SpaceX started in 2002 to manufacture rockets with the eventual goal of building a colony on Mars. They've completely changed the launch market by being transparent about pricing and using reusability to cut costs further. Their main launch vehicles are Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, which had its maiden flight last year and is the most powerful rocket currently in operation.
Elon explains how he initially thought about a one-off mission to inspire humanity:
I wasn’t going to start a rocket company. What I wanted to do was to try to get public interest in sending people to Mars. And so I thought, “What is a fun mission that could get people really excited about going to Mars?”
And I came up with this idea to do “Mars Oasis” which was to send a small greenhouse to Mars with seasoned, dehydrated nutrient gel. When you’d land, you hydrate the gel and you have a little greenhouse on Mars. So this would be the furthest that life’s ever traveled. The first life on Mars as far as we know, you have this great shot of green plants on the red background, that would be cool.
In a report by Space Frontier Foundation, Elon talks about his motivation behind Mars Oasis:
By driving this private space mission forward. I hope for changes for NASA, for it to receive a clear and pressing mandate for a human base [on Mars]. I want to reinvigorate NASA.
[The goal is to provide] positive inspiration at a time when we need such inspiration. The world has reached a stage where it needs some positive challenge it could get excited about, something that helps unite humanity.
Specifically, SpaceX began to fix the biggest issue with spaceflight:
We needed to set rocket technology on a path of rapid improvement. In the course of trying to put together Mars Oasis, I had talked to a number of people in the space industry and got a sense of who was technically astute and who wasn’t.
So I put together a team, and over a series of Saturdays I had them do a feasibility study about building rockets more efficiently. It became clear that there wasn’t anything to prevent us from doing it. Rocket technology had not materially improved since the ’60s—arguably it had gone backward! We decided to reverse that trend.
If we don't enable cheaper rockets and become multi-planetary, we risk extinction:
I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary, in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct. It would be like, “Good news, the problems of poverty and disease have been solved, but the bad news is there aren’t any humans left.” I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future.
The real reason we weren’t going to Mars wasn’t a lack of national will; it was that we didn’t have cheap enough rocket technology to get there on a reasonable budget. It was the perception among the American people—correct, given current technology—that it didn’t make financial sense to go.
One of the biggest milestones for SpaceX was the Falcon Heavy launch:
I had this image of a giant explosion on the pad, with a wheel bouncing down the road and the Tesla logo landing somewhere with a thud.
But fortunately, that's not what happened. Crazy things can come true. I didn't really think this would work — when I see the rocket lift up, I see a thousand things that could not work, and it's amazing when they do.
I've seen rockets blow up so many different ways, so it's a big relief for when it actually works.
The year 2008 was a rough time because SpaceX had gone through three failed launches and Tesla was also going through cash flow problems:
I was just getting pistol-whipped. That was definitely the worst year of my life.
I remember waking up the Sunday before Christmas in 2008 and thinking to myself, 'man, I never thought I was someone who could ever be capable of a nervous breakdown. I felt this is the closest I've ever come. Because it seemed pretty, pretty dark.
Elon talks about the emotional toll this took on him:
There was a lot of schadenfreude at the time, and it was bad on so many levels. Justine was torturing me in the press. ... It hurt really bad. You have these huge doubts that your life is not working, your car is not working, you’re going through a divorce and all of those things. I felt like a pile of s---. I didn’t think we would overcome it. I thought things were probably f---ing doomed.
It was difficult managing two complex businesses at once:
I could either pick SpaceX or Tesla or split the money I had left between them. That was a tough decision. If I split the money, maybe both of them would die. If I gave the money to just one company, the probability of it surviving was greater, but then it would mean certain death for the other company. I debated that over and over.
It's important to point out that this was during the financial crisis, a challenging time for many established players, let alone startups being run by the same person.
Fortunately, a contract that SpaceX had applied for came through at the 11th hour:
SpaceX was running on fumes at that point. We had virtually no money... a fourth failure would have been absolutely game over. Done. [And then] NASA called and told us we won a $1.5 billion contract. I couldn't even hold the phone. I just blurted out, 'I love you guys!
We’re still aiming for 2024 [for the first mission to Mars]. I don’t know if I will go or not. It may be just an unmanned mission, you know. I’m not sure if there’ll be people onboard or not.
But there is a Mars rendezvous opportunity, ’cause you can only do a launch to Mars roughly every two years. So around the 2024 timeframe, there’s a rendezvous opportunity for Mars, which hopefully we can catch. There’s one in 2022. Hopefully, there are people on board. But I think there’s a pretty good chance of at least having an unmanned craft go to Mars. I think we will try to do this.
Why go to space at all?
I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future. If we can solve sustainable energy and be well on our way to becoming a multi-planetary species with a self-sustaining civilization on another planet—to cope with a worst-case scenario happening and extinguishing human consciousness— then I think that would be really good.
How can we start to colonize space?
I think Starship will also be good for creating a base on the moon. We’ll probably have a base on the moon before going to Mars. It would be quite a bit different because the gravity on the moon is much less, and the moon has no atmosphere. But once you get there, it’s quite manageable. That’s not the hard part. There’s a lot of work to do once you get there, but it’s not like, oh my god, we’re on Mars!
What happens after Mars?
If we can establish a Mars colony, we can almost certainly colonise the whole Solar System, because we’ll have created a strong economic forcing function for the improvement of space travel. We’ll go to the moons of Jupiter, at least some of the outer ones for sure, and probably Titan on Saturn, and the asteroids. Once we have that forcing function, and an Earth-to-Mars economy, we’ll cover the whole Solar System.
And what we need to focus on now:
But the key is that we have to make the Mars thing work. If we’re going to have any chance of sending stuff to other star systems, we need to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilisation. That's the next step.
On starting a company:
I think it’s very difficult to start companies, it’s quite painful. A friend of mine has a good phrase for doing a startup: It’s like eating glass and staring into the abyss. If you are wired to do it, then only do it, not otherwise. So think of it this way — if you need inspiring words, don’t do it.
Take as much feedback from as many people as you can about whatever idea you have. Seek critical feedback. Ask them what’s wrong. You often have to draw it out in a nuanced way to figure out what’s wrong.
On work ethic:
You’ve got to do all sorts of jobs and tasks that you might not wish to do, that are not intrinsically interesting to you. You’ve got to be prepared to do whatever it takes, work whatever hours. No task is too menial. I think that’s the right attitude for the CEO of a startup.
I think it’s important that everyone understands exactly what the mission is, what the goal is, and that when they join the company, they’re bought into that overall goal. As long as that goal is clearly defined and understood and people are saying ‘yes,’ they agree with that goal when they join the company — so, they are not just joining for a salary or something like that, but they believe in what the company is doing.
On not giving up:
When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.
Elon talks about how there need to be enough people who are willing and can afford to live in space:
Between now and 2040, the company’s lifespan will have tripled. If we have linear improvement in technology, as opposed to logarithmic, then we should have a significant base on Mars, perhaps with thousands or tens of thousands of people.
There needs to be an intersection of the set of people who wish to go, and the set of people who can afford to go. And that intersection of sets has to be enough to establish a self-sustaining civilisation. My rough guess is that for a half-million dollars, there are enough people that could afford to go and would want to go. But it’s not going to be a vacation jaunt. It’s going to be saving up all your money and selling all your stuff, like when people moved to the early American colonies.
Elon is highly active on Twitter.
There's also the SpaceX website which has more on upcoming missions and jobs.