Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, looked up from centerstage at his South by Southwest keynote speech Saturday afternoon and pointed to a video of a rocket taking off from a launch pad. Instead of blazing off into the atmosphere, the rocket slowed and hovered--and remained there, lingering what appeared to be several hundred feet above earth like a flame-spewing drone. After a few seconds, it started its descent back to the launchpad.
"This is real, in case you can't tell," Musk said.
Sure, that's a slightly ridiculous thing to say. But the truth was, no, no we could not tell. This was something no one in the audience had seen before. That's part of the goal behind Musk's company: to make space exploration more efficient, and in the process, bring it to the masses.
Musk says the new footage was filmed 36 hours earlier at one of the experimental launches his company, SpaceX, is completing in hopes of perfecting a re-useable rocket launcher. (Launchers usually detach from space shuttles and fall into an ocean; this one powers itself back to a tidy landing at its base.)
Although he watched the footage with something of a grin, Musk--the South African-born American entrepreneur who co-founded Paypal and today is CEO of both Tesla Motors and SpaceX (he also sits of the board of solar-power utility company Solar City)--said watching a rocket launch is nervewracking to an extreme. "All of your work goes into that one moment," he says.
Indeed, SpaceX's first three attempts failed--one so close to Earth it nearly destroyed its own launchpad, Musk says. "I spent the day picking up rocket pieces from the reef, which sucked."
Today, though, the SpaceX Dragon, which successfully launched along with the Falcon rocket last year, is docked at the International Space Station more than 250 miles above Earth.
A lot of what Musk does every day sounds like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel or a Jon Favreau film (hey, he inspired a couple of them), but he also told the audience that his life sometimes simply feels too busy, and that he'd like to "take it down a scooch." Despite that 2012 was a good year for SpaceX, Musk is working hard to bring Tesla to profitability, and he said he resolved this year to have more fun, because last year, "honestly I didn't have that much fun. It sucked."
But attaining work-life balance isn't so simple for Musk, who is a father of five. He said he spends a lot of time with his children, but multi-tasks by sending work e-mails while playing with them--so he and his boys require additional adult supervision: "I do have to have a nanny there. Otherwise they would kill each other."
These comments earned sneers from some parents in the audience, and fueled vitriol on Twitter. But Musk doesn't just consider space travel a job. He believes he is helping the human race survive for millions of years into the future--so humans can out-live the Earth's destruction. Musk says: "If humanity doesn't land on Mars in my lifetime I would be very disappointed." He continued: "That is the most important thing we can do to ensure the continued existence of humanity."