October 27, 2014
MIT’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department turned 100 this year, and last week they held a Centennial Symposium to celebrate advancements in the last century and discuss the future of aerospace. Elon Musk, notable futurist, architect of the beloved Tesla automobile, and founder of SpaceX, was a featured speaker at the event.
He chatted with department head Jaime Peraire, the H.N. Slater Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and took questions from the audience. Musk pointed out that small companies such as SpaceX must always be better at innovating than large entities because the innovation in a small company is in fact its very lifeblood. He also discussed why it seems like there is a very narrow market for space travel, and this answer lies in the inability to reuse most of the current propulsion technology. If airplanes were good for one trip to Europe, the world would be asking why anyone would ride an airplane to Europe.
Here are some takeaways you can apply to your quest for knowledge about space travel – or to the decisions you are making in building your own business.
1. He was hoping to start with philanthropy, create excitement, and extend NASA’s budget.
I didn’t start SpaceX to go to space myself. I could have gone to the space station by purchasing a ride. SpaceX was started to extend life beyond earth. I expected this to fail, because of the challenges I found when I wanted to do a philanthropic mission to put a greenhouse on Mars. I thought this would generate excitment and increase NASA’s budget, but I realized that if we don’t make rockets better, the budget increase wouldn’t matter.
2. He expects failure as he works toward the ultimate goal of establishing a civilization on Mars.
We’ve been able to soft land the booster in the ocean twice (although it soon tipped over and exploded-making them quite difficult to reuse). What we need to do is either land on a floating platform or boost back to the launch site. But we need to show that we can land with precision over and over again.
I think we’ve got a chance of landing on a floating platform right now. We’ve built a 300 ft x 170ft platform off the coast of Louisiana. On the next flight we will try to land on that so that we can re-fly the booster, and there is a 50% chance or less of hitting the target. But we will be launching at least 12 times over the next 12 months, and we are quite close: we believe that one of these will land.
3. Oh yeah, and he’s looking to establish a civilization on Mars.
The future of humanity will fundamentally bifurcate between a single-planet species vs multi-planet species. We will propagate civilization longer if we become multi-planetary. It’s like planetary redundancy: backing up the biosphere. It seems like the right thing to do.
4. Why he believes that right now is the time to work on this technology.
The window of technology is open. It is the first time in the history of earth that the window has been open. The window could close. I hope it does not, but if you look at the technology of ancient civilizations, people would build amazing things like pyramids and aqueducts, but then stop and forget how to build pyramids and aqueducts.
5. A mission to build a self-sustaining colony on Mars is more important than improving lipstick.
A mission to Mars does not fundamentally change the future of humanity. The goal needs to be creating a self-sustaining colony on Mars. People question whether we should fix problems on Earth first, and the answer is yes. But a small amount of effort should be placed on making life multi-planetary. We should be spending more on Mars colonization than on
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