Space explorer, entrepreneur whizz and the inspiration behind Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark character in Iron Man, Elon Musk took to the stage of SXSW on the second day of the Interactive portion, to field a few questions about his non-stop, ever-exploring life, and addressing the recent controversies two of his companies, Tesla and SpaceX, have experienced.
Chris Anderson, ex-Wired editor and author of The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, asked the questions, which centred on Musk’s three areas of expertise and passion: space travel, electric cars, and sustainable energy, while the slightly soft-spoken but authoritative tycoon answered them, giving some insight into how this South African-born creator sees the world, and his place in it. Although he pronounces “later” like an American citizen would (he became one ten years ago), Musk’s Johannesburg accent is still there, even as the respect and admiration he inspires is global.
While 2012 was a year of great achievement for Tesla, we learn it was not a good one for the father of five, who admits he doesn’t get to see his children as often as he’d like. Musk’s New Year’s resolution, he tells us, was to have more fun, which is why he’s at SXSW.
He’s also in Texas looking to speak with authorities here on establishing a third rocket launch base. During the session, Musk also debuts footage of the Johnny Cash hover rocket — to much enthusiastic applause — demonstrating his latest interest, developing reusable rockets. The footage shows a test conducted with a ten storey-high SpaceX rocket which takes off, and then lands again, vertically.
Musk has been in the headlines recently — for two controversial reasons. Anderson opens his session by asking about these, beginning with the delay in the launch of the Dragon rocket, which was due to bring supplies to the International Space Station. Musk’s company SpaceX took over the contract to provide this service to NASA, and he says launching rockets is “extremely nerve-wracking”, before outlining the problems that went wrong with the initial launch and how they managed to get it back on track.
Later on in the session, Musk addresses the NY Times furore, when he disputed a review that was published, which said the Tesla Roadster broke down during a test drive. Musk maintains the review was false and tells Anderson he would not do anything differently about his response to the situation — which included calling the journalist a liar in not-so-polite terms — only that he would have published his rebuttal, and is still considering doing so.
As the session progressed, some insight into Musk’s overactive mind and determined character were gleaned, as he relayed his views on a number of subjects.
On how he got into space travel
I went to the NASA website to find out when we were going to Mars and I couldn’t find it. I was disappointed that we hadn’t progressed beyond Apollo and hadn’t sent anyone there yet.
[NASA is now Musk's biggest customer: "We've got about 50 launches, and three-quarters of those are for NASA." He is genuinely interested in finding out: what do we need to do to have an exciting, inspiring future in space travel? This is what drives him.]
On reusable rockets
“Imagine if in Star Trek they got a new ship for every trip — that would be pretty silly… If we’re going to establish life on other planets we need to concentrate on reusability.”
On China’s solar panel developments
“It’s like a giant donation to the world…I think the lesson is that if you want to compete with China in a commodity, you’re looking for trouble.”
“You want it to be close to a video game — a good video game — as possible: interactive and engaging.”
“Kids are awesome by the way — you guys should all have kids”
On personally stepping foot on Mars
“I would like to die on Mars, just not on impact.”
The final question, which came from someone in the audience, allowed this science-mad tycoon to show a bit more of his personal side. When asked about what the biggest mistake he has made has been, he took a while to answer, and then said: “It’s putting too much weight on someone’s talent over their personality,” before adding, “it really matters whether someone has a good heart.” Cue more appreciative applause.