On July 12, TIME editor-at-large and space reporter Jeffrey Kluger had a far-ranging conversation with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk at the company’s headquarters in California. They discussed Musk’s reasons for starting SpaceX, his thoughts on his various challengers in the new race to the moon, and his predictions for the near-future of human space travel. The interview below has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
TIME: History is usually most viscerally felt by people who lived it. If you lived through World War II, you understand World War II. You came along two years after Apollo 11. And yet space seems to be in your marrow.
Elon Musk: I think Apollo 11 was one of the most inspiring things in all of human history. Arguably the most inspiring thing. And one of the most universally good things in history. The level of inspiration that provided to the people of Earth was incredible. And it certainly inspired me. I’m not sure SpaceX would exist if not for Apollo 11.
I kept expecting that we would continue beyond Apollo 11, that we would have a base on the moon, that we would be sending people to Mars. And that by 2019 probably would be sending people to the moons of Jupiter. And I think actually if you ask[ed] most people in 1969 they would have expected that. And here we are in 2019. The U.S. actually does not have the ability to send people even to low-Earth orbit.
So year after year, I kept expecting us to exceed Apollo and we didn’t. And it made me sad about the future. And I thought, well at least for me and I think probably for a lot of people you want to have a sense that the future’s gonna be better than the past. And if you don’t have that sense it leads to cynicism, pessimism about the future.
Lots of other people who love space felt that same despair and disappointment. I certainly did and yet I didn’t build a space and company and you did. So what was it that made you think, “Yeah this has to be done, and I’m the guy who can do it, or at least one of the guys who can do it”?
Well I didn’t think I was one of the guys who could do it. I thought SpaceX would be 90% likely to fail. And the way I actually started out was I was gonna do a philanthropic mission called “Mars Oasis” to land a small greenhouse on the surface of Mars with seeds in dehydrated nutrient gel that would hydrate upon landing. And you’ve have this incredible shot of green plants against a red background. My goal was simply to get the public excited, which would then get Congress excited so that they would appropriate more money and increase NASA’s budget. I was gonna take half the money that I made from PayPal and essentially it would be gone—in order to increase NASA’s budget, and then we’d go to Mars.
It could not have been easy getting a home-brew space mission and rocket company off the ground. How did you begin?
I went to Russia to try to buy some decommissioned ICBMs, which sounds crazy, but you know, they’re gonna throw them away anyway.I went to Russia a couple of times because I couldn’t afford the American rockets. They were too expensive. Russia was decommissioning a whole bunch of ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles]. So in 2001 and early 2002 I went to Russia to try to buy some decommissioned ICBMs, which sounds crazy, but you know, they’re gonna throw them away anyway. But they kept raising the price on me.
I also came to realize that even if we doubled NASA’s budget, unless NASA had good options for rocket contractors, they would still not make progress ’cause it would just be more expendable rockets and we’d be at risk of a flags-and-footprints outcome for Mars, which is still better than not going there at all, but not as good as having a base on Mars, a base on the Moon, and ultimately a self sustaining city on Mars. And so I was like ‘okay I gotta try building a rocket company here.’
I thought this was almost certain to fail. In fact, I would not let anyone invest in the company in the beginning. Not because I thought it would turn out well, but because I thought it would fail.
If the Elon Musk of 2019 could talk to Wernher Von Braun, Chris Craft, Gene Kranz and all of the heroes of the 1960s—if you had one piece of advice to give them whether it was technological, spiritual, salesmanship, long-term vision, what would it be?
Well, Wernher Von Braun really knew what he was doing. His plans were for reusability. But those plans were stymied. It doesn’t matter how you skin the cat, you just have to get reusability done. It’s so insane the way rockets work today. It would be like if you got a plane and the way you get to your destination is you bail out with a parachute over the city in question and your plane crash lands somewhere. That’s how rockets work today—with the exception of Falcon 9. This is completely bonkers.
In order for us to be a multi-planet species we must solve full reusability of rockets. In the absence of that…. It would as though if in the old days if ships were not reusable. The cost of an ocean voyage would be tremendous. And you’d need to have a second ship towed behind you for the return journey. Or you can imagine if airplanes were not reusable, nobody would fly, you know, because airliner costs a couple hundred million dollars.
So this is why full and rapid reusability is the holy grail of access to space and is a fundamental step towards it—without which we cannot become a multi planet species. We cannot have a base on the moon or a city on Mars without full and rapid reusability. This is why we’ve been working so hard towards reusability at SpaceX.
There are people who argue for taking the same monomaniacal—and I mean that in a good way—focus and creativity that SpaceX brings to the work it does and applying to developing a truly renewable, truly clean power grid. The knock-on effects in terms of saving the species would be easier to see what in the relatively short term. Do you ever think about that in those 3 AM hours?
Well, I think Tesla’s actually made great progress towards a sustainable energy economy. I think for electrification of transport Tesla’s arguably advanced the cores of sustainable transport by 10 years, maybe 20. These are small numbers in the grand scheme of things. But they do matter.
If I were to fully allocate myself to Tesla, how much faster could we grow versus if I split my time between SpaceX and Tesla? I think the marginal value is relatively limited. I’d rather have Tesla take a couple years longer and still have SpaceX ’cause I think this is the right balance for the greater good.
I wish there was some way to do rockets without burning things. But there isn’t. I mean, Newton’s third law, no way around it. So, you know, balancing what is best for humanity—well, there’s just no other way to do it except rockets.
Obviously a question a lot of folks wanna know right now is, when will we start seeing regular crewed runs to the International Space Station on a crewed Dragon?
Well, this is both a NASA and a SpaceX readiness thing. So from a SpaceX readiness standpoint, my guess is we’re about six months. But whatever the schedule currently looks like, it’s a bit like Zeno’s paradox. You’re sort of halfway there at any given point in time. And then somehow you get there. So if our schedule currently says about four months, then probably about eight months is correct.
If you had to bet your house on it, when would you say the next boot prints show up on the moon?
Well, this is gonna sound pretty crazy, but I think we could land on the moon in less than two years. Certainly with an uncrewed vehicle I believe we could land on the moon in two years. So then maybe within a year or two of that we could be sending crew. I would say four years at the outside.
And when you say, “We,” do you mean the U.S. or you mean SpaceX?
It may literally be easier to just land Starship on the moon than try to convince NASA that we can.I’m not sure. If it were to take longer to convince NASA and the authorities that we can do it versus just doing it, then we might just do it. It may literally be easier to just land Starship on the moon than try to convince NASA that we can.
Obviously this is a decision that’s out of my hands. But the sheer amount of effort required to convince a large number of skeptical engineers at NASA that we can do it is very high. And not unreasonably so, ’cause they’re like, “Uh, come on. How could this possibly work?” The skepticism…you know, they’d have good reasons for it. But the for sure way to end the skepticism is just do it.
Instead of going with the Falcon rockets and Dragon spacecraft you’ve got and saying, “Let’s get ourselves to the moon in three years,” you’re going an even more ambitious step further with, the Super Heavy and Starship. Why do that? Why not say, “We can go now”?
Well, I think we could do a repeat of Apollo 11 and a few small missions—you know, send people back to the moon. But the remake’s never as good as the original.
We really wanna have a vehicle capable of sending enough payload to the moon or Mars, such that we could have a full lunar base. A permanently occupied lunar base would be incredible. Like we’ve got a permanently occupied base in Antarctica. And it’d be absolutely way cooler to have a science base on the moon.
So that’s why we’re trying to build it as fast as possible. You know, I think it’s generally a good idea for a company that is building technology to try to make its own products redundant as quickly as possible. It’s slightly discomforting because we’ve put so much work into Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy and Dragon. But actually the thing we should aspire to do is to render them redundant as quickly as possible. And we’ll put them in the museum.
Lastly, there are gonna be feet on the moon. There are gonna be feet on Mars. Could they be yours one day?
I would like to go to the moon and Mars. I think that’d be quite fun. But I need to make sure…the overarching goal here is to help make life multi-planetary. This is not some sort of personal quest to go to the moon or to Mars. My sort of philosophical foundation is in line with Douglas Adams, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. What he was essentially saying was, “The universe is the answer, what are the questions?” And if we expand the scope and scale of consciousness, then we are better able to understand what questions to ask. We’ll learn more, we’ll become more enlightened. And so we should try to do the things that expand the scope and scale of consciousness. And becoming a multi-planet species and ensuring that we have a sustainable climate on earth, these are very important to that overarching philosophy. And that’s the philosophy I buy into.