Why Elon Musk really wants to go to Mars, and nine other things we learned at his SXSW Q&A

Announced last night, not long after his surprise appearance at the Westworld panel, the hero of the tech world, the man responsible for Tesla and SpaceX and his own voice on South Park (a rare claim to fame if there ever was one), Elon Musk packed the ACL Moody Theatre at SXSW today for a special Q&A, “Elon Musk Answers Your Questions”.

Here’s a few of those answers we learned along the way, in what was his first official appearance at the event since 2013 and saw him greeted to a standing ovation and a hero’s welcome. As he put it himself, his goal is to “inspire” and make us believe that “anything is possible”. So perhaps the response is more than understandable.

1. What will it take to get to Mars? Building the spaceship.

“In the short term Mars is really about getting the spaceship built. We’re making good progress. Codename BFR (“Big Fucking Rocket”). Once we build it, we will have the proof, and other companies will build it too. Right now they don’t think we can do it.”

They’re building it now, but he can’t provide a timeline yet, admitting he’d been generous in the past in his speculation.

2. Bigger is better, and cheaper.

“BFR flights will cost less than our Falcon 1 flight back in the day. And that’s what will enable a permanent location on the Moon and a habitation of Mars. Once you can get there the opportunities are endless.”

He compared it to the relatively low cost of the 747, versus the inability and high cost of a small plane to travel from Sydney to Los Angeles. He also proposed the importance of having a bar on Mars. The Mars Bar. Great one, Dad.

3. Elon Musk is inspired by Kanye West (“obviously”) and Fred Astaire.

4. Tesla or Ford are the only two car companies in the US who haven’t gone bankrupt at some point. He only gave Tesla, or SpaceX a 10% chance of success.

5. SpaceX started with a basic idea: “How do we get NASA’s budget to be bigger?” and the goal to set up a greenhouse on the Moon to rekindle the spirit of space travel. But as he discovered, just inspiring the will is not enough. You’ve got to have a way. And at that point, the cost of accessing space – the rockets – was too prohibitive. And this is where the idea of prioritising the rocket’s complete resuability came up. With the space shuttle, only a portion of the product returned back.

6. “It might seem like I have a lot of ongoing projects, but really my focuses are almost entirely Tesla and SpaceX.” And his children, of course. The Boring Company takes up less than 2% of his time, but 20% of his tweets.

7. They named their first “boring” machine “Godot” because he kept waiting for it.

8. “AI is capable of far more than any of us know.” And being on the cusp of it all, “it scares the hell out of me”. “The danger or AI is greater than the dangers of nuclear warheads… why is there no regulatory oversight?”

9. He believes self-driving will eventually encompass all modes of driving. 100-200% safer than human driving within the next 18 months.

10. “There’s some probability of another Dark Ages, particularly if there’s a Third World War.” Which is why he thinks it’s improtant to have a self-sustaining base on Mars. A Mars base is more likely to survive and repopulate the human race, shortening the dark ages, than a Moon base.

Elon Musk was in conversation with Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan at the event.