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Elon Musk and his mission to Mars

Rowan Philp

Next week the billionaire SA expat Elon Musk will make space flight history by docking his own orbiter, Dragon, with the International Space Station.

It was bad South African TV that gave Elon Musk part of his mysterious edge. As a 10-year-old he read whole volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica after emptying the family bookshelves—anything to avoid another episode of ChiPs or Die Man van Intersek. Avoiding sports and bullies just as keenly, he sat alone in his boy cave at home in Pretoria, reading Jules Verne and playing Space Invaders.

Now, 29 years later, Musk is still playing video games alone into the late hours of the night.

These days it is in a basement man cave in a leased mansion in Bel Air, California, where Musk, who sold his online payment system PayPal for R11-billion in 2002, is plotting the future of the human race.

Sixteen months ago, the South African expat accomplished something only ever achieved by the governments of the United States, Russia and China. He sent a spacecraft into orbit and then recovered it.

Changing space flight
Next Monday he plans to change space flight forever, becoming the first entrepreneur to dock his own orbiter, Dragon, with the International Space Station.

And it literally is his spacecraft. Beyond founding his private SpaceX company in 2002, Musk likes to remind people that he is also the self-taught “chief designer” of the Falcon launch rockets and their Dragon capsules.

Shortly after the symbolic end of the space-shuttle era and the transport of the shuttle Enterprise to its new home at a New York museum, Americans are struggling to digest how an African-born 39-year-old with no background in rocketry represents their future access to space—a guy so apparently whacky he once travelled to Russia to haggle with God knows who for an intercontinental ballistic missile, which he hoped to use to land a greenhouse on Mars.

“It is tough for a lot of people to swallow,” said Rand Simberg, a leading space industry analyst. “But he is a visionary guy and I take him at his word. Barring disasters, he will be ferrying astronauts to space and he is quite serious when he said he wants to retire on Mars.”

From the terse and stoic reassurances of Nasa administrators, Americans are now having to deal with this kind of rhetoric from their new doorman to the heavens: “An asteroid or a super-volcano could certainly destroy us and we face risks the dinosaurs never saw: an engineered virus, inadvertent creation of a micro black hole, catastrophic global warming or some as-yet-unknown technology could spell the end of us,” he wrote in an essay for Esquire in 2008. And that is when he is making sense.

Elon Musk (R) and Peter Thiel (L)
Man on a mission: Elon Musk (above right), with the company’s chief executive officer Peter Thiel, sold his online payment system PayPal for R11-billion in 2002. Later he turned his attention to space flight and started the company SpaceX. (Paul Sakuma, AP)

In a revealing at-home cover story for Forbes Life last month, the billionaire casually described the BioShock video game thus: “It talks about Hegelian dialectics being the things that determine the course of history — you can look at modern history where it is not so much genetics going into battle as a battle of meme structures.”

No financial background
Musk admits that, beyond a brief internship as a cashier at a bank, he had no background in financial services before co-founding PayPal. He also did not have a background in the automotive industry before founding Tesla, the electric-car company valued at more than R20-billion. Similarly, he knew nothing at all about the movie business when he co-produced the brilliant satire Thank You for Smoking and later acted in a cameo role in Iron Man II—a superhero whose alter ego was modelled on Musk himself.

For many people his design of a rocket and spacecraft, which are now slated to replace much of the shuttle’s role, is no less jarring than if he had performed the world’s first brain transplant.

Just four years ago, both Musk’s career and his personal life were taking a beating. In 2008 his eight-year marriage with author Justine Musk was publicly imploding. His wife blogged: “We married young, took it as far as we could and now it is over.” The divorce was nasty and potentially financially crippling to the billionaire, but Justine later said she had been outmanoeuvred with a post-nuptial contract. In divorce papers, he claimed to be “out of cash”.

According to Reuters, Tesla was “down to its last $9-million” and struggling to sell its Roadster sports cars. Musk’s first three rocket launches had also failed spectacularly.
When I interviewed him ahead of his first failed rocket launch in March 2006, he was vague about the role his South African roots had played in his success. He mentioned that, as a teenager, he had to build model rockets from scratch because there was nothing available off the shelf. He also revealed that he almost died of cerebral malaria on a holiday to a South African game reserve in about 2000 and that the “near-miss” had given him renewed focus and energy.

“Man, that experience was no fun at all, but it does tend to sharpen your goal-setting,” he said.

Musk gave ironic credit to the South African Defence Force for broadening his horizons. He went to Canada, rather than undergoing military service, which, aside from being morally repugnant, he considered “the most amazing waste of time I could think of”.

He likened his Falcon to a “space bakkie” in that it would replace the shuttle as a cheap, low-maintenance, safe and reusable workhorse with no need for Nasa-style bells and whistles.

I was set to speak with Musk in the hours after the Falcon 1 launch, but the interview was cancelled after the rocket blew up. To my shame, I did not call him after the second malfunctioned in March 2007. His third disaster seemed almost comical to non-engineers: the first stage of his rocket rear-ended its own upper stage. Worse, the flight was carrying the ashes of 200 people to space, including those of Star Trek actor James Doohan—Musk had actually blown up Scotty.

Learning from mistakes
But, according to Simberg, Musk not only has a gift for learning from mistakes, but also for not seeing them as mistakes at all. “Unlike North Korea, whose rockets actually get worse each flight, the five Falcon 1 flights got successively better. He knows how to learn and he has remarkable ‘stick-to-it-iveness’.”

Musk has admitted that a failed fourth launch would have doomed SpaceX. Two weeks after the start of the 2008 recession Musk gambled everything on that launch and won—the Falcon finally flew into orbit.

He then somehow raised about R2-billion by taking Tesla public and bagged twice as much in guaranteed government loans to turn the niche electric-car manufacturer into a mass-production brand.

In addition to the 300km/h Roadster, Musk is now rolling out a luxury sedan version and has teamed up with Toyota to launch the RAV4 EV next week.

Although Musk knows how to learn from failure, he is also a master at capitalising on success.

Two months after finally getting his smallest rocket into orbit, he won an R11-billion contract from Nasa for 12 supply missions to the space station.

In March, Forbes reported that his net worth had surged to $2-billion from just $800-million last year.

Last month Musk tweeted that he was one of 12 billionaires who answered Warren Buffett’s call to pledge at least half their wealth to charity.

“Just signed giving pledge with 11 others. I hope this announcement convinces others to do the same,” he wrote.

Musk did not respond to questions from the Mail & Guardian this week on how he turned things around, but what is more significant is that analysts such as Simberg are taking him seriously. Musk plans to be the Christopher Columbus who turns mankind into “a multiplanetary species”. Cost remains the biggest barrier to Mars and Musk has already made good on his vow to slash the costs of space flight, partly by making 80% of the rocket parts in-house and reusing his rockets as aeroplanes.

He claims he can eventually reduce them to 1% of shuttle-era costs, which would open up the red planet as a lifeboat for any global disaster on Earth and, ultimately, “a permanent settlement”.

Still, Musk has yet to establish his own permanent settlement on Earth. In January, his second marriage—a one-year quickie to British actress Talulah Riley—collapsed; a fact he tweeted thus: “I will love you forever. You will make someone very happy one day.”

He has joint custody of five children with his first wife, but Forbes notes that, in the backyard of his Los Angeles mansion, “the pool is covered, the manicured backyard devoid of toys, lawn chairs, or a grill”.

Musk does not even have a formal office at SpaceX, just an open-plan corner in a cavernous converted aeroplane hangar in Hawthorne, Los Angeles. There is no ping-pong table, but the 1 400 staff get cool drinks and snacks for free.

Generally wearing jeans and golf shirts—he is pictured on his website in an Africa T-shirt while inspecting his Dragon capsule—he commutes to SpaceX in one of three sports cars and to Telsa, near San Francisco, in a business jet.

His first wife, whom he met as a fellow student at Queens University, Canada, told Marie Claire: “The life you lead with him is his life.” Meanwhile, Musk was coldly matter of fact about his romantic failure with his second wife: “It just became emotionally difficult.” On a 60 Minutes interview weeks later, he teared up spontaneously when it was pointed out that Apollo II astronaut Neil Armstrong disapproved of Musk’s plans. “I was very sad,” he said.

Musk lives in, and for, a world of dreamer heroes such as Armstrong. He named his car company after Nikola Tesla, the Serbian engineer who developed alternating-current electricity. The lobby of the Tesla office is dominated by a portrait of Nazi rocket genius Wernher von Braun and a statue of superhero Tony Stark, and his conference rooms have names such as “Goddard”, for Robert Goddard, who invented the liquid-fuelled rocket. He keeps a full-size sword in his open cubicle.

He also has a group of Nasa astronauts who now call him boss. On a SpaceX video, astronaut Garrett Reisman compares Musk to Howard Hughes, the larger-than-life billionaire who helped found commercial air travel with his TWA airline.

Already, among a dozen other innovations, Musk is leading the development of a revolutionary emergency escape system for astronauts, who had no such option aboard the shuttle.

But Musk’s ambitions go far beyond pioneering private space exploration, even bridging the gap from superhero to God. In a recent press conference, he described his goal of colonising Mars as an evolutionary step “on the same scale” as the advent of single-cell life and the later appearance of mammals.

It seems for a moment that it’s not so much that Musk needs to get to Mars as to simply return there.

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