Jul 8, 2015 ยท 4 minutes


There was a definite pall over the proceedings at yesterday's International Space Station R&D conference in Boston.

Normally, Elon Musk speaking to a group of space innovators would be like William Shatner popping into a Star Trek event. Last year, at the anniversary event for MIT’s AeroAstro program, Musk interacted joyfully with a crowd comprising astrophysicists, former astronauts, and others who have either been in space or made it possible for others to do so.

But, yesterday, where Musk should have been doing a victory lap after docking a rocket at the international space station, the SpaceX head honcho seemed sad… really, really sad.

His appearance at the ISS R&D event came at a unique moment. Musk, who has spoken about the safety and successful track record of his SpaceX rockets in the past, is dealing with a very public failure: the explosion of the SpaceX Falcon 9 on its way to the space station to resupply the crew with some much needed provisions.

The loss of Falcon 9 was the third supply mission destined for the ISS that has met failure in the last eight months. Depending on how you look at it, it might compound the problem that Russia just successfully delivered some of the -- much needed -- supplies to the ISS this weekend. (Although, Russia, too, has had its own fair share of rocket problems.)

Though he didn’t acknowledge it, the Falcon 9 explosion seemed to weigh heavy on Musk personally, especially when projects like Tesla and the company’s Powerwall solar battery seem to be going so well, or at least they had been generating relatively positive buzz.

“It’s a huge blow to SpaceX, we take these missions extremely seriously,” Musk said, speaking about the failed mission for the first time in public. “Everyone who can is engaging in the investigation at SpaceX.” Musk said he didn’t want to get into too many details of what he knows so far, but hinted that there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

“In this case, the data seems very difficult to interpret. Whatever happened is not a straightforward thing,” he added quietly.

“As to the exact cause and the sequence of events, there is no clear theory that matches the data,” Musk said. He also said that they will launch another Falcon mission later on this year.

The possibility of something going wrong with the mission had apparently never crossed Musk’s mind.

“It was on my birthday," said Musk. "It was a real downer. Definitely a low point.”

It was a downer for the audience too: Musk is way more entertaining when he’s upbeat. One of the more interesting moments of the talk came when Musk discussed the plans for a college engineering competition for the envisioned Hyperloop project. According to early plans, there will be a one-mile test track for young entrepreneurs to try their early Hyperloop pod designs and prototypes.

One topic that wasn’t covered was Musk’s take on artificial intelligence. Earlier this year, Musk donated $10 million to the Boston-based Future Life Institute, which just announced that it will be awarding $7 million to innovative companies trying to make AI safer for humanity.  It would have been great if he delved into the topic and his rationale behind the donation.

Alas, the only questions asked focused on Musk the individual entrepreneur, and little else. (One reporter actually snuck a question in during the Q&A, but it was about Musk’s freaking satellite project, which is interesting, but fed into the Musk space project pity party.)

As Musk left the stage to applause, they might as well have been playing the sad Charlie Brown music. When I tried to approach him backstage to get his take on the AI issue, I got blocked by his PR flack who told me ‘not to move any further’. To be fair, a few feet behind me there was a herd of fanboys running in our direction hollering “Can I get a picture with Elon!”.

Musk wasn’t completely in “Debbie Downer” mood during the entire talk. He perked up during a discussion about science fiction and did have a couple moments of levity, even cracking a couple of jokes about pizza parlors on Mars and chuckling a little when mentioning the explosion/birthday connection. But overall the famed innovator was subdued.  

When asked by an audience member what keeps him pushing forward with his vision for space and transportation, Musk showed a glimpse of passion, saying very deliberately, “I’m constitutionally geared to just keep on going.”

“The things we are doing are pretty important to the future,” Musk said at one point. “If we don’t succeed...people will say, ‘Well, they couldn’t do it, how can we?’”

This is the weight that Musk was bearing at the ISS R&D conference. Standing in front of some of the world’s smartest space engineers, one of the world’s foremost innovators seemed shaken in his audacity.

Somebody get this guy a better rocket, so we can get back to the Elon Musk we’ve come to know and love.