“If the schedule is long, the design is wrong,” was an adage shared by SpaceX Founder and Chief Engineer Elon Musk as he waded into a range of topics on the first day of SATELLITE 2020 — from the value of a college education, management by rhyming, and updates on Starlink and Starship — while name checking everyone from Homer Simpson, Sergei Korolev, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Ellison.
On the hot topic of Starlink, Musk shut down the idea that SpaceX is considering splitting it off for a potential IPO.
“We are thinking about that zero,” Musk said. He emphasized the key focus with Starlink is on making it work, as he namechecked the failed LEO operations in the late 1990s such as Teledesic, ICO, and Iridium (the first inclination). “We need to set the stage of LEO constellations. Guess how many LEO constellations didn’t go bankrupt – zero,” Musk said. “Iridium is doing OK now, Teledesic and others went bankrupt. We are focusing on making it not go bankrupt.” The SpaceX founder believes the world had an “insatiable appetite” for bandwidth, and he said he doesn’t think Starlink would destroy the business plans of other satellites.
Also, in terms of Starlink, Musk said he did not see it as some super threat to telcos.
“It will serve the hardest to serve customers. 5G is great for high density situations, but it is not great for the countryside. So, any kind of sparse environment, 5G is not well suited. Starlink will serve the 3% to 4% hardest to reach customers for telcos. … So, I think it will be actually helpful and take a significant load off the traditional telcos. We won’t have a lot of customers in [Los Angeles], for example,” he said. “We are targeting latency of below 20 milliseconds. Bandwidth is a very complex question. Somebody will be able to do all the things they want to do without noticing anything. The ground equipment looks like a UFO on a stick. It will have actuators on it, so it can improve the pointing accuracy. You don’t need a specialist to install it. Point at sky and then plug in.”
With Starlink looking to launch lots of satellites, there have been concerns raised from astronomers regarding Musk said, “I am confident will not cause any impact in whatsoever in terms of astronomic discoveries. We will take corrective action if it is above zero. When the satellites are first launched, they are tumbling a little bit, and haven’t stabilized. Now, they are on orbit, I would be impressed if someone could tell me where all of them are. It can’t be that big of a deal.”
When Musk reflected on his career, he said if he could go back, he would make a far fewer mistakes. “Hindsight is 20/20. I have made so many foolish mistakes, I have lost count. Simple mantra, management by rhyming. If the schedule is long, the design is wrong. The acid test is how long will it take for this to fly. If it takes too long, don’t do it.You need to simplify your product as much as possible. How does a smart engineer make a dumb mistake? You optimize something that does not exist. A lot of times you should say this is the wrong question. Your goal is to make your design less wrong over time,” Musk said.
As to the value of a college education, Musk said — “You don’t need college to learn stuff. You can learn anything you want for free. There is a value that colleges that have, can someone work hard at something, and annoying homework assignments and get it done. That is the main value of college. I think colleges are not for learning, they are for fun and doing your chores. I don’t consider going to college as evidence of exceptional ability. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, they all dropped out.”
While Musk’s words may not have been music to the ears of colleges across the United States, one of the other main themes of his fireside chat was talking about Starship, as human spaceflight draws ever closer. However, while progress on this front is likely imminent, Musk talked about an accelerated rate of progress needed if we are to have resettlement on Mars. He said, “I hope I am not dead when resettling on Mars happens. But, if don’t improve our rate of progress, I will be dead. It has taken 18 years to get the first people ready. We have to improve our pace of innovation a lot. I don’t want to be dead [to see this happen.] It is great that we are about to launch people to orbit. It has been a long time — 18 years. But, we haven’t done it yet. Unless we improve our rate of innovation dramatically, we won’t be able to have a base on the moon or a city on Mars.”
In terms of some of the significant challenges facing Starship, Musk said SpaceX has a big focus on Starship in terms of new technology development. “We need a whole new architecture, and that is what Starship is about. It needs to be completely re-usable. It needs to be re-launched an hour after landing. It is like commercial aircraft. The only thing you expect to change on a regular basis is propellant. It has got to be fast. We are building a production line. Designing rockets is not that hard. The hard part is building a production line, and that is 1000 percent harder, maybe more. Production and manufacturing is something I see as very under-appreciated in the U.S.” VS