If anyone figures out how to create a "Star Trek"-style transporter for traveling across continents or even planets in the few seconds it takes to blow apart and then reassemble human molecules into a full-fledged body, my bet is it'll be Elon Musk.
On Saturday, the Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) chief executive talked of his intentions to disrupt nearly every form of terrestrial and interstellar transportation at the annual South By Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas.
During a talk that covered everything from humanity's will to explore Mars to strategies for juggling email and parenting, Musk captivated an audience of thousands when he described SpaceX's recent effort to overcome harrowing in-flight malfunctions to dock yet another Dragon supply capsule with the International Space Station. The company's first effort ended successfully in October.
This time, Musk said, three of the four thruster pods weren't working after liftoff, which left the capsule effectively adrift in space. His team responded by piecing together a solution that involved broadcasting fresh code to the Dragon over a borrowed Air Force communications network. The hope? Give the spacecraft a sort of in-orbit "Heimlich maneuver" that would push open pathways for activating dormant thrusters. Hacking for the space age, you might call it.
And that was just the opener. Over an hour-long interview with former Wired editor Chris Anderson, Musk covered a wide range of topics. Here's a sampling of takeaways both relevant and trivial:
On Tesla and his fight with The New York Times: Asked to post-mortem the experience of battling the Times, Musk said he might have published a piece countering the paper's rebuttal to his initial criticisms. "I don't have a problem with critical reviews. I have a problem with false reviews," Musk said, calling writer John Broder's test a "low-grade ethics violation."
On aliens: Musk believes they're out there. "Hopefully we do [detect other life], and hopefully it isn't a warship coming toward us."
On the Dreamliner: Musk made headlines when he offered to help Boeing (NYSE:BA) solve battery issues with the 787. Why did he do it? For a friend. Musk said Virgin's Sir Richard Branson told him his airline was losing "hundreds of millions" as a result of the snafu. Virgin Atlantic has ordered 15 of the 787 aircraft with an option for at least eight more.
On China's cheap solar cells: U.S. solar cell makers such as SunPower and First Solar have suffered astounding losses thanks to cheap imports. Musk doesn't see that as nearly as much of a problem as others do. "What China is doing in the solar panel world is awesome, because they're lowering the cost of solar power for the world," Musk said. SolarCity (NASDAQ:SCTY.DL), in which he is an investor, may very well be benefiting from the cuts.
On having kids: Musk is a father of five. "You should all have kids. Kids are awesome," Musk said, going on to explain that he multitasks in email while spending time with them. How else to keep tabs on his two multibillion dollar companies?
On the impetus for SpaceX: Musk said he visited the NASA website to find out when the U.S. planned to visit Mars, only to find there was no plan. "If humanity doesn't land on Mars in my lifetime, I'd be really disappointed."
On going to Mars himself: Of course, Musk's ultimate ambition is to reach farther than any entrepreneur in human history. "I would like to die on Mars, just not on impact."
On changing transportation forever: Musk responded to a questioner who asked about a closely held project called "Hyperloop" by saying that Tesla shareholders wouldn't take kindly to seeing him switch gears until his car company had at least two quarters of profitability on the books. But he also positioned the project as perhaps the biggest of his Big Ideas, calling it "faster than a plane, immune to weather, incapable of crashing." Color me intrigued.
On Armageddon: Musk said the time to pursue amazing technical feats is now because we've still got enough resources to satisfy our intellectual capacity and desire for astonishing technical achievement. That won't be true 500 million years from now when the oceans boil. "1 billion on the outside," he said.
Start the countdown.