Elon Musk arrived in Washington, D.C., to remind people how anxious he is to depart Earth.
In a rambling, 45-minute talk at the Satellite 2020 conference, the SpaceX and Tesla CEO held forth on his plans to build enormous and rapidly reusable Starship rockets and bring bandwidth around the world with SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation—and shared his views on learning, in both classrooms and companies.
Musk’s onstage interviewer, Satellite 2020 chair Jeffrey Hill, started the conversation by asking a nervous-looking Musk about the next major item on SpaceX’s to-do list: launching American astronauts to the International Space Station on its Crew Dragon capsule.
“It’s great that we’re about to launch to orbit,” Musk said. He noted that this Crew Dragon mission—which should break a Russian monopoly on transporting U.S. astronauts to the ISS that began with the Space Shuttle’s retirement in 2011—would come 18 years after SpaceX’s founding. “Kid could be in college by now,” he quipped, comparing his company’s age to a child’s growth.
But despite struggles with Crew Dragon, including an explosion during a test of its launch-escape rockets, Musk said this spacecraft did not top his worries: “The thing that concerns me most right now is that unless we improve our rate of innovation dramatically, then there is no chance of a base on the moon or a city on Mars.”
That’s the problem Starship is supposed to solve. This enormous rocket, which is intended to either carry 100 tons to the surface of the moon or Mars, or transport up to 100 people on interplanetary flights, has only flown in the form of small prototypes. But Musk already has enormous expectations of it.
“It’s being designed to be relaunched an hour after landing, with zero nominal work,” he said. “The only thing you expect to change on a regular basis is propellant.”
The effective constraint on Starship launches would then be not maintenance but orbital mechanics. The rocket will have to wait until the path it takes over the Earth, which advances forward on each orbit, allows an efficient return to its launch site—limiting it to three orbital flights a day.
Starship is also designed for refueling in Earth orbit, allowing it to launch with more capacity devoted to cargo and people. “You can leave with full tanks,” Musk said. “That’s critical to getting to Mars.”
After talking such a big game for Starship, Musk offered a surprisingly tentative pitch for SpaceX’s Starlink constellation of low-orbit broadband satellites.
“It’s not like Starlink is some huge threat to telcos,” Musk told Hill. Instead, he said, it will help existing telecommunications firms: “Starlink will serve the hardest to serve customers that telcos otherwise have trouble reaching.”
He touted low-latency connections, with a lag of under 20 milliseconds, but warned that Starlink won’t have enough capacity to serve dense urban areas.
“We can’t do a lot of customers in LA because the bandwidth per cell is simply not high enough,” he said. Musk said he expects 5G broadband to take the lead in those markets.
Although only a few hundred Starlink satellites have launched, astronomers have already raised concerns over the light pollution they can introduce, thanks to sunlight reflecting off them.
Musk said these satellites would become less bright as they move to their service altitude. Plus, his company is taking such measures as painting their antennas black and equipping them with sun shades. He promised “zero” interference with astronomical research.
Musk denied that SpaceX had any plans to spin off Starlink—contradicting the February prediction of SpaceX’s chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell. He said the company’s only financial goal with this project was to avoid the dismal fates of earlier ventures into low-orbit satellite broadband. “We just want to be in the not-bankrupt category.”
After a long and highly technical digression into Starship’s stainless-steel construction, Musk noted that in the past, he’s erred by overthinking designs and paid a price in terms of launches slipping behind schedule. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, for example, launched in February 2018, a good half a decade off the original goal of 2013. As he put it: “Management by rhyming: If the schedule is long, your design is wrong.”
“Simplify your product as much as possible,” he said. “Don’t optimize something that shouldn’t exist.”
Musk blamed higher education for teaching people to obsess over perfecting initially assigned specifications instead of focusing on the overall task to be done. “People are trained to do this in college,” he said. “You can’t say no to the professor.”
Given Musk’s skepticism toward universities, an audience member asked why SpaceX so often requires college degrees that are increasingly expensive to obtain.
“Colleges are basically for fun and to prove that you can do your chores,” he commented. “But they’re not for learning.”
But then he answered that query by talking about his other company: “Let me make sure Tesla recruiting does not have anything that says university, because that’s absurd,” Musk said.
As for SpaceX, Musk apparently has more important priorities that start with his personal Prime Directive.
“I hope I’m not dead by the time people go to Mars,” he said. “That would be a great outcome, I think.”