Elon Musk on his one regret from the NYT incident, spaceship scares & Russian missiles

Photo of Elon Musk taken at Model S launch, courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom

Elon Musk — the CEO of Space-X and Tesla and Chairman of SolarCity — says he has a New Year’s resolution to have more fun. But in the meantime, there’s arguably not an entrepreneur alive today that thinks as big about solving global problems, has made as much money off of those solutions, and has such an appetite for risk, as Musk

During a wide-ranging interview with former Wired Editor Chris Anderson at the SXSW Interactive festival in Austin on Saturday afternoon, Musk talked about hair-raising attempts to troubleshoot a spaceship, showed off a video of a test landing of a reusable rocket, discussed his one regret from the Tesla incident with the New York Times, and talked about how he once considered buying missiles from Russia.

On his one regret from the New York Times review incident:

Musk said that the only thing he regrets from the interaction with the New York Times over the publication’s negative review of Tesla’s Model S, was that he never posted his own rebuttal of the New York Times’ rebuttal. Musk says he wrote a response to the New York Times’ journalist, which noted that he thought that the writer had committed a “low-grade ethics violation” and sent it to the New York Times’ editor, but he never published it himself.

Musk said he wanted to make it clear that he thought the writer had not “acted in good faith.” He also said he still might publish the response.

On spaceship anxieties:

Last Sunday SpaceX’s spaceship Dragon was able to connect with the International Space Station and delivered cargo to the astronauts on board. But before that connection happened, the spaceship suffered from a problem which Musk gave details of during the interview.

Basically three of the spaceship’s four thrusters stopped working, leaving the spaceship essentially floating in space, and the team couldn’t figure out why. Eventually the team used a pressure system to jolt the Spaceship and give it “the equivalent of the heimlich maneuver,” said Musk. That finally worked and all three thrusters started working again. Musk called the experience “extremely nerve wracking,” and said “that was hard core. I never want to go through that again.”

On testing reusable and landing rockets

Musk showed off a video, which he says was shown to the world for the first time at SXSW, of SpaceX testing a rocket that can launch and land in the desert. The video showed, to the tune of the Johnny Cash song Ring of Fire, a 10-story high rocket launch and then shortly after land back in place still in the launch position. The rocket had a tiny Johnny Cash cowboy on the side.

Traditional rockets launch but don’t land. And Musk says that to make interplanetary travel financially feasible rockets need to be built to land successfully. All other vehicles are reusable and can start and stop without having to be replaced, said Musk, adding, imagine if you were watching Star Trek and the Enterprise was replaced every time.

On his biggest mistake:

In response to a question about what his biggest mistake in life has been, Musk said that he has routinely made the mistake that talent always trumps personality when it comes to people he works with. He said he’s put too much weight on it being just about the brain, when having a good heart is very important. It’s a mistake he said he has made many times.

On trying to buy intercontinental ballistic missiles from Russia:

Musk says that back in 2001 and 2002, when he was just starting to get into the idea of building tech for space travel, he traveled to Russia three times trying to figure out how he could buy Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles to aid his idea. He says when he got back from his third trip he started to realize that his original premise to use that technology, and work outside of the U.S., was wrong. “The U.S. is a nation of explorers,” says Musk.

Musk also says he originally wanted to launch a spaceship to Mars that could crash into the planet and germinate a kind of greenhouse, and that he wanted to do such a stunt to help NASA increase their budget to travel to Mars. He said he had looked onto the NASA website and saw no section for Mars travel, and at first he thought maybe it was hidden somewhere.

On what he is most concerned about:

Musk says he will be very disappointed if humanity doesn’t land on Mars in his lifetime. “That’s the thing I’m most concerned about.”

On managing to have a family at the same time as his crazy life:

Musk says he does email on his phone while he spends time with his five kids, and says that’s how he’s able to spend time with them and run two companies. In response to that, interviewer Anderson said that he wasn’t able to do such a thing as it’s negative for both the email and the kids.

Other fun stuff:

  • “Its fun to gamble as long as you are the house,” said Musk.
  • People Musk admires: Founding father Benjamen Franklin, Google co-founder Larry Page, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
  • “My buddies from PayPal saved my butt,” said Musk, in reference to when Peter Thiel and the Founders Fund backed SpaceX in a crucial time before its successes.
  • “Don’t compete with China on a commodity product,” said Musk referring to the failure of solar companies like Solyndra.
  • “I would like to die on Mars, just not die on impact on Mars.”
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