Elon Musk “fireside chat” with Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson (Part 2)

Opening day of Air Force Space Pitch Day. The two-day event was hosted by the U.S. Air Force to demonstrate the Air Force’s willingness and ability to work with non-traditional startups. The “Fireside Chat” features Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, Space and Missile Systems Center Commander, and Elon Musk, Space X Chief Engineer. The chat covers the future of space, space industry, how to find talent, and various other topics.

Subscribe to Dr. Justin Imel, Sr. by Email


So other than the, the culture of broad understanding amongst your teams, and the culture of, don’t worry too much about offending people on other teams


To make those difficult kind of discussions, to, you know not travel risk downstream and identify issues early, are there other aspects, especially in growing your small businesses into large businesses that have been really important from a culture perspective for either you and your leadership team or for your entire workforce?

(sighs) Hm. I can’t say that I’m like, I’m not sure I really view myself as some great expert on, on leadership, to be frank. I think we’re doing OK, but we just seem to make a lot of mistakes, from what I can see, so, you know I try to use the tools of physics as much as possible. You know, when I was growing up, I was actually thinking I was, have a career in physics at a collider or something like that.


You know, (mumbles) I didn’t think I’d be doing this, to be quite frank. Well-

Coming from a culture that values leadership, my position is that you don’t achieve results, and certainly you have achieved results, unless you have that kind of leadership skill.


So don’t sell yourself short, is what I’m saying.

That’s true, there’s plenty of others doing that.

All right, so, with that.

But, there’s like—

Let’s, go ahead, go ahead.

I was gonna say, so one of the things in physics is you should always assume that you’re, you’re solving really wrong, and your goal is to be less wrong. This is a very important frame of mind. People tend to assume that they’re right, and they must prove that they’re right. You’re definitely wrong to some degree. The question is how wrong, and can you be less wrong tomorrow? This a very important principle.

OK, so, instead of leadership lessons from Abraham Lincoln or somebody else, leadership lessons from the world of physics.

Yes, the thought constructs of physics can be applied broadly, this is, they’re right there. They’re amazing, you know they’ve figured out all these counterintuitive things like quantum mechanics and general relativity, so these are great tools, you just read about them and use them. Great.

OK, all right, we’ll have a textbook sale (audience laughs) later, after our session for those of you who are in the audience right now, just hit Khan Academy up, lots of good stuff on there on physics. Okay so, Elon, let’s move on a little bit to work-life balance. Do you have a deliberate approach to how you balance your work and the rest of your life, or do you just kind of have a sense of, hey, I am focusing way too much on work right now, I need a break, or I need to go do something different?

Well, I think, my, I was going to say I don’t, point of view on this, but I so to say, elect decision, in my case I actually want to get the most amount done possible but, if you don’t take some breaks, then you’re sort of the amount that you get done is less. So, the reason I would take breaks is in order to get more done, basically. Um, that’s what everyone’s decision (mumbles) but a friend of mine was actually, was talking to a friend of mine this weekend, and she said, “When’s the last time you had a vacation where you didn’t do work for a week?” And I was like, “Well, you know really, like, 2000. The year 2000 when I had malaria.” (audience laughs) But, you know, stuck in the hospital and didn’t have the internet, so, then maybe I should take another break, yeah. But I think it’s probably, I would not recommend running two companies, ’cause it’s not this does not make for the most fun, understand?

I understand (nods).


I understand. So, about a year ago, you and I had a conversation on a Saturday morning, uh, and the thing that I remember from the Saturday morning telephone conversation was we spent about the first 15 or 20 minutes talking about the workouts that we had just had on that Saturday morning. Would you care to tell the audience a little bit about how you stay in shape?

Oh, I don’t think I’m in good, great shape to be honest, but, you mean like physically?

Yeah. (audience laughs) The mentally-in-shape question is next.

Okay, um, well first of all I don’t think I’m in too of a great shape, but I basically just, like, lift weights and run on a treadmill and that’s like the one time that I really watch television is like running for 15 or 20 minutes on a treadmill, and that’s it

Okay. (laughs) Well, along those lines, what are you watching on television when you’re running?

Uh, just finished watching Space Jam, it’s pretty good.

Okay, all right. (audience laughs) I think we have a request for, uh, Space Jam soundtrack later this afternoon, okay, gotcha, gotcha. How about, uh, I know you’re a huge reader, but from a lifelong learning perspective, constantly trying to add to your toolkit so that you’re, you know, a better leader, a better CEO, are there recommendations that you have for the audience about those kinds of things that you do to keep yourself mentally sharp?

Well I read a lot less these days than I used to. When I was a kid I was read all the time, um I mean, I’m mostly subscribed to scientific peer articles like, um, like the Daily News I find to be a lot of noise and just very negative, uh, so I generally try to not read the Daily News all that much. ‘Cause generally newspapers try to seem to be trying to ask the question, “What is the worst thing that happened on Earth today?” (laughs) (mumbles) There’s a lot of people, something terrible happened every single day, guarantee you. Those are some big, big plans, also something great happened, but they don’t answer that question. Um, so, the Daily News just tends to make one measurable event, like the science and technology periodicals are quite interesting, and usually if there’s something, some new discovery it’ll be in there so, I find Twitter enlightening at times, you know. Learn a bit there. And the talking to smart people all the time is very helpful. That can be a distillation of interesting things that are going on. You know, surely I can ask people, like the car, what are we doing wrong? What can we fix? Who would make it better? And they usually just want to tell me “Oh, it’s great” you know, I understand, but what’s wrong with it and, like, what can we make better? You know, cause there’s (mumble) of like how are we doing this wrong?

Right, right.

Yeah, cause they always want to tell me the good stuff, and, like, that’s cool, but tell me the bad stuff. That’s very important.


Yeah, even small bad things that we can make better.

Okay, so we have a similar culture in Air Force acquisition, talking to our operators about, “Well, that’s great that you love it, but tell us what part don’t you like,” right?


So, um, so this domain, this space domain this ecosystem that’s represented today, one of the challenges that it faces everyday and would face everyday even if the stem production system across the United States, or across the free world, was perfect is strategic competition for talent. Are there techniques that as you grow from a small business to a large business that you need to change in terms of how you reach out and find that talent in the ecosystem?

Yeah, I mean, first of all, the things that, if you want to get great engineering talent, then the work itself has to be exciting. The best engineers want to work on the most innovative things. And then, as you, add great engineers to a company they, will in turn recruit other engineers. And, you know, talents of all kinds, so, it’s very important that the, that the thing you’re working on is intrinsically interesting. And, generally, there is a high-energy environment. If the work is intrinsically interesting, and they’re making progress, then you just sort of attract more and more great engineers. When you stop doing really interesting things, then they leave.


That’s, they’re pretty straightforward. You also want to make sure you’ve got a recruiting function that is very good and that if, if somebody great wants to join the company that they actually get an interview. That’s actually one of my big worries. If Nikola Tesla was alive today, could he get an interview? And if not, we’re getting something wrong. I’m not totally sure who would get an interview. So, you know, so if one of the most brilliant engineers in the world can maybe not get an interview, we should fix that and make sure we’re not like barring the doors from town. Or that we’re looking at the right things. Generally, I look for things that are like evidence of exceptional abilities. I don’t really care if someone graduated from college or high school, or whatever, what evidence of exceptional abilities? Just give me three bullet points of evidence of exceptional abilities. Um, graduating from college, that’s not, that’s okay. But, you know, did they build some really impressive device, or win some really tough competition, come up with some great ideas, solve some really tough, you know, it’s like what’d they do that was just clear evidence of exceptional ability? It’s not necessarily a 4.0 GPA, that’s sometimes considered to be a contra-indicator. Sometimes.

Okay, all right. Clear evidence of exceptional ability, I like that. I like that a lot. Okay, so, Elon, I want to give you, the last minute or so, for, Elon to be Elon, right?


So you have here Air Force Space Pitch Day you have in the audience small businesses, developing new and innovative capabilities for the space domain. You have Air Force Space Command Operators, Air Force Space Acquisition folks, you have Congressional staffers, you have some media, you’ve got experts in the valley in the audience. What is the one thing or two things that you want to tell them all about Air Force Space Pitch Day and how it is to be successfully growing a small business to a large business?

Okay, well, I mean, to be frank, I don’t think there’s like it’s intrinsically good to grow a small business to a large business, sometimes a small business should be a small business. Sometimes businesses shouldn’t exist. (audience laughs) It’s true. Say like, a company it’s a group of people collected together for a purpose which is to create compelling product or service. And if that product or service is not compelling, the company shouldn’t exist. That’s (mumbles). The point is to create a great product or service and then if you’re just one person, then it’s hard to do that. You need, often, more than one person. So, um, it’s not about growing a business for the sake of growing a business. You have to say like, what is this important problem that you’re trying to solve that really matters? And then go try to solve that. With respect to space, I think there’s really just one problem, one problem primarily, which is the, a fully and rapidly reusable rocket, orbital rocket. This is the, this is the holy grail. You know, SpaceX has made some progress in this direction with the reusing the booster and the fairing but it’s, it’s absolutely profound to have a reusable rocket as would be to have, as it is to have reusable transport and oil domains. You know, bicycles, aircraft, cars, horses, are all reusable. You know, if you look at the cost comparison something like Pilatus PC 12 some single engine (mumble) prop has a pay load about one ton, and costs five million dollars. 747 has a pay load of over a hundred tons and you can lease it for a flight from San Francisco to Sydney and back for half a million dollars. So, that is a thousand-fold difference in cost, in cost-per-ton of transport and actually, the Pilatus can’t reach Australia, so, wouldn’t even get there. So, um, what I’m trying to say is like, a small a giant reusable craft costs less than a small, expendable craft. (audio feedback) So, you know, (audio feedback) That’s just one thing we have to solve: re usability. That’s it. You know (mumbles) pretty ambitious, the cost of fuel and oxygen (mumbles) is about $900,000. So thing’s fully reusuable, 900,000 at least a hundred tons. (audio feedback) So, that’s much less than the tiny rocket and so it’s the thing that used to be made, um, a small reusable rocket is still reusable you know, like it’s not like there are only 747s, there are a lot of aircraft of all sizes, they’re all reusable. We’re a single-use aircraft company No, yes. (audience laughs) People would say, well that’s pretty funny, um, and you know, the plus side is that you take off with no landing gear and you run until your tank’s dry, so great! That’s how rockets work, it’s crazy. That’s very very important.

On behalf of Secretary Barracks, Dr. Roper, and myself, and the entire Air Force Acquisition team, thank you for joining us here today. Everybody, Elon Musk.

Wow, talk about cultures coming together. I can’t think of a more compelling way to demonstrate entrepreneurship in the New Space environment with the Air Force. Ladies and gentleman, please, one more time, a round of applause for General Toms and Elon Musk. (applause) Okay, so, now we are at a lunch break. We will convene again at 1 o’clock, we are 45 minutes. See you again at 1 o’clock. Thank you, everyone.

Share with Friends:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.