Human beings have two choices: begin settling on other planets or face extinction. That’s the message from renaissance man cum-billionaire Elon Musk, who was speaking at AllThings D’s D11 conference.
The South African born PayPal founder and CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX believes that unless we spend the necessary money and develop the necessary technology to explore and populate other planets, “an extinction event is inevitable and we’re increasingly doing ourselves in”.
“We want to have a future where humanity is exploring the stars, and where what you see in the movies comes true,” he said.
According to Musk, the biggest current challenge space exploration currently faces is reusability. That’s something Space X is trying to overcome with its Grasshopper rocket, which has launched to increasingly higher altitudes before landing again.
“In order to have a breakthrough,” said Musk, “you have to have a fully reusable rocket. We’re hopeful to have it in the first stage in the next couple years and that’s three-quarters of the cost”.
The reason Musk and Space X are targeting Mars for human settlement is because it’s “a fixer-upper of a planet”.
“It’s difficult but achievable,” he said. “If you look at various planets, Mercury’s too close to the sun, Venus is still pretty hot, and then Mars is on the other side and colder than Earth, but it actually gets above room temperature on Earth on a hot day in the summer”.
Musk also reiterated his desire to die on the Red Planet:
“All things considered, if you could die anywhere, it’d be kind of cool to die on Mars. The driver is that the future has a good chance of being better than the present. I think it would be so much better not to be confined to Earth”.
While a human settlement on Mars is a Space X’s ultimate vision, it won’t get there on Musk’s genius alone. That’s why it’s taken on the contract work it has, taking cargo to space and bringing it back for NASA. “We gotta pay the bills,” Musk said of that work.
The toils of Tesla
Closer to Earth, Musk’s other business, the Tesla motor company, is also trying to change our perceptions of travel. Its efforts have not, however, always received a warm reception. There was serious controversy earlier this year when a war of words erupted after the New York Times gave the Tesla S a bad review.
Musk maintains that the review was inaccurate and that his strongly worded response to it was justified:
“Well, I actually thought about my response for some time. But we started to see a decrease in cars sold in that region after the review. The article really played to people’s fears about electric cars — that they’ll run out, and that they don’t work out in the cold. And that’s not true. Norway is our largest market. The single biggest purchaser of Tesla cars is an ophthalmologist who lives above the Arctic Circle”.
“If we didn’t speak out against it,” said Musk “that article would have lived forever, and people would have gotten the wrong impression of the car. Ultimately the NYT public editor agreed the article was wrong but didn’t think it was intentional, but I don’t think there’s any way it was not intentional”.
Musk also revealed that the company would be expanding its Supercharger network, which allows people to recharge their cars in minutes rather than hours. By the end of the year, the network will allow people to travel from Los Angeles to New York, said Musk.
The Supercharger network therefore addresses a major problem people have withe electric cars. “when people buy a car they’re buying a sense of freedom that they can go wherever they want and not feel fettered”, said Musk.
But he also thinks that governments could be doing more to help out electric car makers. “People think of electric cars as a subsidy,” said Musk, “but it’s actually less than gasoline cars. If you price in environmental costs, it’s much higher”.
With a couple of iterations and mainstream support however, Musk reckons that support will become increasingly unnecessary.
“Every new technology needs three or so iterations to get to the mass market,” he said. “Remember the cellphone from Wall Street? It was expensive and terrible. And now you can have a supercomputer in your pocket for 100 bucks”.