SpaceX / Tesla / Solar City. Why these 3 companies? Why all of them? Why not others or why are these 3 important to Elon Musk?
(Disclaimer. I do not know Elon personally but am deducing these things from observing and reading things that are available to everyone.)
Elon Musk sees a girl he is attracted to at a party soon after entering the US. He starts the conversation by saying “I think about electric cars a lot. Do you think about electric cars a lot?” Apparently not.
One perspective is Elon is saving the world by doing the most good he can. He’s been interested in electric cars for a while. In college he studied ultra capacitors. These are useful as battery alternatives. He also talks about how he wanted to go to Mars and was always fascinated with science fiction. So, that explains SpaceX.
However, there is another agenda I see that ties these 3 companies together and more importantly I believe is part of Elon’s unstated reasons why he is doing what he is doing. Therefore, I am uncovering the secret agenda of Elon Musk.
SpaceX has ushered in a new beginning of space with renewable rockets
After several failed attempts SpaceX achieved something December 21, 2015 that may seem minor to many people. They landed a rocket back on the surface of the planet Earth after delivering a payload into space. 11 refridgerator size satellites were deployed by the upper stage as the first stage plummeted to earth in a hyperbolic trajectory landing it nearly at the same point it took off.
My belief like that of many space enthusiasts is that the importance of developing reusable rockets has been overlooked by NASA. The reasons for this lack of interest are many no doubt but principally must be a lack of direction in the program and purpose.
NASA’s must believe that high rocket cost is an irrelevant consideration.
The NASA budget is $17 billion / year and the military space budget is another $5-10 billion. That’s a lot of money. If it could be done for half the cost you would think they would be excited but government agencies don’t think like that. NASA is like a large entertainment company. They produce high profile events that showcase man doing things in space that keeps enough excitement to keep the funds flowing for another event.
To that end to repeat the great success of the Apollo program when NASA was perceived at the top of its game NASA has proposed building a large expensive rocket of its own. It will cost many times what SpaceX charges per kilogram because it is not reusable. The goal seems to be like the International Space Station more a matter of international pride and showmanship than any actual scientific or purposeful goal. Send man to Mars a couple times in big rockets, pick up some rocks on Mars and come home. Voila Apollo program all over again!
Recently, an executive of one of SpaceX’s competitors ULAa admitted that they couldn’t compete with SpaceX pricing on its rockets. Not even close. This is not news to NASA and the military which were perfectly willing to spend 2 or 3 times the cost even if they used Russian parts. They didn’t want SpaceX to bid on these projects even knowing SpaceX could do it for half the price. For these government agencies cost is simply a checklist item. An item to be negotiated behind closed doors. Now we know why the government is required to have competitive bidding. Without it they would do everything at even more absurd prices.
I remember working to get my way through college at high schools in Vermont programming. One school administrator joked “the school wouldn’t be such a bad place to work if it weren’t for all the pesky students.” I have a feeling many at NASA feel the space agency would be a great place to work if they stopped all these pesky space missions.
Elon seems to be a goal directed person
Elon has stated many times that he personally wants to go to Mars. He is definitely a believer in the idea of man colonizing Mars. He has even talked of terraforming Mars. So, it’s quite clear he like me and others see the goal as an important one. For most people this is pure fantasy but for Elon I believe it is actually the driving force for almost everything he is doing.
Elon’s goal is to go to Mars and to enable man to colonize Mars
Let’s look at a number of things that show everything he is doing relates to that goal. I believe that efforts at not only SpaceX but Tesla and even SolarCity eventually lead to Mars.
Just some of the things I am aware of that show Elon is trying to use every resource he has available to build his Mars journey.
- Building rockets
- Building reusable rockets (needed to get large amounts of material into space at low cost.)
- Building a manned capsule capability (needed)
- Building an unmanned cargo capsule
- Designing light weight space suits
- Designing controlled landing capabilities for rockets
- Building an electric car
- Building it from scratch using materials and techniques with robots
- Autonomous robotic control of manufacturing
- Autonomous robotic car driving
- Making large objects from smaller pieces of metal that are as strong as individual large cast objects
- Battery Factory for cheaper better batteries
- Supercharging stations powered partly from solar energy
- Large solar panels and power generation
- Large inhome batteries for powering habitats on the Earth
These appear to be the things necessary for these businesses to succeed however, there is another way to use all these things. What is needed to get to Mars and to sustain life on Mars? I have written a blog with the path to Mars. I have a 10 step plan here. Elon seems to be executing at least some of it. What are the elements needed to go to Mars:
- Develop low cost lift capability using ideally reusable rockets
- Be able to assemble things in LEO (Low earth orbit)
- Automation, Autonomous Capabilities and Robotics
- Solar Power
- Radiation protection
- Discovery on Mars of suitable materials to sustain life (exploration)
- Life support on Mars, vehicles, habitats, Energy supply. Food, Transport etc..
- Manufacturing on Mars
Key aspects of this plan Elon is working on today at SpaceX but also Tesla and Solar City.
Low Cost Lift
We will have to deliver 50,000,000 lbs of stuff to get to Mars. This is my guess but is educated and is more than 50 times the weight of the Space Station. The space station took 100 shuttle missions to build at a cost of $2Billion/mission. Mars will take at least 1,000 such flights in reusable rockets. NASA doesn’t plan to lift 50million lbs. It wants to do smaller missions with a few men aboard and carry everything with us so they don’t plan a colony. They are planning to do a tourism thing. It will still cost hundreds of billions of dollars but we will get a few rocks from it.
Using the shuttle to deliver 50million lbs to orbit: $10 trillion
Using SpaceX current cost : $600 billion
Using reusable SpaceX rockets: $120 billion
The SpaceX Falcon costs $60M/mission but delivers only 1/3 what the Space Shuttle can deliver to space. Nonetheless that still comes to 1/10 the cost of the shuttle to lift stuff into space. If Elon is successful at reusability he will be able to achieve at least another factor of 5 reduction in cost. That means instead of $600 billion to get all that mass into space it will cost $120 billion. Elon has saved $480 billion. He is also developing the Falcon Heavy which has 4 times the lift capacity of the Falcon 9 with only 3 times the cost or less. It is also planned to be reusable. Enhancements in efficiency of rocket manufacture and reusability as well as improvements in rocket design could easily meet the 1/5th cost factor or more.
Assembling things in LEO, Automation, Robotics
Being able to assemble things in LEO requires robotic manufacturing and assembly. Large industrial robots that can manipulate large objects and construct them together. Sound familiar? The kind of technology uses to build his Tesla’s. He has made it critical to build as much as possible completely by robots. His Telsas like many other fine cars are designed to build things with millimeter accuracy and to stay in tolerance by measuring them constantly so they never manufacture something out of specification.
Telsa is learning to build everything themselves from scratch. They rarely buy pre-assembled components enabling them to create the supply chain for their own high quality components.
One of the amazing things Tesla has figured out is how to assemble large objects from smaller objects with the same strength as the large objects. He uses a mixing welding technique they have pioneered that enables them to take smaller sheets of materials and build larger things.
He could ask the manufacturers to send him larger pieces of materials but when you deliver them to space the size of the raw materials are limited. So, being able to assemble smaller pieces into larger pieces with high quality and strength is huge.
Elon is learning a tremendous amount about robotics and learning how to do so with very high precision and quality ostensibly to build better cars and rockets here on Earth but this will be critical technology to go to Mars and live on Mars.
There are several reasons why robots and everything with regard to Mars has to be designed to be autonomous. The cost of having man there to do things or direct things dramatically increases costs as man himself comes with an enormous burden. Man increases the costs by a factor of 10 to do anything.
With man comes the safety systems unnecessary if we are just sending robots. With man comes all the life support systems and resupply. With man comes the possibility of error, the slowness of our movements, the limitations of our flexibility due to the space suits or other encumbrances we have to deal with in such a hostile environment. Whether on Mars or just in orbit of the Earth closeby the cost of having a man do something in space is radically more expensive than a robot.
Even more critical is that once on Mars there is a minimum 2 – 10 minute speed of light limitation on communications. This means that sending a control signal from near Earth to anything or anyone on Mars entails a delay that makes manufacturing impossible without autonomous operation. A good example is our Opportunity Rover which can only do minimal autonomous operation. It can go theoretically 100 meters or more without human intervention but it is still too dangerous and fragile so NASA never moves it more than a few feet without taking a good look again at where to take the next step. This is extremely slow and will make it impossible to do anything on Mars.
Tesla is doing more than developing robotic technology and autonomous robots. They are developing autonomous cars that can drive themselves, avoid collisions and get from A to B without human intervention. Today he is leading all other car menufacturers and even Google in building autonomous vehicles. All of this autonomous operation is critical to any success on Mars or getting there. Isn’t that interesting? Coincidence?
We simply can’t afford to do things the way we do them on Earth with humans. It is just too dangerous and costly to do that. Elon is aggresively building what we need to do to get to Mars and using Tesla and SpaceX to pay for the development of these technologies.
Granted these things aren’t made exactly the same way we would make such things in space or on Mars but many of the same sensors, feedback systems, intelligence would be almost identical.
Solar Power and Batteries
There are numerous ways to generate power on Mars and in space. Nuclear generation is one of the most promising because it is extremely reliable and long lasting. Thermal reactors are in use in many NASA projects and power the Voyager spacecraft which are 40 years in operation billions of miles from Earth transmitting signals. However, nuclear is difficult to resupply. Solar is the most reliable cheapest energy source in space and on Mars we know about. There are no fossil fuels on Mars to our knowledge. There is no wind.
Tesla and Solar City are perfecting Elon’s solar power technology components. With Tesla as a user and supercharging stations it is pretty easy to see how all this technology gets reused when going to Mars. The craft in LEO as well as on the way to Mars and on Mars itself all the robots, vehicles and equipment will operate on low voltage battery technology that derives its power from solar. There will be an enormous need for power to operate all the autonomous vehicles and eventually all the manned habitats and equipment for manufacturing and day to day operation.
All the technology Elon is developing for these things can be transplanted to space and Mars.
Proof is in the pudding
It is also true that you can say that all these things are necessary to build cars and batteries for cars and rocket ships for NASA and to build a home solar cell capacity for consumers but there are reasons to believe that Elon has grander plans for these things.
- He is reusing rocket technology in Tesla vehicles
- He is reusing his Tesla technology in his rockets
- He is doing things you could do other ways potentially cheaper
- The selection of the things he chose to do
If you examine these 3 things you will see from the above discussion that he is doing the right things he can at this time to develop the capacity to do what he needs to do to go to Space. There are a lot of other things he could do but one man can only do so much even with the help of everyone else. So, these may be serendipitous coincidences but they also are fortuitous coincidences.
Notice the use of Tesla video monitors in Dragon Capsule:
Notice the use of Tesla seats in Dragon Capsule:
Notice reuse of SpaceX welding technology in Tesla
Notice reuse of Tesla batteries in Solar City Home batteries
Notice reuse of Solar City solar Panels in Telsa Supercharging
Notice reuse of Solar City solar panels in Battery factory
He is leveraging his companies not just for the benefit of each but synergistically to get to Mars.
Please look at my other blogs on Space Policy to see the right way to go to Mars here.
I believe that underlying all Elon’s thoughts about his companies is how they facilitate eventual travel and habitation to Mars. Today, many of these things also happen to correspond to products for normal people to buy and use. I don’t know if it really makes sense to tie ourselves to solar here on Earth or other Energy sources such as new nuclear reactors or even fusion eventually but solar will clearly play a larger role in our energy supply. In order to make solar practical you need Solar City to build Panels and Tesla to remove the need for fossil fuels and to create battery technology that is better.
So, for now the technology has a positive social goal. That may indeed be his primary purpose or he could be simply taking advantage of a market opportunity. Clearly these things have the possibility of being truly the next generation of our technology and he is there simply as a smart capitalist figuring out how to leap ahead of the competition.
He could be doing this for betterment of humanity as he has said to push us away from fossil fuels or he could be simply a capitalist finding ways to make money that nobody else has succeeded at yet or he could be simply following his interests or he could be planning to go to Mars and building what he needs.
So far nothing he has done really can be said to be exclusively for the betterment of society, going to Mars or making money. These programs are interrelated and they need each other. The jury is out on if these companies and plans ultimately expand to include other necessary things to get to Mars.
I believe that Elon is consciously thinking of the things he needs to go to Mars and probably has an ultimate blueprint of those things. This is probably quite hidden. I would like to see his blueprint of what he thinks he needs to do, what he expects the government and other companies to do, what he imagines a colony on Mars would be like. I doubt seriously he hasn’t at least thought about this a little.
We know what’s next at least for the next few years because the strategies of SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity are public and somewhat dependent on other things. However, if Elon is thinking of doing this Mars thing for real he will have to start making investments and making decisions over the next few years that will show his hand. Will he push to develop more of the mining and manufacturing in space capabilities? Will he work on life support issues or look at locking up some space on the space station to start an assembly area. Given the lack of the ISS capability to do larger scale things one area of activity will need to be to help NASA expand or replace the space station.
I have long believed a rotating space station is an essential part of any effort by man to go beyond this planet. NASA made a colossal mistake in building the space station we currently have. Using cheap lift vehicles, manufacturing and construction capabilities Elon is developing would allow us to deliver a new space station 5 times bigger at 1/5 the price of the current space station. This new space station would be a manufacturing hub for our future space vehicles and preparation for developing a Mars/Earth reusable ferry. Such a ship would be essential to reduce the cost to get to Mars and back for all the material we need to deliver.
Elon could decide to leave the life support issues to NASA to develop and to test. Figuring out how to recirculate materials and life support functions is already a NASA specialty. They need to enhance this substantially but if my plan is followed we don’t send humans for a long time so that technology is secondary. What we need now is the industrialization of near Earth and development of robotic systems, eventually robotic landers for Mars to do exploration, mining and manufacturing. Elon seems more focused on those things.