NPR Story
10:25 am
Fri May 18, 2012

On Eve Of Launch, SpaceX Head Talks About Mission

Transcript

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We could be ushering a new era of space travel tomorrow, when where private companies, instead of NASA, carry cargo and maybe astronauts into space. At 4:55 AM tomorrow, scheduled for tomorrow, the SpaceX company is hoping to launch its Dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral. The Dragon will be carrying a payload to the International Space Station. And if all goes as planned, SpaceX will be the first company to send a commercially developed, launched and operated, craft to meet the ISS - though much of the money for it still comes from taxpayers.

SpaceX won't be delivering any astronauts for now, but that's part of the plan for the future. Since without the space shuttle, the U.S. is relying on the Russians to taxi people back and forth to space. Joining me now to talk more about it is one of the folks who will no doubt be watching the launch, probably biting his nails a bit, Elon Musk, CEO, chief designer at the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation or SpaceX. He's also CEO and product architect for Tesla Motors. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Elon.

ELON MUSK: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Launch tomorrow, when - what's - give us a sequence of what's going to happen over the next few days.

MUSK: Yes. Launch is tomorrow at 4:55 AM Cape Canaveral time, which is where the rocket launches from, or, say, 1:55 AM California time. I'll actually be here in California at SpaceX headquarters at mission control. And so we have launch control at Cape Canaveral, and we've got mission control here at headquarters in California. So for the first nine minutes or so, the rocket will be ascending and delivering the Dragon spacecraft to orbit. And then the Dragon spacecraft will separate from the rocket and then - and begin orbital phasing with the space station, which will take a few days.

Then we're going to do, essentially, a flyby at the space station. Now, something that's important to appreciate is that the space station is actually zooming around the Earth at 17,000 miles an hour. People sort of think it's just sort of up there and stationary, but it's zipping around the Earth at - it actually completes an orbit of the Earth every 19 minutes. So you can think of this like you're trying to synchronize speed with something that's going 12 times faster than a bullet from an assault rifle.

And we've got to match the space station. As the space station makes more movements in its orbit, we've got to track those movements exactly. So we'll do a wide loop around the space station, establish communication - a communication link with the space station, have our docking sensors lock on and then the spacecraft actually plots an approach vector and will go in and pause at various points before finally going into dock with the space station.

FLATOW: And what time into the mission will it actually dock?

MUSK: There's a little bit of variability there, because it depends on how things are looking and whether we need to upload new software or new navigation vectors. But it should be around three or four days after launch.

FLATOW: And so mission control, NASA will tell the space station crew they're go for capture, or is that up to you guys?

MUSK: It's a joint effort. Both NASA and SpaceX have to get - be green for the docking.

FLATOW: As you say, they'll do a flyby. Will that mean the astronauts will be looking at the statives(ph) of your space vehicle, the Dragon?

MUSK: Yeah, absolutely. They'll see Dragon doing a loop around the space station. It's a pretty wide loop, so Dragon will still look pretty small from the space station when it's doing that wide loop around the space station. But I mean, just to visualize things, it's like literally imagine you doing a loop around a bullet that's going 12 times faster than something that came out of an assault rifle.

FLATOW: Yeah.

MUSK: So it's a dodgy affair.

FLATOW: I know. You know, when - and they first tried this in the '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MUSK: Right.

FLATOW: Docking in orbit was accomplished in the '60s - I think Gemini 2, whatever. It was doing - Ed White was involved and some of things. Anyhow, so are you sort of relearning all the spacey things that astronauts have been doing for years?

MUSK: Yeah. I mean, to some degree, what SpaceX has been doing, thus far, is kind of catching up to the state of, you know, the present state of space technology, and now, we're beginning to - I think we're beginning to exceed it. And in the coming years, we're really going to push the frontier of rocket technology to places that it's never been before.

FLATOW: And so what is the ultimate goal? Is it to create a substitute cargo ship like this - like the Dragon, or is it also to bring people into space?

MUSK: Absolutely to bring people. And in fact, the cargo version of Dragon is very similar to the crew version. In fact, even the cargo version has windows. And if you were to stow aboard the Dragon and hide out amongst the cargo, you'd actually have a pleasant flight up to the space station, assuming things go well.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: So no monkeys for you like NASA had. You just have - you just go up there without any people in it, but could have people if you needed to.

MUSK: If someone stayed aboard, they'd fine. So we actually will have some biological cargo. And in the future, we'll be carrying plants and mice and various experiments to and from the space station. And it's quite big inside Dragon. In fact, we've got space for seven astronauts. And we've been doing advanced work on the crew version of Dragon, which like - that's it very similar to the cargo version, which has a great advantage because we're able to, therefore, prove out the system in cargo without risking human life.

FLATOW: So you've got the same human capacity as the space shuttle had, which was...

MUSK: That's right. Exactly.

FLATOW: ...at the same time.

MUSK: But we're much cheaper. So we're about one-eighth the cost of the space shuttle, and I think that - a much safer design because Dragon, when carrying crew, will actually have a launch-escape capability. So it has a escape rockets to get away from the rocket if there's an emergency. And being an automatically stable kind of capsule gum-drop shape, it means that the main heat shield will actually orients itself downward even if there's a failure in the flight systems. And that means that you don't have to worry about it.

If you got a plane, you got to maintain a particular angle of attack. You've got to worry about whether the various control systems are working properly. And if there's any flaw in that, then you've got a real problem. You don't have that issue with Dragon. And it'll also have a double-layer heat shield and much more robust heat shield as well. And then the new version of Dragon, the one that will carry crew, actually they're capable of landing propulsively, so landing on thrusters, which I think is pretty cool. It'll have a parachute back up, though, it's capable of landing on its thrusters.

FLATOW: You mean like in the movies, the rocket ship backing up, landing on Earth?

MUSK: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, I think real rockets should land on their thrusters.

FLATOW: That's a good quote for today.

MUSK: That's the best way to land. I think it's pretty cool.

FLATOW: Yeah, it is cool. How much is space expense so far? And how much of your funding comes from NASA?

MUSK: Sure. So we spent around over $1 billion thus far, and NASA's maybe responsible for about 40 percent of that. And then we've got a bit much private capital that's been raised and payments from other customers and from (unintelligible) that we've already achieved and other launches that we've done. And, yeah, so it ends up being a great deal for the taxpayers because it ends up costing much less than alternative approaches, and in particular when we're launching crew. Because right now - because of the retirement of the space shuttle, American actual attempt to go up on the Russian Soyuz, and it costs over $60 million per seat. And when our vehicle is flying, it'll actually cost around $20 million a seat, so it'll be a huge savings.

FLATOW: But there are already some skeptics in Congress. I'm going to quote Ralph Hall, head of the House Science Committee, quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying: I have yet to be convinced that a viable, commercial market will develop for privately-built spacecraft.

MUSK: Well, you know, I've had conversations with Ralph Hall. He's actually - I think he's a great guy. I mean, his skepticism on a certain level, I think, has merit in that this has never been done before, and there's no prior precedent. So in light of that, his skepticism is not unwarranted. But we've made great progress thus far, and we've successfully launched Falcon 9, the rocket, twice. And we've launched the Dragon spacecraft to orbit and brought it back safely already. And now with this mission, we're going to be docking with the space station. I think this mission will do a lot to convince people like Ralph Hall that this is the way to go.

FLATOW: But you only have one place to go, I mean, with this, right? I mean, well, can you build a business on just going to the space station?

MUSK: No. Actually, it's important to mention that SpaceX's - of the launches we have under contract - so we have about 40 launches under contract, and of those, only 13 are from NASA, 27 of them are commercial launches. And they are for delivering satellites of all kinds, like communication satellites, broadcast satellites, you know, things like DirecTV, XM radio, mapping satellites that do things like Google Maps, there's a lot of satellites - in fact, most satellites that are launched are actually not government satellites. So...

FLATOW: Yeah. So you're trying to do what the shuttle would have done with a smaller cargo bay, but - and be usable and come back but land on your thrusters, as you say.

MUSK: Yeah, yeah. That'll be version two. Version one, which is the current version, is - parachutes to a water landing because that was the safest way to go in the beginning. But version two is going to be able to land on thrusters, and it'll actually be capable of doing missions to, you know, other parts of the solar system as well and...

FLATOW: The moon?

MUSK: The moon's - yeah, it could potentially go to the moon.

FLATOW: How much cheaper - since you're doing this at, what, a quarter of the cost or something of what NASA or the Russians could do, how much cheaper could you get to the moon and back?

MUSK: Well, I think it's probably - well, it's sort of how much cheaper than what number, I guess.

FLATOW: Can you make it cheap enough to want to do it and to make it commercially feasible if no one else going to do it?

MUSK: I think we could - I'm actually fairly confident we could do manned missions to the moon in relatively short order if we had a customer that wanted to do that. And we'll certainly have some interesting announcements in the coming years that I think people will be pretty excited about.

FLATOW: Does that include Mars?

MUSK: Yeah. Mars is the ultimate goal and not just to visit, but to be able to develop a system that's capable of taking, ultimately, millions of people and millions of tons of cargo to Mars in order to create a self-sustaining civilization and make life multi-planetary.

FLATOW: Talking with Elon Musk on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. So you're not afraid to think big?

Now there are very few big thinkers. You know, there's always, now, it just costs too much to do something, you know, in a multigenerational scale.

MUSK: Yes. Well, there's a tremendous amount of technology that has been to invented in order to do what I just mentioned, to create a civilization on Mars both in terms of the transport and the infrastructure on the ground on Mars. And Mars is a bit of a fixer-upper of a planet, so it's going to take a little bit of work, but it's the only viable option in the solar system. And outside of the solar system is really not possible because of the distances.

FLATOW: You're also teaming up with Paul Allen for something called Stratolaunch. Does this dovetail with that? Can you describe that a bit? And does this dove-tail with that or is it a totally separate project?

MUSK: That's a separate project and the basic premises for Stratolaunch is that there are satellite customers who are really want a lot of flexibility in launch location. So the rocket can be picked up by a giant aircraft and the launch can occur, I think, almost anywhere on Earth. That's the basic idea with Stratolaunch, or that's the premise. But it's independent from our other activities.

FLATOW: So like going back to the '60s with dropping an X-15 out of the belly of a bomber and shooting it up into space.

MUSK: Right, right. It doesn't result in a cost-savings, but it does result in increased launch life flexibility.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And just - while I have you here for a few here for a few seconds, let's talk a bit about Tesla Motors if you don't mind.

MUSK: Sure.

FLATOW: I see that your power train is - the battery and the power train is showing up in the Toyota.

MUSK: Yeah. The Toyota RAV4, electric RAV4 is - we make the whole power trains, the motor transmission, battery pack and motor, everything that makes it move, and this is a great partnership that we have with Toyota. And we're really excited to have that part come out to market.

FLATOW: And what about your own Model S? Can we see that soon?

MUSK: Yes. And so the Model S will go into production - in fact, I should say to be precise, we'll start deliveries next month.

FLATOW: Wow. And you're expecting this to be - are there companies - is your power train and battery situation such a success that other companies now are looking to license your technology?

MUSK: Yeah. We don't yet license, although we're happy to consider such, but we do manufacture for and supply to other companies. So our two main partners are Toyota and Daimler, who makes Mercedes and Smart. So we've got a Mercedes program where we're also going to be making the whole power train. And I think that's going to be a really compelling vehicle at an affordable price.

FLATOW: And how many cars with your stuff in it total, do you think, we'll be seeing soon?

MUSK: Well, over time, I think we'll see - long term, I think we'll see millions of cars with - that are either Tesla or work with Tesla components that our partners are making.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how many in this country do you think within the next two or three years?

MUSK: Well, every year that passes, I think you'll see dramatic increases. I mean, this year, we expect to deliver about 5,000 Model S's and next year, over 20,000. And the year thereafter will probably be, you know, 40,000 vehicles. So it's really increasing quite rapidly year over year.

FLATOW: Anything else that you'd like to do that you haven't done yet? You have something thinking about?

MUSK: Well, I should mention SolarCity. SolarCity will be doing an IPO later this year, and I think it's going to be a very successful IPO. It is definitely not easy making things work in the solar business and - or rather it's not easy making things work in the rocket business, car business or solar business, frankly. These are not the places that anyone should take if they're looking for the highest risk-adjusted return. But nonetheless, I think all companies are going to pretty well and are doing pretty well. It's definitely not as easy as making money on the Internet though.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we're glad to see someone's trying some new things at least. Thank you very much, Elon, for taking time to be with us today...

MUSK: And you're welcome.

FLATOW: Someone who's taking a chance. Elon Musk, CEO and chief designer at Space Exploration Technologies, SpaceX, also CEO and product architect for Tesla Motors. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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