At a luncheon on Wednesday in Washington, the Heinlein Prize Trust awarded its second Heinlein Prize for accomplishments in commercial space activities to Elon Musk, the founder, CEO, and CTO of SpaceX. At the luncheon, which attracted an audience from the public and private sectors, including NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver and FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation George Nield, Musk received the $250,000 prize and its accoutrements, a “Laureate’ Diploma” and a sword. Yes, a full-sized sword, the “Lady Vivamus Sword”, from the Heinlein novel Glory Road. “I love the sword in particular, it’s pretty awesome,” Musk said. (Musk, who attended the luncheon with his wife, Tallulah Riley, and two of his young sons, had to remind the boys that the sword, with a sharpened blade, was not a plaything.)
In his acceptance speech, Musk provided an overview of what SpaceX is doing (accompanied by a video, as is the case with nearly every company presentation, regardless of the venue). He did note in the Q&A session after his speech that the company has been “slightly’ profitable the last four years and anticipates being profitable again this year, so the company doesn’t have an immediate need for capital. However, he said he is considering an initial public offering (IPO) of stock, perhaps late next year. “The public markets are a very efficient way to raise capital,” he said, “and it’s probably a good move to have a capital reserve.” SpaceX has talked from time to time over the last several years about doing an IPO; one drawback he acknowledged Wednesday is that by going public it opens up the company’s plans to scrutiny from investors who may have shorter time horizons than Musk and other current investors. “How will the public markets respond to super-long-term thinking?”
That “super-long-term thinking” was a reference to comments he made in his speech about his goal of making humanity a multi-planet species, something that requires a major reduction in launch costs. “This is the first time in four billion years that it’s possible for life to become multiplanetary,” he said. “That window may be open for a long time, and I’m reasonably optimistic about life on Earth, but it may be open for only a short time. And if it is only open for a short time, we must take advantage of it and take action now to make like multiplanetary.” To do that, he said, requires “orders of magnitude” changes in cost and reliability, something that SpaceX hopes to achieve over time.
Doing so, he said, requires being on a “path of continuous improvement” in launch capabilities, something that doesn’t exist today. “Space has not been on a path of continuous improvement. It has arguably been on a path of decline,” he said, noting that we could go to the Moon in 1969 but we’re retiring this month the only US vehicle that can carry people to orbit. “That trend line is going in the wrong direction. It needs to be dramatically reversed, and I’m hopeful SpaceX will make a significant contribution in that direction.”
While Musk might be interested in fostering a multiplanet species, not everyone in his family is necessarily onboard. In his opening remarks, prize trustree Art Dula, referring to Musk’s two sons in attendance, said that “these are the fellas that are going to ride these rockets when they go beyond Earth orbit,” at which point one of the boys cried a note of protest: “No I’m not!” (or something to that effect.) “Oh, my goodness,” Dula said to laughter from the audience. “Well, we hope anyways.”