As South by Southwest Interactive (henceforth: SXSWi) approached I found myself a bit overwhelmed by all the choices of talks, panels, hangouts, meetups, and God only knows what else. As an Austin resident, I didn’t feel the need to over-indulge on Sixth Street’s entertainment venues — I can do it any time — so I tried to concentrate on talks and events that I though I would find interesting, and you all would find interesting. I got a clunker or two, but in the main I did okay. Even with the overwhelming choices available, there was one person who I was pretty confident I wanted to see: Keynote speaker Elon Musk.
As a reader of Gear Diary, you may have heard of Musk; he made his original big chunk of change through PayPal. While some tech b’zillionaires may stop at that point and, I dunno, get into politics, or think tanks, or some other durn thing (think of Mark Zuckerberg or Marc Andreessen), Musk didn’t rest on his laurels or his big piles of cash. He went on to found Tesla Motors (trying to build electrical cars that are actually cool and fun to drive, instead of — as Marv put it in “Sin City” — looking like electric shavers), and founded SpaceX, the civilian space flight company. He is basically America’s answer to Richard Branson of Virgin (though South African by birth). One company isn’t enough.
Side note: Branson, of course, founded his own space flight company, Virgin Galactic. But I don’t think they’re competing; at one point Musk talked about “My friend Richard Branson,” and he was clearly not being ironic or sarcastic. One guesses that the “Rich Tycoon Nerd” Club is pretty small.
And Elon Musk is a nerd — a genuine nerd — working on an Applied Physics and Materials Science degree at Stanford, for Pete’s sake! Seriously, read his Wikipedia article. I wanted to see this guy, who was basically the living embodiment of D.D. Harriman, the star of the Heinlein story “The Man Who Sold the Moon” (a fictional rich businessman determined to commercialize space flight!).
I wasn’t the only fanboy who wanted to see Musk; there were so many people there, they opened up several extra auxiliary rooms, and showed the Musk interview on CCTV, which is where I ended up. But that’s all right; I figured the chances of me meeting Musk were essentially zero anyway; I didn’t have to be in the same room with him.
Musk was interviewed by long-time Wired contributor Chris Anderson, who did quite a good job, I thought.
They started off talking about SpaceX, Musk’s civilian space flight company. SpaceX is the first civilian company to build a rocket that docks with the ISS (which it has successfully done now several times, I believe). Musk was in Texas not just for SXSWi, but also to lobby the legislature to try to get a space port (!) built here in Texas. See, at the equator, the rotational speed of the planet is just over 1000 miles an hour. So the closer you are to the equator, the more speed you get just from the Earth sling-shotting you into space — hence the preference for Texas or Florida. So I may actually see a civilian space port here in Texas in my lifetime.
Musk spent some time pointing out the difficulties of a civilian space flight company. In addition to having to deal with governments for spaceport space (see previous), there’s this interesting factoid: The U.S. government considers rocket technology to be weapons technology! (Well, ICBMs, right?) Plus rockets don’t go just straight up, so even after you get the space, you end up flying over the heads of a whole lot of different people, many of them who don’t want rockets taking off over their houses any more than folks don’t want to be in airport flight paths, or live near train stations. Sounds like a nightmare, but I’m glad a rich, dedicated, smart person is on the job.
SpaceX’s goal is to use re-usable rockets that can take off and land back on Earth. We were able to see–first time for anyone anywhere!–the demo video they had made up for this concept. If you’ve watched films of Apollo launches you remember the stages separating and dropping back to Earth. Well, the SpaceX “Dragon” rocket–which Musk referred to as a “grasshopper” because it “goes up and down”–has stages like Apollo rockets, but when each stage separates, instead of getting dumped in the ocean, it fires retro-rockets and comes in for a landing! Musk talked about the next revision of his rocket, saying “Dragon 2 will land anywhere on the Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter,” which I find pretty friggin’ amazing. From the video, it appears the Dragon 2 has two stages and a capsule, and all of them land back on Earth with thrusters.
Musk is determined to re-use rockets. He pointed out the high price of just throwing away your rocket with an analogy: “How much does it cost to fuel and airplane vs. how much does it cost to buy an airplane.” Seriously: Imagine how high your airfare would be if, on landing, they dumped your 757 into Jamaica Bay or wherever. Not very cost-efficient, and as Musk pointed out, when it comes to space travel, “Cost is prohibitive.”
Anderson asked Musk about Mars, about which he seemed a little sheepish, in my opinion. Musk said that he decided to set a target of going to Mars because NASA frustrated him. Musk said, “I went to the NASA web site to find out when we’re going to Mars, and I couldn’t find out.” He not only couldn’t find out when, he couldn’t find out any information at all about NASA’s post-Moon plans. That clearly irritated the crap out of him.
But Musk wanted everyone clear on the fact that he is not competing with NASA — a huge percentage of SpaceX’s business (about 1/4, according to Musk) is with NASA, and they cooperate quite closely. He would be thrilled if NASA would do this themselves. But he said when he tried to get the government to increase NASA’s budget, it didn’t work, so he said (metaphorically), “Screw it; I’ll do it myself.” Boy, haven’t I dreamed of having enough money to do that myself…
Musk is clearly very hands-on with SpaceX, and it is obviously his great love — which is what reminds me so much of Harriman from that Heinlein story. I mean, this guy is in mission control for launches, and helping trouble-shoot problem; this is his passion.
The majority of the keynote was taken up by SpaceX, but Anderson did ask Musk a few questions about Tesla Motors, and particularly a recent very negative review of the new Model S by the New York Times, and the subsequent back and forth between Musk and the paper. In case you’re unaware, Tesla sent the New York Times an early release of their new Model S sedan, and to put it mildly, the reviewer didn’t have a good time with it. There has been some back and forth in the media, and Musk was asked to respond. Musk said he felt the review was a “low-grade ethics violation”, and that it was “not in good faith”. He clearly felt quite strongly that the reviewer had gone out of his way to slant the review towards the negative, but he didn’t exempt his own behavior: “I don’t think the language [of his own response] was inaccurate”, but felt that he could have been more diplomatic.
This led, logically enough, into a discussion of Lithium-Ion batteries. He absolutely refused to be drawn in to bad-mouthing Boeing, and insisted that his quotes in the press has been misinterpreted, and he had never intended to bad-mouth Boeing. He did seem to feel, though, that embarking on a project of the scale of the 777 while out-sourcing so much of the component design and manufacturer was kind of asking for trouble. I believe that both Tesla and SpaceX do the vast majority, if not all, of their components in-house. And that kind of gives you an interesting slant on Apple keeping all their hardware in-house, too.
When it comes to battery design, Musk noted that “Tesla is a fan of small [battery] cells”, which allows you to have smaller gaps between the cells. The Dreamliner has larger cells with larger gaps, of which Musk is clearly not a fan. In spite of their problems, though, he absolutely believes that “Lithium is obviously the way to go” for airline batteries.
And as if those companies aren’t enough, Anderson noted that Musk is also Chairman of the solar-panel company SolarCity, and spent the last portion of the address talking about that. For the first time in my life–and I have lived my whole life in an era when “the solar power breakthrough” has been “a few years away!” for, like, the last 45 years — I finally heard a good answer to my constant question: Why don’t we put solar panels on everyone’s rooftops? What could it hurt? And Musk point out a couple of things that should be obvious: First, it’s hard to “optimize” panel size. That is, the size and shape of roofs isn’t “heterogeneous”, and so putting on “standard panels” (like you use “standard wallboard” when putting up walls in your home) is really hard to do. And if you can’t standardize, the price goes up. That’s a problem!
The other issue is one of exposure: When you have a house with the roof aimed in the right direction to get maximum sunlight, what do you look for in a house? One with a friggin tree to cover it so you don’t overheat! Both of which seemed obvious in retrospect, but it was nice to have someone really smart explain it to me.
Finally, he noted that what you’re essentially doing is putting a whole second roof on your house. Think about the last time you just had your roof re-done; it wasn’t cheap, was it … even if you used the cheapest, lowest-budget roofing tiles! Now imagine the roofing tiles made of up solar electronic components. Oh, yeah; expensive! But they’re plugging away, working with cities to do pilot projects — like the one we have here in Austin, the Pecan St. Project Mueller development (about which you’ll see more later — watch this space!). Musk is, unsurprisingly, hopeful and optimistic.
The degree to which this guy impressed me is probably clearly a lot. Smart, articulate, committed, passionate about what he’s doing, plus he’s very much aware of the environmental impact of his work. I mean, wow. I’m impressed.
So what do you think about it all? What are your thoughts on Tesla, or SpaceX, or Musk? Share them with us below!
Elon Musk Keynote address
Saturday, March 9, 2013
Austin Convention Center
South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi)