead of going right into the workforce. So I think colleges are basically for fun and to prove you can do your chores. But they're not for learning.

Interviewer: There it is. I know we started late, and I know we don't have much time left, but to build on Julie's question here, how does someone like you, with a very long term mission of going to Mars, how are you cultivating the next generation of leadership to take you there. Because this is a long term project. You might not be around to see us finally settle on Mars. Or maybe--

Elon: I mean, I hope I'm not dead by the time people go to Mars. That'd be a great outcome, I think. If we don't improve our pace of progress, I'm definitely going to be dead before we go to Mars. So, I would just like to not be dead before we go to Mars. That's my aspiration here. So, if it's taken us 18 years just to get ready to do the first people to orbit, we'd better improve our rate of innovation or, based on past trends, I'm definitely going to be dead before we get to Mars. So we've got to improve our pace of innovation a lot. So yeah.

Interviewer: I guess what I would say, I can tell, you can see, how do you communicate that vision you have to somebody who could maybe take over for what you're doing, to see things the way you're seeing them in terms of the mission.

Elon: Well we have a lot of good people at SpaceX. A lot of really talented people. In fact, I wonder sometimes how we can make use of their talents in the best way. Because I think we're often not using their talents in the best way. Yeah. But to the point of the question that I was just asked, let me make sure Tesla recruiting does not have anything that requires university. Because that's absurd. But there is a requirement of evidence of exceptional ability. Like, you just can't, if you're trying to do something exceptional, it must have evidence of exceptional ability. I don't consider going to college evidence of exceptional ability. In fact, ideally you dropped out and did something. I mean, obviously, because, you look at... Gates is a pretty smart guy. He dropped out. Jobs, pretty smart, he dropped out. Larry Ellison, smart guy, he dropped out. Like, obviously not needed. Did Shakespeare even go to college? Probably not.

Interviewer: Well, thank you so much. I wish we could take more audience questions, I know we have a hard stop. But thank you Elon, for stopping by. Let's give him a round of applause for stopping by and speaking to us. Enjoy the rest of your evening and we'll see you soon. Thank you very much.

Sign up for free to join this conversation on GitHub. Already have an account? Sign in to comment