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Elon Musk’s Mission to Mars (wired.com)
497 points by sravfeyn on Nov 2, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 148 comments

There's one interesting quote in the article:

Musk: I can’t tell you much. We have essentially no patents in SpaceX. Our primary long-term competition is in China—if we published patents, it would be farcical, because the Chinese would just use them as a recipe book.

If your process/ideas are sufficiently complex, it reduces competition if you don't file a patent.

Lots of industries do this. Patents are useful when it's obvious what your idea is, and where it's easy for people/competitors to have have a poke inside. Like a vacuum cleaner or a non-reflective mobile-phone screen coating, or one-click or something like that.

But for industries where that's not the case, like rockets (my current) or to pick another example from a previous job, magnetic bearings for sub-sea tubo-machinery installations like natural gas compressors[1], it makes no sense to file a patent. It's much easier to keep it a secret, because it's not like your competitors are going to scuba-dive down to the compressor control cabinet, whip out a JTAG and see how you've implemented your control loop on an FPGA.

Likewise, if you do patent it, it's very difficult to prove an infringement for the same reasons.

So essentially, in industries where it's not the case that your competitors can see what you've done, secrets over patents is the norm, in my experience, and has been for while.

[1] Mag bearings use electromagnetic stators and magnetic collars on the shaft to levitate the shaft inside a bit of spinning equipment. This means it's entirely non-contact, dramatically reducing wear, especially useful on difficult-to-service installations like sub-sea.

So, in really complex and advanced stuff, patents aren't worth it and companies revert to trade secrets and the take-the-secret-to-the-tomb approach, the very same thing the existence of patents is intended to avoid.

And in more accessible industries, where knowledge is abundant, costs low and independent reinvention highly probable, patents stall and block and create monopolies and in general cause economic damage in wasted time and money.

Man, we sure got a sweet deal out of this.

Well, or industries where disclosure is mandated (pharmaceutical and medical devices) by regulatory concerns, providing some additional protection (through patents) to compensate does seem to make sense.

But there are a lot of issues with pharma patents, too, like evergreening old drugs by combining two existing about-to-expire into a new drug, or getting approved for a new on-label use, etc. (including really cynical stuff, like initially patenting a drug for use in one patient population (say, white people?) and then doing a new study and re-patenting for another specific population (asians, etc.), where there was never any reason to suspect the drug, disease, method of action, etc. would be different.

Pharma and medical devices should be directly funded by the State (just the research part I mean), just as we do with military research.

And the cost could be shared among the developed countries. And we could direct research towards causes and cures, instead of just treatments.

Drugs get made, researchers paid, companies compete on merit and enjoy a steady income instead on gambling on the next Viagra, we stop killing people in poor countries who can't afford monopolistic prices, and there is one less reason for having patents at all.

Medical devices are far more loosely regulated than pharma, and IMO a lot more innovative (maybe as a result of shorter development/trials cycle, easier testing, and thus lower capital requirements). You literally have hobbyists, garage entrepreneurs, etc. still, which is amazing (and a huge Israeli contribution).

Medical device development is so interdisciplinary that I have zero confidence in the government being able to staff/grant/etc. its development. The only people in government likely to create medical devices would be end users who happen to be hackers, or government employees (at places like NIST) who are technical, need the product personally, and end up developing it on their own as a side project.

Government-funded R&D might work for NIH style long term research which is very structured and well understood, but I think it would be horrible for "hacking", which is what medical device creation largely is. What is really needed for devices is a bunch of bootcamp type programs for non-biomedical engineers to learn about the process, and clinicians posting to the Internet with their problems with current systems. I think today one of the main ways developers find out is when they or a family member/friend goes in for a procedure and they see a need.

The problem then shifts from competitors using your patents to competitors actively engaging in industrial espionage. Considering how easily the JSF program was penetrated by the Chinese, I hope that SpaceX has well guarded data.

Indeed. A friend just sent me this:

"china can't compete because all their aerospace students are spies (joke from my chums in the physics department)"

SpaceX have mentioned how seriously they take cyber security and with somebody like Elon Musk at the helm, I'm sure they're much better than Fortune 500 companies and the big aerospace companies.

A small factor as well is that once the patents expire, you have no advantage. As Coca Cola will attest, a secret can last for a lot longer.

My feeling is that you should use both. Patent the things you can't hide and keep secret the things you can.

If you think the competition is close to duplicating what you've kept secret, patent it then if possible.

Of course, if they, too, can keep it a secret, there's no point in patenting it. But if you know how to detect it, it might be worth patenting it.

Note that this has a double meaning. He's not just talking about "the Chinese" and their well known cavalier attitude toward intellectual property, he's specifically talking about the government of China, which is ultimately the operator of the Long March launch vehicles. Suing sovereign governments for patent infringement has historically not been a winning proposition.

It's actually worse than that. Tech companies routinely use a combination of patents, trade secrets and copyright to make the shared knowledge (patents) basically useless but an exceptionally good defensive and offensive weapon. I recall this came up with Intel and other companies reverse-engineering the Netburst bus.

EDIT: removed point about first-to-file as prior art would largely invalidate such attempts beyond a very narrow time frame.

My (limited) understanding is you can still argue prior art to invalidate the patent. First to file would only come up if both SpaceX and a Chinese company had patents and went to court.

The wiki article expounds a little: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leahy-Smith_America_Invents_Act...

>>First to file would only come up if both SpaceX and a Chinese company had patents and went to court.

If they went to court in the same country, you mean.

I've seen companies enter into a partnership with a Chinese company to manufacture niche products. A few years in, the partnership is stopped and the Chinese company copies everything, shows up on trade shows, etc. There's nothing you can do about it. Patents don't matter in China. Customers buy the products in China.

First to file doesn't work like that. Their patent would be struck down on prior art if they ever tried to use it.

If they keep it secret, it's usually not considered prior art (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prior_art).

Apparently the Leahy-Smith Act allows trade secrets to be used as a patent infringement defense in some cases (IANAL): http://www.patentbaristas.com/archives/2012/06/20/bio-2012-e...

Patents aren't my area of expertise. That said absurdity in the patent system isn't limited to the software world. This is second-hand info from someone who's had to file these patents, but I've heard you can get patents on metal alloys providing that you can state the exact reason why that specific alloy composition gives the property you desire. If a competitor then proves that the property is a consequence of some other effect, your patent is invalidated. So there's not much incentive to patent these things if keeping it a trade secret is a more viable alternative.

It's frustrating when you're working on a problem you're 90% sure a better funded industry player has already solved. Maybe they solved it through trial and error, without needing or wanting to understand the fundamental science behind it, but you then have to re-discover their results before you can even make progress in the understanding. But it's that understanding that's essential for developing completely new materials for the future. It's not all that bad, but it's certainly sub-optimal.

The question being if they "efficiently" solved the problem already. They may have found a solution, although significant room for improvement exists.

My father runs a company which has been in our family for 250 years. It weaves silk fabrics for luxurious furnitures for mansions and alikes (Versailles comes to mind).

He's always told me that he'll never try to register its designs to any authority since the company's main competitors are the chinese, and that they do not care for forgein laws and registrations. Well, obviously.

Surely, this is not suitable to every businesses, but I couldn't think at the time that this would apply to the space industry as well.

That company should do well. Chinese competitors may copy a design and try to undersell you – but you're countering by selling to the high end market (like Apple does). I hope the company does well!

The really hard part is the supply chain. For example, Apple was hit by the "bad cap" problem when they went with the cheaper caps (stolen formula): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capacitor_plague#Industrial_esp...

SpaceX appears to be producing so much of their design in-house that the suppliers don't yet play a major role. I'm going with the assumption SpaceX will be around long term, so that will be a challenge as they try to bring costs down even more. They're not selling to the high end market.

A lot of companies choose to keep their intellectual property as "trade secrets" instead. (Like the Coke recipe, etc.) Just like SpaceX, it can often be better for the company than a patent.


Remember that "Theft of trade secrets" is a federal crime, and use of "stolen" information is subject to a major civil liability.

This is why Boeing and Lockheed had to play nice and form United Launch Alliance for the EELV & Space Shuttle Support Contract.


They formed United Launch Alliance (ULA) for EELV.

They formed United Space Alliance (USA) for the Space Flight Operations Contract.

One of the supposed points of patents is that the inventor shares knowledge with the world in exchange for temporary monopoly. If the patent is not enforced (such as in China), then there is no incentive to file. It might be smarter, from a business standpoint, to just keep the knowledge to yourself.

As long as you can keep control over your organization. With anything significantly large enough, it's probably not too hard to slip a spy in.

So all the things that really should be patented, turn out to be better off left unpatented for competitive reasons. Nice.

What are the main differences between martian & earthling patent laws?

You joke, but the largest export of Martian colonies will probably be patents. Frontier living tends to push envelopes a lot.

Shouldn't your phrase it as invention instead of patents?

I was at the University of Washington science and engineering career fair last month, recruiting for Mozilla. Our booth was reasonably busy, but the SpaceX booth had a gigantic mob surrounding it at all times. People are seriously excited about space.

I was actually at the same fair, I was tempted to leave my own booth a few times to go sign up. It does look promising.

Did you come to my Hacker News meetup last month? Chris Lewicki from Planetary Resources spoke, which was pretty awesome.

The Explorer's Club in New York had Space Exploration as a theme in 2010, it was amazing how excited people got, and entrepreneurs have really taken hold of space travel. People should also check out Richard Garriott's work in the area, he spoke at the dinner and is another awesome space entrepreneur: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yiWoY36Ukc

> The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative.

Sounds like so many complaints about the enterprise software landscape, and has certainly proved to be true in my own experience. Codified processes usually start with the guise of open communications and education, either because someone wasn't thinking or because of a pressing need to get a few people on the same page. They are soon adopted and enforced as dogma by natural-born bureaucrats who crawl out of the woodwork from seemingly nowhere. It must be an incredible challenge to fight in any large organization, looking at it from the top down.

So far, Musk appears to be doing an admirable job. These things tend to last only as long as a real visionary is at the helm. He is young so hopefully can keep at it for a while longer still, hopefully even long enough to get us to Mars. From this article, he didn't actually say to much about such plans. I wonder if it's just a judicious amount of prudence on his part or if even he fears it may not be feasible in his lifetime.

This is something I've been struggling with. I see the two paths to success being mutually exclusive; throw out process and go big or channel process into success.

See this link and the ensuing discussion: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4727045

This view is to cultivate habits and work consistently and methodically every day.

Elon's view is to toss out process and dream big.

What is the best way to reconcile these two opinions? Is it a matter of scale (i.e. personal process but enterprise chutzpah?)

> What is the best way to reconcile these two opinions? Is it a matter of scale (i.e. personal process but enterprise chutzpah?)

It's a matter of experience. Process is defined by the boundary at which things start to fray. You can only find that boundary by running into it a few times and recognizing where it is. It gets much, much more complex as you grow in size because the fraying can happen as part of how two individuals interact. The more individuals you have, the riskier it is to assume the boundary is farther out, and thus the safer it is to constrict using process; there are interpersonal boundaries on top of your personal comfort zones.

If you don't need the habits and consistency, then you don't need them. Don't do that. Go big until you fail. Figure out why you failed. Account for it next time. That accounting is process. And probe your process occasionally to make sure it's still valid, too.

Process is not a replacement for thinking. It's a tool to be used as enabling repetitive tasks to be higher quality and allowing the doer to focus on higher thought.

His company is geared towards a clear mission which is very motivational to the engineers and managers in team. When a company drives towards a goal with a fanatical zeal, nothing else matters than achieving the milestones. Motivation towards achieving breakthrough achievements will mask the tendency which creates underperformance.

It would be wrong to compare it with any other traditional big company. The structures built around traditional big business work because of some reasons.

Once they achieve the goals of easier space flight and mission to mars and when it become easier or less motivational, probably they will face similar issues like most companies. But i don't this Musk cares a damn about that ... and he shouldn't

This observation goes well beyond enterprise software - this is preferred modus operandi of "legacy" companies, and in my mind the primary reason anyone that prefers autonomy has a hard time working for these companies. When you are the size of Walmart, unless you are strategist working for Walmart corporate, you want your employees to behave like soldiers in the military. This is not surprising given that the modern multi-national corporation, was built on the top down hierarchical model shaped after the military industrial complex. Whats further true is that, this was arguably the best way to organize a large group of people towards a common objective (increasingly share holder value in the case of the better run organizations, or executive compensation in the case of the worst type of these organizations) until very recently. However this model has run its course, and will have a very hard time defending itself against smaller, but very scalable and nimble organizations. Just as the US military realized post 9/11 that it was equipped to fight 20th century wars, but not 21st century wars, which look much more like insurgencies and are way more distributed in nature, large MNC's will have to realize that their top down, process first organization structure is doomed to fail! All we need now is more entrepreneurs to look away from social media a bit and follow Musk's lead in creating real, but more scalable and nimble companies.

Processes are a bit like abstractions in software engineering. They allow you to build on top of it to avoid having to think about everything, but if you don't understand your abstractions, in the long run, you're not going to do anything great.

To paraphrase Bezos, the problem is not process, but the mindless application of them (see this interview: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.07/bezos_pr.html).

If you have't already seen it, Kevin Rose interviews Elon Musk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-s_3b5fRd8

Also, Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about if there was a space race with China the US would be on Mars in 18 months: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=c...

It would be truly amazing if a private company was the first to set foot on another planet.

When (not if) we set foot on Mars, the achievement will be one of humanity. Private company, government, US, China, it doesn't matter. We'll be on Mars, a multi-planetary race. How the accomplishment was funded and by who will not matter (to me, anyway).

I totally agree, but what flag will be planted? Humans love to raise a flag from the geographic location known as a country they are a resident of. It would be amazing if we didn't need a flag this time around, just human accomplishment. But competition drives humans to do great things, look at the olympic records over time. If SpaceX received funding fromt he US government would there be a clause in the contract stating they have to raise an American Flag?

Mars in 18 months

Well, we'd have to wait 2 years for a launch window, but I agree that the US will stop dicking around with zero-g studies when we get scared that China might beat us there.

NASA is probably too risk-averse with human life, and China is too risk-accepting. They once wiped out an entire peasant village in a rocket failure (and tried to cover it up).

EDIT: I had to watch that video to the very end to get to the 18 month mark. Geeze.

> They once wiped out an entire peasant village in a rocket failure (and tried to cover it up).

Wow, I had never heard of anything about this. Wikipedia seems to be very risk averse to stating much more than the official record of 6 deaths and 57 injuries[0], and I couldn't find a good text source in my quick search. This metafilter discussion is good, though, with many links to videos and other sources[1].

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelsat_708

[1]: http://www.metafilter.com/90280/The-worst-spacerelated-disas...

very cool; thanks for the links.

and that would be absolutely amazing; though in some ways (and not to discount musk’s undertaking at all) i feel it speaks more so to a failure of governments (generally speaking) in investing to drive technological advance.

it should be the public sector that leads in these types of endeavors. one of the most important functions of a state is its ability and willingness to invest in projects that would be otherwise unprofitable or far too long-term for any rational player in the private sector to take-on. these investments, while maybe unprofitable to a single entity, are what lay the foundation for significant productivity and standard of living gains down-the-line (which, in-turn, spur many future profitable companies). it’s how everything from highways spanning a continent and parks in the middle of crowded cities to the internet and atomic energy get developed; and it's so crucial to society..

it’s really quite sad to see this important economic function of government neglected, particularly in the us where its proven so successful in generating wealth and societal good time-and-time again.. i mean would we have microsoft and apple around if it wasn’t for the development of the internet? (and google certainly wouldn’t exist).

it’s also sad that the great focus that the nation apparently (long before i came to be) had in driving technological advance has stalled, and such investments have become issues of budgets and ‘big government’ (which i am not a fan of at all by the way). if governments are going to run ridiculous budget deficits anyways (even in years of economic growth) then there should at least be something to show for it at some point; that doesn’t seem to be the case these days..

fortunately there are irrational players in the private sector, like elon musk, who are able to fill the voids. unfortunately though, if (and most likely when) such endeavors prove unprofitable in the long-run, little may show for it.. you’d think more people would be interested (and economically incentivized) to have a government that covers the expensive research and development costs associated with spearheading technologies which they can one-day build-off of (and in incredibly profitable ways), but i guess economic self-preservation (and therefore political pressure) prevail over advance.

with all that said, i really do hope he succeeds.

(also, off topic, but i really wish i could afford a model s right now!)

Can't say I agree that funding this type of endeavor is "one of the most important functions of a state is its ability and willingness to invest in projects that would be otherwise unprofitable or far too long-term for any rational player in the private sector to take-on." Government does many things marginally better than the private sector, and many things poorly.

For example, the Pyramids are a stunning achievement that couldn't have been completed without using government. However, I don't see them as being particularly helpful today.

Governments don't need to have "economic functions" other than protecting property rights, and maintaining a sound currency.

How many tourists would go to Egypt/Cairo if the pyramids weren't there? See also the Sydney Bridge & Opera House, Rio's Cristo Redentor, EifFel tower in Paris, etc

I doubt the totality of tourism revenues since the pyramids were built would even come close to the cost of their construction.

not wanting to get into a philosophical debate here, but even as someone who generally argues for smaller government, i disagree..

people generally discount the significant economic advantages (to all in an economy) that government investments provide; in most cases, investments in transformative projects which otherwise would not have occurred were it up to the private-sector alone.

take development of the us interstate system as an example.. the costs involved in building-out the network are estimated to have been in excess of $425 billion [1] and the original phase took over 35 years to complete as planned; no rational, profit-seeking, company would ever undertake such a project. the economics just don’t make much sense. and even if the private sector was able to come-up with a similarly adequate solution (potentially networks of small/regional players monetizing usage through tolls), the cost to society both in actual usage charges (sufficient to generate profits for the firms) and in lack of a consistent, expandable, and reliable network that so many people and businesses depend on would likely be far in excess of the $425 billion cost.

the fact that the us built-up solid infrastructure (both physical and in terms of networks and connectivity systems) early on (relative to many other nations) provided domestic companies a major competitive advantage over less/later-developed countries; its freed-up physical ($) and intellectual capital towards other endeavors and was a key part of why, collectively, more significant commercialized innovations over the past few decades (by private companies) have come from the us.

and beyond the economic savings from the outcome of the investment itself (i.e. a system facilitating a reliable, consistent, and relatively inexpensive means of transportation), the actual exercise in carrying it through also yields a lot of ancillary economic benefits. new construction methods may be developed, equipment manufacturers may grow in scale or scope, and a lot of people (and companies) are employed (and contracted) in carrying-it through (gaining new skills/experience).

beyond that, there is all the subsequent innovation and opportunity to develop profitable businesses that are created once a major transformational technology is introduced. think of the advantages ups (and later fedex) would have in utilizing the interstate system to grow in scale relative to competitors in countries that lacked similar systems (now lookup who are the leaders in that industry). the benefits are even clearer when you look at all the technology and defense companies that have benefited from foundations laid-out by, or innovations developed during, large government-funded projects such as the internet or during the space race..

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstate_Highway_System

Just because government can do big projects doesn't mean it should.

And Fedex's success depended far more on aviation advances than on the Interstate Highway System. Aviation that was pushed by private industry (while also enjoying support from the militaries of the world).

In the US, the major "infrastructure" type projects that were government driven are often listed as the Erie Canal, the Hoover Dam, and the IHS. Some will throw in the TVS as well, though I consider that more of a state-cooperative effort. Yet we still seemed to have a great deal of scientific progress that in turn led to economic progress before these huge programs were enacted.

The steam engine, the locomotive, the airplane, wireless radio, etc. etc. Goddard didn't have much government support in his initial efforts yet was a pioneer.

I'm not discounting that governments can have a disproportionate impact on some programs. But do we really want to have a government that picks winners and losers as we currently do with alternative energy? I guess we'll find out on Tuesday.

..never said i'm in favour of ‘trying to pick winners and losers' nor do i think the current approach to alternative energy (essentially doing just that) is the right way to go by any means.

rather, i'd like to a concerted effort by the government to find a solution itself (i.e. let’s get a man on the moon in ten years ... let’s have all new vehicles running on a clean and sustainable fuel source within the next 20 years). that type of approach is fundamentally different than let’s invest in this particular company’s particular solution or let’s give a loan to these guys.. it’s more analogous to the projects you described in which the government funded research/planning, developed particular approaches, and then contracted-out the development of potential solutions/implementations, and where it all fit together towards achieving a tangible goal. that’s very different than what’s going on today.

and i'd say ‘alternative energy’ is a poster-child for a project in which the cost of development and commercialization is fairly significant, but the economic and societal benefit of an adequate solution being realized far outweighs it; to me, that makes for an ideal case (and one of few) where increased government involvement can play a good role. especially so, given the government has already distorted the market by subsidizing ‘traditional energy’ sources for so long.

as to what happens tomorrow, i doubt we’ll find-out how it impact this issue in any meaningful way. as i see it, it’s a choice between continuing to pick winners and losers or just giving up entirely; neither is ideal as far as i'm concerned..

Jerry Pournelle has been a huge advocate of X-prizes for advancing technology. These were very valuable at the dawn of the aviation era, and races like the Schneider cup helped push boundaries. The cost is zero if the company/organization fails to reach the defined threshold. Too bad so much govt. spending is associated with buying votes instead of advancing technology.

now there's something we can agree on.

happy election day good sir.

While I agree the state can provide financing it is the private sector that is going to innovate. When you look at the astonishing transportation and exploration break-throughs of humanity it was mostly the private individual (Columbus, Howard Hughs, Lockheed) with the exception of space. Why is that so? Risk. Astronauts from NASA have been saying for years that the cost to launch increased so much because of the aversion of risk.

That is now changing. Space is becoming an endeavor of the private sector and its even on pace of becoming profitable (see Planetary Resources). While NASA has definitely proven humanity can still explore I believe it will be the private sector that will truly set the pace for human break-throughs.

Christopher Columbus had financial backing by the Spanish crown.

Yes but he took on all the risk himself. Even had private investors. So basically the crown didn't have much to lose and a lot to gain.

The Rose interview was really interesting. It seemed like Rose derailed Musk whenever he was on a roll, but a lot of interesting things were said regardless.

> It would be truly amazing if a private company was the first to set foot on another planet.

"When deep space exploration ramps up, it'll be the corporations that name everything, the IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks."

lol; maybe, but i'm pretty sure samsung gets first dibs on naming all galaxies..

I'm an Elon fan, but his comment about the old Russian engines his competitors are using deserves some scrutiny. He's talking about the NK-33 which has a thrust to weight ratio of 137. That's better than any current SpaceX engines though the Merlin 1D under development is apparently aiming for a ratio of 150.

As for the engines being in a warehouse in Siberia since the 60s - that part is basically true. There was an Equinox (UK) documentary called "the engines that came in from the cold" about it. When the cold war was over the Americans finally found out about these engines that were left over from the space race, 20 years old (at the time) and better than anything they'd developed since. Now they're over 40 years old and still the most efficient!

So credit where it's due eh Elon? The NK-33 was and still is a masterpiece.

> The NK-33 was and still is a masterpiece.

Its a bit aggressive to label this engine a masterpiece when it has never actually launched successfully. I don't even think there has been an attempted launch with the NK-33, just ground tests for the N-1F rocket which was cancelled. Interesting note - the second attempted launch of the N-1 rocket, which used the original version of the NK-33 (NK-15) resulted in the largest non-nuclear explosion of all time.

There is more to an engine than power to weight ratio, such as actually successfully putting a rocket in space.

Here is more on the N-1 and the explosion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N1_(rocket)#Launch_history

Apologies for being somewhat off-topic, but does anybody know if there are citizenship requirements for working at a place like SpaceX?

I have a solid background in materials science and metallurgy from a world-class university, and find what Musk is doing very inspirational. After I finish my PhD, I'd love to be a part of it, but I'm British and I know with some companies in the industry there're citizenship requirements for security reasons. As he mentions in the interview, they wouldn't want China stealing their ideas, for example. And I know a lot of the job postings on SpaceX list "US citizen or permanent resident" as a requirement, but I didn't know if this was a hard and fast rule, or whether exceptions are possible.

I think the limitation is actually put in place by the US government because rocket technology is basically weapons technology. I may be wrong about that though.

It very much is a government thing, yes. I've looked into this in the past when looking at internship opportunities.

That's what I feared.

It's not that hard to become a US permanent resident. SpaceX doesn't hire many PhD's though, they're quite manufacturing/design oriented. The guys I knew who got in were all bachelor's and master's holders with hands-on experience building stuff that flies (mostly via student projects) and high gpa's (3.7+) from good schools.

Thanks for the info and the advice. I know my PhD isn't going to help me, at least not directly, because it's only peripherally related but my undergrad background is very solid. I've also interned at Rolls-Royce working on jet engines, and I know the kind of materials design issues they'll be running up against. e.g. in the article he mentions stir welding, something I've studied (and had the pleasure of visiting the organisation that developed it, TWI). So while I don't have actual "hands-on" experience building stuff that flies, I still think I could be useful.

Dude go for it! Sounds like the opportunity of a life time and you sound like you know your stuff. Send some emails!

Don't forget that Elon Musk was born in South Africa and became an American citizen. You would definitely have to move to the US and plan to stay, but Musk won't hate immigrants.

It's a hard and fast rule. You must either be a US citizen or permanent resident. ITAR is the reason.

That's a real shame, but understandable. It's too bad they have to artificially restrict their talent pool like that.

Get on the track for citizenship. We in the aerospace industry have a long and glorious tradition of Americanizing engineers for space program.

Try applying and find out. You have nothing to lose but a little time.

I won't be in a position to apply for another two years, but if I thought there was even a chance of being accepted there're things I could do in the meantime to make myself a much more attractive applicant.

Then ask them that. Really, competent potential hires showing early interest for that reason is the dream of every engineering/R&D HR person. They'll be very happy to tell you what you want to know if you're at all interesting for them as a potential hire. Spontaneous passionate applicants are usually much more interesting to a high tech company than nearly anyone a recruiter can come up with.

If you want potentially revolutionary, reusable space projects with some ninja materials science, there is a project rather closer to home for you, which you might be interested in:


Thanks, the link's appreciated. I've heard of REL before, but I didn't realise they were doing quite so well at the moment!

Yes, you must be a U.S. citizen. It's an ITAR restriction (google it) because essentially you'd be working on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

OR permanent resident.

"It’s like something out of a movie or my old Tintin books. It’s the way space was supposed to be."

Yes! Finally someone gets it!

Motherfucking space! Is aspirational!

We go to space not because it is easy, but because it is hard AND AWESOME.

What I find amazing about this is how they could make such big technical advances leading to such big cost reductions by essentially being unencumbered by bureaucracy and bad incentive structures. (And that's of course not to deny their hard work and smarts - I'm really impressed by what they've done).

I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise, but it's still hard to avoid naively thinking that surely there had been technical challenges holding up the technological progress in those areas for so long.

  Indeed, psychological investigations have found that entrepreneurs aren’t more risk-
  tolerant than non-entrepreneurs.  They just have an extraordinary ability to believe
  in their own visions, so much so that they think what they’re embarking on isn’t
  really that risky. They’re wrong, of course...
If you are determined (you keep trying) is it actually that risky? For example, if there's a 1 in 10 chance of success, and you try 10 times, it becomes a 65% chance (1-.9^10). Plus, of course, you will learn a tremendous amount from each attempt; gather more resources; ask others; change your approach; even modify your goal (perhaps to something more audacious).

I think what stops people is aversion to the unfamiliar (whereas some people like it), and the pain of each failure. People like Edison fail a thousand times, and keep going (even if you hate him, you have to admit that takes a certain courage).

After 3 rocket failures, Musk said something similar http://www.wired.com/science/space/news/2008/08/musk_qa (at the end):

  Optimism, pessimism, fuck that; we're going to make it happen.
  As God is my bloody witness, I'm hell-bent on making it work. 
If you don't give up, success is inevitable.

Tip: do not start a career in Russian Roulette. Let's say you can 'win' by playing it 100 times. Then, if enough people do not give up, success is inevitable. However, there is no guarantee that you will be the one that is successful.

I was telling my dad the other day this is a guy I could see my kids or grandkids using as a subject for a school report. Such an interesting person.

Elon Musk is a leader of our generation, with vision that most of us can only dream of.

Lots of folks have a vision of a mission to mars. What counts is the execution.

I'd argue that vision implies the ability/willingness to execute, whereas dreaming is just that. Musk seems to have the execution down so far!

To be fair to those folks most of them aren't billionaires.

To be fair to Musk, some of them are billionaires (think about folks like George Lucas who have made billions through sci fi movies etc.)

Extremely true

ok but how did Musk got to be a millionaire? hint: execution.

Great read, makes me want to quit my job and start building a rocketship...

I love that this brilliant guy is talking about interplanetary space travel as the obvious future.

"Musk: The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative."

I nearly cried. This is my company, and it is so very disappointing.

Thans it, i'm making a shrine for Elon. He's close to a demi-god as you can get. Officially my new hero. Just think about the shear amount of time he puts into Tesla motors alone. And Elon just says fuck it. Lets go to Mars. Humanity doen't want to live up to their potential? So I will.. god speed Leon.

Elon Musk is such an inspiration. for him, nothing is impossible and that is what I admire the most in him.

Elon Musk is boss. He puts every other visionary out there to shame. What a guy!

The complexity of getting to Mars is nothing compared to the complexity of creating a social unit that can survive and thrive on another planet.

Specifically, an Antarctic planet covered in chlorinated brominated rusty dust with essentially no air pressure or atmospheric water, a dim sun, rotten weather, two ugly little moons, and 57,600,000 millisecond ping times.

No chance to ever feel fresh air on your face, no chance to go swimming, never meeting a stranger until they're suddenly your neighbors for life, no chance to ever get away and start anew, and no chance to go back to Earth.

In a box, on a dead planet, for life.

Seriously, are dismissive and pessimistic remarks like this the top-voted comment on _every single_ Hacker News post these days?

Elon Musk has built a fucking space rocket company and is defeating Boeing, Lockheed Martin and MDD in a business they've dominated for the last 40 years. I think this is an incredibly impressive accomplishment, and SpaceX's ambitions to make it possible to do manned missions to Mars is exactly what we need to bring humanity forward. Just from the science side alone, having actual people on Mars would be of tremendous value. If you think of what we know about Mars, think about how much more we would know if we were able to do more complex experiments there. Whether you personally think it's a good idea to settle down on Mars or not isn't very relevant.

You're pointing at some very relevant issues, but why not phrase it in a more constructive tone? I'm sorry for the negativity, but it pisses me off when grand ideas and accomplishments are dismissed so offhandedly. Getting to Mars is not nearly "nothing", even compared to _anything_ that humans have ever done.

Sure. Elon Musk is a heroic man. His car company is a marvel, and his space program is spectacular. His unfettered ability to speak without a mouth full of funder's cock or a PR minder sitting in the room is refreshing. His visions are grounded in technical and physical reality, his powers of observation are keen, and he has the personality and resources it takes to organize people in service of great accomplishments.

Sanely priced two-way trips to Mars will change the course of humanity by enabling us to colonize the solar system and perhaps ensure a longer story for all mankind. This is the most interesting thing I've read all day, and he deserves every bit of attention.

Now back to your regularly scheduled pessimism:

Humanity has a long way to go, and a change of scenery isn't going to do all that much for her. The United States of America with her vast resources and impeccable pedigree in advancing Enlightenment is operating a torture camp for political prisoners in a subtropical shithole.

What exactly happens when we send a thousand of our best and brightest and edgiest and most ambitious to live in what is essentially an submarine entombed underground for a decade? Do they live up to the Star Trek ideal? Or do they do what people in confined spaces tend to do?

Can we provide a reasonable quality of life for colonists? Beyond maintaining air pressure and food, can we provide for them spiritually and emotionally? Can we provide a -life-? Geology only gets you so far. Even on Earth it's kind of an obscure trade, and geology is about all there is to -do- on Mars.

What does a day to day life look like there? Do the children go to school? How is conflict handled? Who participates in what activities? What if there is too much to do? What if there isn't enough to do? How do you settle transplanetary custody battles when it means mommy or daddy taking the kid on a potentially lethal trip to another planet? How do you handle disease when everyone's in a thousand foot wide sphere? How do you bury people on an igneous planet? What does suicide mean for a Martian civilization?

There are a billion things to consider, and Elon has the first five thousand handled. I am delighted that we get to think about the rest now.

First, a reply to your original post :

> In a box, on a dead planet, for life.

Sign me up, right now!!!

> Can we provide a reasonable quality of life for colonists?

I don't care. I would need a) air+water b) food c) a place to sleep d) tools to colonize the planet - like create more living space. For quality of life, if I can get e) book or movies or even f) internet access, great! If I can't that's not a dealbreaker.

So, sign me up!!

I do admire this sort of enthusiasm, but I also wonder if it can survive such a mission. However we don't need to send a mission to Mars to find out, and if anybody truly wants to send people to Mars on anything other than short term suicide mission then we really need to do a lot more research in this area. Build enclosed isolated environments with limited space, resources and comms, and see how teams get on over long time periods if they believe there is no way out.

I'm not convinced that our future as flesh and blood humans is in space, or even on any of the other planets in our solar system, but if we're going to try then we cannot focus solely on the hard technical challenges.

I'm totally motivated and committed to Mars. Would that commitment survive in a mission? IMHO, totally because I'd even say yes to a one-way trip with a time limit (ie your "life support system will stop working in 3 years")

But the idea of an enclosed isolated test environment just doesn't raise the same kind of enthusiasm in me.

Unless there are side benefits (like freedom - ie build a new country from scratch in the middle of say Antarctica!!) I don't know why, but I really don't feel like taking part in the experience.

I guess it's all about selfishness - being on Mars matches my selfish motives. Doing a 10 years test somewhere in a controlled bunker on earth, a sacrifice for the next team who might do the same on real Mars??? I'll pass the opportunity.

That makes me wonder if it would be a good thing to run such an experiment, considering the volunteers would certainly be different (in their reason and personalities) from the ones who would volunteer for a real Mars mission.

>I am delighted

You certainly don't sound like it.

I would sprint through a minefield to be on that first boat out. My wallpaper at one point in life was panoramic prints from the Opportunity rover. I wrote Kim Stanley Robinson a fan letter, signed with a chewed up gelly pen. I am utterly delighted.

But the hard part is extremely, extremely, extremely hard. It's not getting there, it's staying there. And scant few people are focusing on what it would actually look like and how it would actually work if we actually sent people offworld, which I very much want to happen. Mars500 needs to be Mars5000000 before this dream is real.

Honestly, if we could airlift people into the Sahel with a real-world replica of what would be going to Mars and they could make it a few years, I could die happy.

Elon Musk has the easy job in all this.

I can answer all your questions:

Some people will be happy with the life.

Some people will be unhappy with the life.

Same as it is in every single other living situation.

I'm not convinced. After all, colonization of far away lands has been done throughout history and in many cases the return trip was as hard as it would be on Mars.

I picture the confinement problem as the most troublesome, but astronauts spend months in orders of magnitude tighter spaces and surviving in relatively good condition.

There's no reason at all you should send untrained people on those first missions and there's also no reason at all not to schedule yearly trips to bring back the people who couldn't stand the pressure.

Now, of course it will be insanely hard, there will be highly complex issues with no apparent solution that will have to be solved via improvisation without the proper means. But humans seem to have done it again and again.

I have to say that I definitely agree with your point--and your writing style is great. Do you happen to have a blog or contribute material to any other website (aside from this one, of course)?

Soon, thank you. But I doubt I'll connect it to this or any of my other sour and shitty identities. Time for a fresh start.

>What exactly happens when we send a thousand of our best and brightest and edgiest and most ambitious to live in what is essentially an submarine entombed underground for a decade?

That's what we're trying to find out.

There competing and making money, but they are still a tiny player so I don't know if you can say there winning. The space industry is much like the healthcare industry in that once your a large player you can't really grow much and there are a lot of perverse incentives to be less efficient.

I think you're being a bit hyperbolic. Musk built a small aerospace company. He's not exactly crushing Boeing.

Not crushing, but he's competing with them and that's impressive.

I really liked his comment, and didn't consider it dismissive. Reminded me of Ray Bradbury in fact.

Why "for life"? Even if a permanent base is established, what would stop people from traveling there to work for a year or so and then returning home? I know health concerns related to radiation and gravity may impose some constraints, but would a round-trip journey be out of the question? Musk's explicit goal is to make and use fully-reusable rockets, so obviously he intends them to travel both directions.

If you're talking about an eventual permanent colony, it will definitely need some brave souls willing to make a one-way trip -- but so have many colonies in Earth history. And the colonists needn't be as cut off as you say if they could have visitors from Earth coming and going regularly. The round-trip radio delay between Mars and Earth is anywhere from 7 minutes to 45 minutes (I think your "ping time" was off by an order of magnitute or two), which is far shorter than the delay for, say, European colonists in 18th-century America or Africa to write to their friends back home.

By the time we are thinking about raising children on another planet, we might even be able to build them an indoor swimming pool. :)

> what would stop people from traveling there to work for a year or so and then returning home?

It might be cheaper and easier to deliver sustainable life support to Mars than the fuel, oxidizer and engines to return (or the machinery needed to harvest it in situ).

Yes! The idea of 0.38G water is fascinating. It must look "wrong" when it ripples or pours.

I prefer 0.16G water.


"Men wanted for a hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success."

More than 5000 applications followed. Not everybody is made for adventure though.

This was the ad that Shackleton placed in the paper to find a crew for his most famous expedition:


If anyone here hasn't, Ernest Shackleton's 'South' is basically mandatory reading. It's his own book about his own experiences, it's dispassionate and yet wildly exciting, and even though you know how it ends, you're on the edge of your seat. Superb adventure.


I thought it was fantastic. Project Gutenburg has also made it available.

...but unfortunately actually didn't. Still a great quote though!


Or you're a space explorer, at the very edge of civilization and technology, pushing the human race forward and signing your name in history for the next thousand years.

I am all for people being motivated by a higher calling and trying to be explorers, but you'd better forget about the "signing your name into history" bit. Unless you're one of the very first or do something very special, very few people will remember you. Could you, off the top of your head, recount the names of all the Apollo astronauts? Could you list, even with some research, say, the first 100 people from Europe that settled in North America?

People should do that stuff because they love to do it, not out of a misguided hope of becoming famous for future generations.

Even if you don't remember their names, though, you can recall the fact that there existed Apollo astronauts, men who were brave enough to go on those pioneering missions.

DHH put it very eloquently in an essay 4 years ago: http://37signals.com/svn/posts/1437-put-a-dent-in-the-univer... -

"The key is that your efforts would be missed, your customers would have a sense of loss, if you stopped doing what you’re doing."

Imagine if history said this about Apollo: "The technology was there, but in the end, we lacked people brave enough to risk the voyage. So the project stagnated, the rockets languished on the launching pads. And America moved on, a president's promise forgotten."

I'd say the nameless astronaut makes a pretty big dent.

I don't remember apollo astronauts, but Wikipedia does.

Hopefully our records will be better preserved than those from the Mayflower.

> Hopefully our records will be better preserved than those from the Mayflower.

I dunno. They Mayflower records are pretty decent. And online.


"Signing your name into history" does not have to equate to "having your name remembered." In other words, it would be great to make history (in such an important way as this), whether you are remembered or not.

but it's not really pushing anything, it's just a huge waste of money that would be better spent on developing technologies for extra-solar system travel. People living on a dead planet serves no purpose, it doesn't even increase the species potential for surviving cataclysmic events, because without an earth bases resupply any martian colony will be soon dead. Build spaceships that people can live on and head out of the solar system, not set up camp on the doorstep.

I cannot agree.

Physically getting to Mars and setting up camp is a challenge. Physically getting to another solar system and setting up camp is a challenge to the power of challenge. The numbers and difficulties are profoundly greater between the two.

Self sufficiency is entirely possible given enough energy, material, and care. We've managed to do it for four billion years on this planet. There's no reason it can't be done on another planet, or a ship as you mention.

I maintain that creating a stable-enough social structure that can survive offworld long-term seems to be most difficult part of the quest to leave Earth.

Colonizing Mars serves the purpose of developing and proving out the ability to colonize.

I think you are just imagining a worst case scenario.

Why is any point of this true:

No chance to ever feel fresh air on your face, no chance to go swimming, never meeting a stranger until they're suddenly your neighbors for life, no chance to ever get away and start anew, and no chance to go back to Earth.

The fresh air one maybe, but there's no particular reason the chemical and physical make-up of Earth air can't be recreated.

Swimming can happen in a swimming pool and fake/indoor beaches exist.

You can move with people you already know; anyway, isn't "never meeting a stranger until you're living next to them" the standard procedure for moving house on Earth?

There's no reason that one can't move around, even back to Earth. They did get to Mars/other planet in the first place.

That problem seems like Step 2, where Step 1 is getting to the point where that's a problem.

Exciting, isn't it?

Honestly, yes. :3 I remember drawing habitations as a kid. But morally I feel this would have to be a two-way street: Mars cannot be a prison for either the first settlers or the native generations.

Or, as Lawrence Krauss suggested[0], just send older astronauts first, who can then live the rest of their lives on Mars, building the first habitat and thus paving the way for further generations to - maybe - travel both ways.

[0] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_to_Stay#cite_ref-krauss_25...

> The complexity of getting to Mars is nothing compared to the complexity of creating a social unit that can survive and thrive on another planet.

What's so complicated about "a family" ?

I've read rumors that the reason Jeff Bezos started Amazon was to fund his dreams of space exploration.

I'm open to any additional questions you guys might have; well for another hour or two at least.

very interesting. he also made a clever move on the patents.

He reminds me so much of Clive Sinclair.

Imagine the world when the 10 next Elon Musk's lurking HN see their own successes.

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