Elon Musk has become the Thomas Edison of our times. Whilst his part role in the success of PayPal may not have transformed our lives, it funded his imagination, and the possibilities to change our futures in ways that science fiction writers could not even dream of.
Go to his SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, and every employee has a very clear sense of purpose. “We’re going to Mars” is the unanimous first words. Within the next 7 years.
I often say that the next 10 years will see more change than the last 250 years. Anyone who wants to get a sense of how real that could be, should read Elon Musk’s occasional letters to the world. His most recent letter, in July 2016, captures his bold ambition and life-changing plans.
On the future, he says: “There’s a fundamental difference, if you look into the future, between a humanity that is a space-faring civilization, that’s out there exploring the stars … compared with one where we are forever confined to Earth until some eventual extinction event.”
Of course, many of his projects including travelling to Mars sound like fantasies. He disagrees, saying “If something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it.”
Last week he took another step forwards, unveiling plans for a new spacecraft that he says would allow his company SpaceX to colonise Mars, build a base on the moon, and allow commercial travel to anywhere on Earth in under an hour.
The spacecraft is currently still codenamed the BFR (Big Fucking Rocket – not sure why he feels he needs the F word?!). He says the company hopes to have the first launch by 2022, and then have four flying to Mars by 2024.
Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide Australia on Friday, he said the company had figured out a way to pay for the project. The key, he said, was to “cannibalise” all of SpaceX’s other products. Instead of operating a number of smaller spacecrafts to deliver satellites into orbit and supply the International Space Station, he said the BFR would eventually be used to complete all of its missions.
SpaceX has been working feverishly on reusable spacecraft designs, now completing 16 successful landings in a row of its Falcon9 rocket. That was the key to allowing the ambitious design to be economic, he said. “It’s really crazy that we build these sophisticated rockets and then crash them every time we fly,” he said. “This is mad.”
Musk said the cost of fuel is low, and so if the crafts were fully reusable, the costs of flights drop dramatically. He said the company had already started building the system, with construction of the first ship to begin next year. “I feel fairly confident that we can complete the ship and be ready for a launch in five years,” he said.
By 2024, Musk said he wanted to fly four ships to Mars, two of which would have crew in them. By that stage, they planned to be able to build a plant on the surface of Mars that would be able to synthesise fuel for return journeys back from Mars.
For a trip to Mars, he said the craft would be able to hold about 100 people in 40 cabins. But he said once the ship is built, it could be used to travel on Earth too. He did not estimate the cost of such flights, but said that most long-distance flights could be completed in 30 minutes, and you could get anywhere on Earth in under an hour.
“If we’re building this thing to go to the Moon and Mars then why not go to other places on earth as well,” he said. He said the size of the payload – which would allow items with a diameter of just under 9m – means larger satellites could be delivered to orbit in a single mission.
At a presentation at last years IAC conference in Mexico, Musk described the earlier iteration of the system with more details about the costs. For that earlier version, he said the cost of sending a person on the SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System would be around $200,000. Musk suggested that multiple space rockets could take 100 people each over 40 to 100 years until a million people lived there.
“It was much too big and fantastical,” said Robert Zubrin, president and founder of Mars Society, a non-profit that promotes human settlement of Mars.
Musk’s proposal for getting a million people to Mars as quickly as possible was, Zubrin said, “like a D-Day landing”. Instead, Musk should be thinking of sending just ten people to set up an agricultural base, Zubrin said.
“Then send 20 more people and so forth to develop capabilities to make steel and eventually create institutions like schools.”
“He typically goes into something with over-reach,” Zubrin added, referring to Musk’s tendency to overpromise with many of his projects, including delivery dates of Teslas and the Hyperloop. “But he’s able to take criticism and adjust things to become achievable,” said Zubrin. “If he reduces his launch system from 500 tons to 150 tons or less, that would show he’s serious and would move him from the realm of vision to the realm of engineering.”
Lockheed Martin also presented an idea for a manned Mars mission at the Adelaide event. The aerospace company outlined a six-person space station called Mars Base Camp that it thinks could be orbiting the red planet by 2028 along with a lander that could descend to the surface. Astronauts on the space station could carry out scientific research and exploration work, including operating rovers and identifying landing spots on the surface of the planet for larger vehicles.
The bigger picture of Musk’s world is dominated by Tesla, as well as SpaceX and Hyperloop. In a recent interview (TED, May 2017) he talked about the many projects, and what drives him:
Hyperloop One first test runs on the SFO-LAX loop:
SpaceX Falcon 9 landing, launching and relanding:
Tesla 3, sustainable driving becomes mainstream:
Neuralink, his latest venture, fusing the human brain and AI:
And a fun Late Show interview asks is he a super villain?
Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk unveiled the highly anticipated Tesla Model 3 electric car on Thursday night in a converted LA aircraft hangar. Tesla’s launch events have become a little like Apple’s big moments used to be. Electrifying, a pioneering spirit, packed with hard core fans. Musk is much more improvised than the word perfect Jobs, stuttering with nerves that show he is human despite his vision and celebrity. The Model 3 has the potential to become the tipping point from carbon to carbon-free motoring, and to drive exponential growth for Tesla, and the electric car market. 250,000 preorders, almost two years ahead of delivery, demonstrates the consumer response.
In the Gamechangers project we explore in detail how Tesla has developed a long-term market-shaping strategy to change the game of car travel. The cars themselves, beautiful and technically wonderful, are not even the heart of the story. Nor is the innovative retail model, selling direct in upmarket shopping malls, customised on the iPad, cash in advance. Most significant is the overall business model – designed to shape the market through the world’s leading charging network – the Supercharger network, which is included as an ongoing subscription in the retail price, for Tesla and other brand cars. Supercharger is driven by another of Musk’s businesses, Solar City. By giving away much technical IP, Tesla is creating an industry standard in its own vision, on its own terms. It is redefining the game of motoring in front of our eyes.
At the launch of the Model 3, Musk was at pains to explain his market entry strategy too. Starting from the expensive and niche roadster, to the other premium models, he has positioned the brand as innovative and aspirational, to compare with a Porsche or even Ferrari. Now he is moving down the price ladder to the wider market – to compete alongside the BMW and Audi-type brands, but with more magic, and sustainable credentials. He even thanked early adopters, those who had bought the early models at premium prices, saying that the profits he made through them has allowed him to build this new car for everyone (well at lot more people, and made him incredibly rich too).
Tesla’s mass market Model 3 was driven onto a foggy stage in an extravagant unveiling, where Musk revealed that the Tesla Model 3 will seat five, and be able to cover at least 215 miles on one charge. Musk said the standard Model 3 would be capable of zero to 60 miles per hour in less than 6 seconds, and will cost $35,000, which is half that of the company’s current flagship cars, the Model S sedan and Model X crossover. The new car actually looks like a more sporty version of the company’s Model S. The Model 3 will also feature Autopilot for assisted driving and be future-proof for self-driving road use. Deliveries begin in late 2017, by which time Tesla says it will have doubled the number of charging stations worldwide and will include charging for free.
The Model 3 is Tesla’s attempt to bring electric cars to the mass market and is considered critical to the company’s future success. Interest has been strong, with preorders for the Model 3 at Tesla stores and galleries – some of which are located directly adjacent to Apple retail stores (where the launch of the iPhone SE no longer commands the long queues of old). Musk later boasted on stage that the company had already secured 115,000 reservations before the car had even been revealed (a figure that has doubled in the last few days). Tesla’s stock price rocketed too.
You can watch the full unveiling of the Tesla Model 3 here:
Apple is believed to be working on its own electric road vehicle, commonly referred to as the Apple Car (rather than iCar, in a similar naming logic to the Apple Watch), which Musk has called an “open secret” in the industry. According to Musk, the hundreds of engineers Apple has taken on make it clear there’s an electric car in the works. Apple and Tesla have hired each other’s employees over the last couple of years, with Musk saying that Apple has hired away “very few people” from the car company despite offering $250,000 signing bonuses and 60 percent salary increases to its employees. Tesla meanwhile has hired nearly 150 Apple employees.
Read more about Tesla and how it is changing the game.