Thursday, July 01, 2021

Elon Musk interview: SpaceX, Starlink and his motivation and philosophy

Elon Musk packed a lot about SpaceX and Starlink into a 32-minute interview at the 2021 Mobile World Congress and ended with a discussion of his motivation and the roles of his three companies -- SpaceX, Starlink, and Neuralnk. Let's start with the SpaceX and Starlink update and conclude with the philosophy and motivation. (Scroll to the end of the post for the video of the interview).

  • Starlink will fill in the gaps between fiber and 5G offering viable service to the most difficult to reach 3-5% percent of the population that are in sparsely-populated regions.
  • They currently have over 1,500 operating satellites with 5 MW combined power and a capacity of about 30 Tb/s.
  • They may have over 500,000 users in 12 months.
  • They expect to achieve sub-20 ms latency.
  • They are currently authorized to provide service in about 12 nations and will be able to offer global service (excluding polar regions) in five weeks.
  • Their software-defined phased-array antennas for satellites and ground stations are the  most sophisticated and advanced technology available, offering microsecond switching with no discernable jitter.
  • They have advanced rapidly reusable (booster and fairing) launch capability.
  • Last year they delivered about 2/3 of all payload mass to orbit and this year they expect to deliver closer to 80 percent. China will deliver about 12 percent and everyone else the remainder.
  • They are learning how to make satellites, terminals, and gateways -- improving the "machine that makes the machines."
  • They will soon be launching version 1.5 satellites with inter-satellite laser links (ISLLs) to serve high latitude regions.
  • Next year's version 2 satellites will have significantly more capability and ISLLs.
  • They plan more gateways at major service centers.
  • They are nearly ready to announce data backhaul agreements with two major-nation mobile companies.
  • They have an attractive proposition in countries in which telephone companies are required to subsidize rural connectivity.
  • They will have invested $5-10 billion by the time they have a positive cash flow and will have to continue investing -- maybe $20-30 billion over time -- to remain competitive with constantly improving cellular and cheaper geosynchronous satellite Internet service.
  • Their goal is rapidly reusable reliable rockets. With a Falcon 9 launch, 60% of the cost is the booster, 20% the upper stage, 10% the fairing, and the launch and recovery process is about 10%, and they are doing well at booster and fairing recovery.
  • The retail price of Starlink service will be the same everywhere, which surprised me.
  • Terminal cost is now over $1,000 and they hope to get that down to $250-300.
  • Starship is designed for full and rapid reusability and will be able to launch 100 and with refinement 150 tons to orbit with no refurbishment between flights -- like an airplane.
  • Starship uses low-cost methane-oxygen fuel so the propellant cost per launch will be about the same as with the Falcon 9.
  • The marginal cost per launch will be around $2 million, which is less than the original Falcon one rocket.
  • With orbital refueling, Starship will be able to deliver 100, possibly 200, tons to The Moon or Mars.
  • Musk repeated his oft-quoted statement that his goal for Starlink is not to go bankrupt and his oversimplified claim that setting up a Starlink terminal is as simple as plugging it in and pointing it at the sky. He also restated his recent sophomoric tweet about having 69.420 customers.

Underlying philosophy

At the end of the interview, the moderator said Musk seemed to take on new challenges rather than opportunities and asked what criteria he used when deciding to take on a new challenge.

Musk began his answer by stating the purpose of three of his companies

  • SpaceX: to extend the scope and scale of consciousness beyond Earth.
  • Tesla: To ensure that life is good on Earth with sustainable energy.
  • Neuralink: To achieve long-term AI-human symbiosis.
All contribute to the end of expanding the scope and scale of consciousness:
"Generallly these companies are oriented toward, like, what actions can I think of to do to maximize the probability that the future is good and that that future jncludes the expansion of the scope and scale of consciouslnes. This is based on my fundamental philospy of, you know, we dont really know what all the answers are or even what questions to ask but if we are able to expand the scope and scale of conciousness then we are better able to know what questions to ask about the answer that is the universe."
I wish the interviewer had followed up by asking him to speculate on the possible side-effects of expanding the scope and scale of human-machine consciousness in pursuit of understanding the universe.

Here is the video of the interview:

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