While Musk debuted the video of the latest Grasshopper test Saturday in his on-stage interview at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas, it wasn’t the only space-related topic discussed during the hour-long event. Musk also provided some new insights on the problems the company’s latest Dragon spacecraft experienced immediately after launch on March 1 as well as the latest in the company’s interest in a Texas spaceport.
Musk said the problem with three of the thruster pods was initially puzzling because they didn’t expect three to fail. “These things are cross-strapped. You’d think that maybe one wouldn’t work or a cross-strapped pair wouldn’t work, but not three. It was really, really strange.” That left the spacecraft tumbling while SpaceX developed new code to send to the spacecraft to try and solve the problem, using US Air Force antennas with enough power to get that code uplinked to the spacecraft.
Musk said that the company now believes the problem was with check valves in pressurant lines leading to oxidizer tanks for the three affected thruster pods. “There was a slight change to a check valve that was in three of the tanks and not in the other. We were able to replicate that problem on the ground later,” he said. They solved the problem by building up pressure upstream and then releasing it to “slam the valve” and get it to open. “We’re trying to give it sort of the spacecraft equivalent of the Heimlich maneuver,” he said. That ultimately worked, getting all four thruster pods up and running.
Another topic discussed in the interview was the company’s interest in developing a new commercial spaceport on the Texas coast near Brownsville. On Friday, Musk was up the street from the Austin convention center at the State Capitol, testifying before a committee about his plans. “Right now, Texas is arguably the leading candidate,” he said at SXSW. “We need certain legislation passed supportive of space launch.” That legislation, which he said is “not particularly controversial,” includes the ability to close the beach during a launch (current state law requires beaches to be open to the public), as well as “protection for the 1-in-10,000-person case who complains about the thing.” He didn’t specify what that “protection” would be, although he cited a case where a person sued over SpaceX’s rocket testing facility near McGregor, Texas, even though that person didn’t even live in the same county as the test site.
“If thing go as expected, it’s likely that we’ll have a launch site in Texas,” Musk said. In the best-case scenario, the company would make a decision this year about the location of the launch site and start construction of it next year. The first launches from the spaceport would take place in two to three years.
Later in the interview, after discussing his other two ventures, electric car company Tesla and solar power company SolarCity, the interview turned back to Musk’s interest in going to Mars. “If humanity doesn’t land on Mars in my lifetime, I’ll be really disappointed. That would probably be my biggest disappointment,” he said. “I do personally want to set foot on Mars, but honestly, I would be doing this even if I knew there was no chance of me to go to Mars, because I think it’s important that we’re on a path to getting there.”
Near the end, Musk was asked who influenced and inspired him. He went through a number of historical figures and then some current businesspeople, including Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin as well as Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who, of course, has his own space company, Blue Origin. “Every time I see Jeff Bezos,” Musk said, “I say, ‘Why aren’t you doing more in space?’”