Why are you so keen to get humans to MarsMovie Camera?
Because this is the first time in 4 billion years of Earth’s history that it has been possible. That window may be open for a long time – and I hope it is – but it may not be. We should take advantage just in case something bad happens. It wouldn’t necessarily be that humanity gets eliminated; it could just be a drop in technology.
Why go to Mars, when advances in telepresent robotics could give us all the physical sensations of being there?
Maybe I’m just being romantic but I do think there is some value to being there in person. We can learn a lot from robotics but it is no substitute for being there. And having a base on Mars, where there is a lot of travel to and from Earth, will create a powerful incentive for developing technology that will enable us to travel to other star systems.
Like the exoplanet recently found in Alpha Centauri 4 light years away?
I think you could figure out how to get there. With a nuclear thermal rocket you could definitely reach a tenth of the speed of light. It would take 40 years, though, which is a long time. You’d have to start off not too old if you wanted to see it.
What could change that?
There are some interesting things I’ve seen lately about warp drives. You can’t exceed the speed of light but you can warp space and effectively travel many times the speed of light. That’s kind of exciting. People have found increasingly smarter ways of minimising the energy required [to warp space]. Before, you would need the mass-energy of Jupiter.
Is a warp drive something that SpaceX, your space exploration company, could use?
Sure we’d love to have a warp drive. I’m not going to hold my breath on that one.
As a pioneer, is it nerve-wracking to know that the world is watching you and SpaceX?
I’m getting more comfortable with it. It was super-white knuckles in the beginning. We made many mistakes. We only made orbit on the fourth flight. We reached the edge of space on flights 2 and 3, but didn’t have enough velocity. If flight 4 hadn’t worked, it would have been curtains for SpaceX.
Your Dragon capsule has just returned cargo from the International Space Station. When will you start taking astronauts?
We’re hoping to do our first flight with people in three years. Actually, if somebody were to stowaway on the present version of Dragon they’d be able to go to the space station and be fine.
Will you be on the first crewed flight?
It’s really up to NASA, our customer. I used to do quite dangerous things, like flying a fighter jet at low altitude. Then I had kids and companies and I want to see them grow up, so I’ve curtailed my dangerous activities. I’d like to go up, but I won’t be the first. The very first flight will be on automatic pilot, so there will be no people on board.
Syndicated content: Valerie Jamieson, Celeste Biever – New Scientist