Speeding Innovation Key To Exploration Goals, Musk Says

Credit: Irene Klotz/AWST

As SpaceX’s 18-year quest to fly people in space enters the home stretch, company founder and chief engineer Elon Musk says speeding up the pace of innovation is essential to U.S.—and his own personal goals—of sustained, deep-space human exploration.

“It’s great that we’re about to launch people to orbit, It’s been a long time—18 years. You could have a kid and send him off to college by now,” Musk, 48, said during the opening-day keynote address of the Satellite 2020 conference in Washington.

SpaceX and Boeing were selected in 2014 by NASA to develop and fly commercially owned and operated space taxis to the International Space Station (ISS). Following a successful docking of an uncrewed Dragon 2 capsule at the ISS in March 2019 and a demonstration of Dragon’s inflight launch abort system in January, SpaceX is preparing for a crewed flight to the ISS as early as May. The mission will be the first to launch astronauts into orbit from the United States since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. 

“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,” he said.

“We need to be very careful about getting stuck in a low-Earth maximum,” Musk says, citing the 1981-2011 shuttle program and the ongoing Russian Soyuz spacecraft, currently the only transportation system that flies crews to the ISS.

“Why does Soyuz still fly? It was designed in the 1950s,” Musk said. “If you told [Soviet designer] Sergei Korolev and the other guys that we’d still be flying Soyuz in 2020, he’d be like, ‘That’s crazy.’ Yet we are. We don’t want to be in that situation.”

Moving ahead in the human exploration of space depends completely on a fully and rapidly reusable rocket,” Musk says. “Without that, we’re going nowhere.”

While the fruits of SpaceX’s labor on the Crew Dragon program are at hand, Musk has turned his attention to the design and testing of a deep-space transport for passengers and cargo called Starship.

Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 to develop technologies needed for interplanetary transportation and colonization.

The company is looking to its nascent Starlink internet broadband program to bring in revenue needed to pay for the endeavor. Flying cargo and crew to the ISS, launching commercial and government satellites on the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy fleet can bring in as much as about $3 billion a year, Musk said.  

Providing broadband is more like an order of magnitude more, probably about $30 billion a year, which is still just a fraction of the current telecommunications industry, he added. “Starlink is not some huge threat to telcos. In fact, it will be helpful to telcos because Starlink will serve the hardest-to-serve customers that telcos otherwise have problems with,” using landlines or cell phone towers.

For the foreseeable future, Starlink will remain a part of privately owned SpaceX, Musk noted, refuting comments by SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell last month that the company was contemplating spinning off Starlink into a publicly traded venture.

“We’re thinking about that zero,” Musk said. “We need to make the thing work.”

SpaceX has launched 300 members of a Starlink network that could grow to more than 1,000 by the end of the year. Ultimately, Starlink could blanket low Earth orbit with 42,000 spacecraft.

Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Senior Space Editor for Aviation Week, based in Cape Canaveral. Before joining Aviation Week in 2017, Irene spent 25 years as a wire service reporter covering human and robotic spaceflight, commercial space, astronomy, science and technology for Reuters and United Press International.