National Press Club

Space exploration critical for human survival, SpaceX entrepreneur Elon Musk says

September 29, 2011 | By William Miller |

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk answers a question from NPC President Mark Hamrick

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk answers a question from NPC President Mark Hamrick

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Human exploration of space is essential to ensure the survival of the human species, said Elon Musk, chief executive and chief technical officer of Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, at a Sept. 29 National Press Club luncheon.

Calling multi-planetary life an insurance policy “for life as we know it,” the 40-year-old physicist/entrepreneur/inventor warned that catastrophic natural or man-made disasters -- such as the planetoid collision that wiped out the dinosaurs eons ago or nuclear holocaust or climate change -- could someday wipe out humankind.

Space exploration “is the next natural step” in the 3.8-billion year evolution of life on earth, he said.

Musk suggested that .25% of the nation's gross domestic product would be an “appropriate” expenditure by the United States on space exploration, which he said is roughly the percentage an individual spends on life insurance. Space exploration spending, he said, should be "much less than we spend on health care, but maybe more than we spend on lipstick."

Besides preserving the species, a second reason for the space effort, he said, is that “it makes you feel better about the world.” He pointed out that “only a handful of men went to the moon, but we all went with them.”

Musk confirmed that SpaceX, which he founded in 2002, is developing a re-usable rocket to boost spacecraft into orbit. Based in Hawthorne, Calif., the company launched the first private liquid-fuel rocket into orbit last December and has a NASA contract to replace the cargo transport function of the Space Shuttle.

Its first cargo flight for NASA, using its Falcon 1 rocket with traditional technology and Dragon spacecraft, is scheduled in January.
But a re-usable rocket, Musk said, is vital to creating cost savings that would make space exploration affordable. “If we can re-use rockets, it would allow a 100-fold reduction in launch costs,” he said.

Acknowledging that a re-usable rocket presents “a tough engineering problem,” he said he “came to the conclusion that it can be solved. … We’re not sure we’ll have success, but it will be an exciting journey. If it does work, it will be huge.”

The company has a design "on paper," he said.

“America and the rest of the world should be fired up about what we’re doing," he said.

Musk said that SpaceX could accommodate astronauts on its January flight, but predicted it would take two to three years to create an escape system to meet NASA's safety requirements for human space flight.

Musk, who is also the CEO of Tesla Motors, the maker of all-electric Tesla Roadster automobile and Model S sedan, and the chairman of SolarCity, a provider of solar power systems, urged Americans to move away from fossil fuels and embrace sustainable technologies.

Musk said that the world is “essentially running an experiment” to how much carbon it can burn. “We should lean in the direction of supporting technologies that are sustainable,” he said.