Autonomous drones and artificial intelligence are the future of the U.S. Air Force–at least according to Elon Musk. “The era of fighter jets is over,” he professed.
The SpaceX founder and CEO attended the U.S. Air Force Association’s (AFA) Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, FL as a keynote speaker in February where he discussed American innovation in aerospace. The purpose of the symposium is to bring together top Air Force leadership as well as leaders in industry, academia, and government officials to discuss the issues and challenges facing our Air Force today and in the future. Musk sat down with Lieutenant General John Thompson, Commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, to discuss the new branch of the Air Force, the U.S. Space Force.
During the chat, Musk reiterated the importance of reusable rockets in a space force–something only SpaceX has managed to create. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is able to perform a controlled landing which allows the first-stage rocket booster to be reused up to 10 times. Reusable rockets would significantly reduce operational costs and manufacturing, saving the U.S. Air Force thousands of dollars. While it’s important to acknowledge the development of the rockets, even more importance should be placed on what Musk calls “the machine that builds the machine.” This larger ‘machine’ that Musk refers to is the manufacturing facility and process. “Designing the production system of a new product is two orders of magnitudes harder than designing the initial prototype,” said Musk.
“In America, during recent modern times, there’s been less importance placed on manufacturing, and I think this is a mistake. At this point, I think designing a rocket is trivial. Now, making [a rocket] and getting it to orbit is hard. The making of a production line that builds and launches many is extremely hard.”
Anyone who’s interested in working on cutting edge manufacturing — designing & building the machine that makes the machine — please consider working at Tesla or SpaceX. We’re gonna take this to a whole new level!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 15, 2019
The chat highlighted that the U.S. will likely stay ahead in space innovation so long as top leaders in the industry must be working alongside the military. Musk warned that if more companies don’t prioritize reusability, the U.S. will fall behind in space travel. However, in order to accomplish that, innovation needs to be accomplished and rewarded in the workforce.
“I think a massive thing that can be done is to make sure your incentive structure is such that innovation is rewarded and lack of innovation is punished,” said Musk. “If somebody is innovating and making great progress, then they should be promoted sooner. And if somebody is completely failing to innovate, in a role where innovation is required, then they should either not be promoted or exited.”
With an innovative mindset comes inevitable failure before success is possible. Musk included that failure shouldn’t be ridiculed because it could have adverse effects on progress.
“When trying different things, you’ve gotta have some acceptance of failure,” he continued. “Failure must be an option. If failure is not an option it’s going to result in really conservative choices and you may get something even worse than lack of innovation–things may go backwards.”