29 May, 2015
The rocket man
Most sensible businessmen would have quit while they were ahead after building three multi-million dollar companies. But Elon Musk is not most businessmen. Following the success of PayPal and Tesla Motors, he now has his sights set on commercializing space flight and, one day, colonizing Mars – you wouldn’t bet against him
By the time Elon Musk founded the company that would become PayPal, in 1999, he had already built and sold one internet business. But this time he hit the jackpot. Already wealthier than most people will ever dream of being, he netted close to AED 660 million from PayPal’s sale to eBay, enough to retire at the age of 32, or to set up a venture capital fund and invest in hungry young entrepreneurs such as he once was – the conventional path for made men in California’s Silicon Valley. But this is not what Musk did. Since the birth of the public internet in the mid-1990s, there have been complaints that, with the best minds of a generation focused either on finding new ways to play the stock market or on tinkering with software, the big picture was being lost. With so much novelty in the world, who has time to look up and dream of building moon bases or cathedrals? The answer seems to be Elon Musk. In 2002 he launched SpaceX, a private company focused on shaking up the moribund space industry. Then a year later came Tesla Motors, a start-up car manufacturer that aimed to produce all-electric production cars, something mainstream manufacturers had tried to do and failed miserably. By any rational assessment, both projects were preposterous and doomed to fail, and when their originator voiced an ambition to colonize Mars, even admirers began to mention the word ‘hubris’ – destroyer of many a rich young net mogul. When Musk’s companies hit trouble, he was widely assumed to be through. No. By the time we meet in late 2013, Elon Musk sits atop two billion-dollar corporations and appears to stand on the brink of changing the world in significant ways. Tesla’s first all-electric family car, the Model S saloon, hit US streets with the highest ratings ever conferred by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the influential Consumer Reports organization, and went on to win several significant awards, while SpaceX has been contracted by NASA to ferry cargo and ultimately people to the International Space Station (ISS), effectively replacing the Space Shuttle. What’s more, Musk has reduced the cost of reaching the ISS by a staggering 90 per cent, from AED 3.6 billion per mission to a mere AED 220 million, with more savings to follow. As if this weren’t enough, he is chairman of the board and largest shareholder at the solar energy developers SolarCity, and earlier this year made world news by publishing design studies for a solar powered ‘Hyperloop’ rapid transit system, capable of reaching Abu Dhabi to Sharjah in eight minutes. Last year he was named business person of the year by Fortune magazine, and in August 2013, the day after Tesla officially moved into profit, Bloomberg estimated his personal wealth at AED 28 billion, making him the 162nd richest person in the world at the age of 42.
Everything about him is mind-boggling. So if Hollywood gossip claims Musk as the model for Tony Stark, the genius engineer played by Robert Downey Jr in the Iron Man movies, it is easy to see why. If he succeeds with even half his plans, he will have made a more profound impact on the world than any living politician: if he doesn’t, such high-visibility failures could set his chosen causes back decades. Married to the British actress Talulah Riley, and with five young sons from his first marriage, Musk leads a life as colorful as the comic books he might have sprung from. So who is this boyish-looking half-man, half- screenwriter’s fantasy – and where on earth did he come from? Needless to say, getting an audience with Elon Musk is akin to rocket science these days. In addition to flying his own jet between the Tesla plant near San Francisco and the LA headquarters of SpaceX, where he oversees a rapidly expanding launch schedule as CEO and chief designer, he appears to make a real effort to father his sons. So I am a little chastened as I step into the main SpaceX building, at which point the months of waiting, the delays and last-minute schedule changes simply fall away. How to describe the quirkiness of this place? The complex was once used for assembling jumbo jets and feels more like a film set than any film set I have ever visited. The first thing you see on being ushered in and warned o’ photography (by government decree, this being classified US technology) is the enormous leg of an experimental vertical- take-o’-and-landing ‘grasshopper’ rocket and, suspended above the shop floor, the seven-seater Dragon spaceship, which made history as the first commercial craft to dock with the ISS in May 2012. Beyond these, a large glass box houses the SpaceX mission control centre, in which a dozen or so young people stare at screens and projected images of a gargantuan, 27-engined Falcon Heavy rocket on its launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base. If the Heavy succeeds in reaching space, it will be earth’s most powerful rocket by a factor of two. But the big surprise is not the rocket, it is the people in the control room. These are not the clean-shaven, white-shirted technicians of aerospace convention: they are bearded men in camouflage shorts and Pixies T-shirts; willowy young women in Indian skirts and sandals. Look around and you will see others riding trikes across the shop floor or discussing engineering problems over free frozen yogurt from an ice cream bar by the open-plan canteen. This is a rocket factory straight out of Silicon Valley, where hierarchy is worn lightly and so long as the work gets done, no one cares what you wear. Aerospace is notoriously shy of women, but Musk’s right-hand man, Gwynne Shotwell, is a woman. More radically still, in an outsource-happy industry, SpaceX claims that 70 to 80 per cent of its product is made here, under one roof.
Musk occupies a corner workstation near the front entrance. Twice I am given a time to meet him and twice ‘urgent business’ intervenes. When eventually I am led over, I find him in a white checked shirt, jeans and trainers staring intently at a computer screen. On his desk are scale models of a SpaceX Falcon and a Saturn V moon rocket, as well as a samurai sword with a stingray leather handle, presented for services to space. I have been warned that Musk’s manner can tend to be brusque, but my first impression is of time seeming to accelerate alarmingly the moment he turns and starts to speak, with conversation racing into the distance then abruptly pulling up, indicating that whatever might be said on a particular topic has been said and you’d better launch another into the space between you, fast, before something else rushes into the void. He is taller and broader than expected from his boyish good looks and geek-god propensities, with the surprise build of a rugby player. I inadvertently make mention of his computer mouse and get a three minute meditation on the evolution of the mouse as a tool. Still reeling from what I’ve seen in my first rocket factory, I wonder almost involuntarily whether the scale of what he has done ever scares him, and am surprised to see him relax at the ingenuousness of the question. ‘Yes. Yes,’ he smiles. ‘We started with just me at SpaceX and now it’s 3,000 people… It is kind of crazy.’ So how did he get here? Musk was born 42 years ago in Pretoria, to a South African electrical engineer and Canadian model mother, Maye Musk. His childhood nickname was ‘Genius Boy’: he wrote and sold his first video game at age 12, but was bullied at school for being a smartypants. No less out of step with the Silicon Valley mainstream, he has clashed with peers including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, whose FWD.us technology pressure group he left amid accusations of cynicism. Often described as a ‘disrupter’ – the most coveted epithet among libertarian leaning techies such as Zuckerberg – Musk bridles at the term’s application to him. ‘In fact I’m often introduced on stage as someone who likes to disrupt and I’m, like…’ He pulls a surprised face. ‘And then the first thing I have to say is, ‘Wait, I don’t actually like to disrupt, that sounds… disruptive!’ He laughs. ‘I’m much more inclined to say, ‘How can we make things better?’ And a lot of my motivation comes from me personally looking at things that don’t work well and feeling a bit sad about how it would manifest in the future. And if that would result in an unhappy future, then it makes me unhappy. And so I want to fix it. That really is the motivation for me. I certainly don’t believe in disrupting things for the sake of it. ‘I mean, my original interest in electric cars and solar energy, which goes back to when I was in university, was not based on environmental concern, it was based on sustainability, in the sense of ensuring that civilization can continue to progress. We’re finding new sources of oil, but they’re becoming increasingly difficult to access. That Deep Water Horizon disaster, the reason it was ‘Deep Water’ is because the ‘Shallow Water Horizon’ was gone!’ I have wondered whether this profoundly unSilicon Valley desire to be socially useful stems from a childhood lived in apartheid South Africa, which he left at the age of 17 rather than serve in what he has called in the past ‘a fascist army’. ‘I’ve never thought about that. Yeah, it probably did,’ he says. ‘But don’t forget that I also read a lot of comic books as I was growing up, and I think that might have influenced me just as much. I mean, they’re always trying to save the world, with their underpants on the outside or these skintight iron suits, which is really pretty strange when you think about it. But they are trying to save the world.’ His eyes crinkle in laughter, and lest this claim be taken for facetiousness, he later gleefully confesses in an email to having named one of his sons after Professor Xavier of the X-Men. The year Musk became properly interesting was 2008. Until then, adult life had gone almost embarrassingly to plan. Simultaneous degrees in physics and economics were followed by marriage to the fantasy writer Justine Wilson and the mid1990 web-rush. With his brother Kimbal he founded Zip2, an online media services company which was sold to Compaq for AED 1.1 billion in 1999, followed by X.com, which soon became PayPal, bringer of SpaceX and Tesla: so far, so good. But then in 2008 three failed launches left SpaceX hanging in the balance, just as Tesla’s flagship Roadster hit every production problem under the sun. Footage of Musk addressing a crowd of angry Tesla customers still makes me shiver after three viewings and his subsequent admission that, ‘That’s as close as I’ve been to a nervous breakdown,’ rings uncomfortably true. Worse, his marriage had unravelled into an acrimonious and very public divorce. The sensible choice was for Musk to cut his losses and protect the AED 275 million he still had left. Instead, he poured the remains of his fortune into his businesses as if shaking a first at the world. And as though from the same impulse, he met Talulah Riley in a London nightclub and proposed six weeks later, meaning that at the age of 23 she found herself living in a 20,000sq ft Bel Air mansion, part-guardian to five boisterous children and their disintegrating father, with an angry ex-wife in the background. None of this looks like fun, and there was little surprise when he and Riley parted a few years later (though they are now back together). Musk’s nostrils flare as he contemplates that year, in which any rational observer imagined him finished. He rocks back in his chair and exhales deeply when asked just how close he was to the brink. ‘Both Tesla and SpaceX were very close to dying. SpaceX had our third launch failure: we just barely had enough resources to do a fourth, and if that had failed it would have been curtains. Fortunately, it worked, but even then we weren’t quite out of the woods.’ I find it hard to believe that he really had nothing squirrelled away. ‘No. Everything that I’ve earned up to today is in this. Eventually we were awarded a big contract from NASA, but what a lot of people don’t understand is that up to that point all the funding had come from me.’ So he really would have been back to square one? ‘Yeah, absolutely,’ he smiles wearily. ‘In fact I would have been slightly worse than square one, since I would have owed money to my ex-wife, among others – ha ha.’ One of the things I most want to understand is why Musk didn’t do what any business coach – or vaguely sane person – would have advised, and walk away while he still had some personal security, putting the failure down to experience?
Was it the blind belief of the extreme entrepreneur? Or pride? Or some entrepreneurial second sense? I wonder how much the SpaceX/Tesla story was planned in advance? ‘The truth is, it sort of crept up on me,’ he says mildly. ‘I didn’t expect SpaceX or Tesla to be successful. I thought they’d most likely fail.’ You did? ‘Oh sure. There were no good examples of rocket companies starting up and succeeding at that time.’ So this wasn’t a case of unshakeable faith in your ability to do this? He actually laughs. ‘No! But I had to try. Someone did.’ So you knew the most likely outcome was you would lose everything, but did it anyway? That’s not business. ‘Sure. Absolutely. And it’s not like I lack some sort of a fear gene, by the way, I feel fear quite strongly.’ He smiles again. ‘I just thought, these are important things. And if Tesla were to fail, it would be held up as a warning forever, a setback for electric cars in general. Same for SpaceX and commercial rocket companies. Everyone would have said, ‘That was pretty stupid because everyone knows that rockets are just done by huge government organizations.’ And although I wasn’t running SolarCity, that almost came to an end in late 2008 too, because after the financial crisis hit, Morgan Stanley could not honor their financing commitments to it, because they literally did not have the money themselves. Many companies went under at that time – such as General Motors and Chrysler – and it’s quite hard to raise money as a startup car company if General Motors is going bankrupt!’ He issues a full, almost joyful guffaw and then shrugs. ‘But for me, I wasn’t concerned that I wouldn’t be able to eat. Living in America that’s not likely. I guess the worst that could happen would be that the kids had to go to public school, which is not the end of the world – I mean, I went to public school, so…’ Musk is not the only member of his net-bred generation to be infected with the space bug. Fellow tech moguls Jeff Bezos of Amazon and the celebrated game designer John Carmack are also developing spacecraft, if on a less ambitious scale. Musk was born in 1971, as the Apollo lunar program was winding down, and I have often wondered whether he and his peers covet space from a sense of having missed the party. ‘Actually, I think my generation does feel a bit cheated by that. Or rather, disappointed that things didn’t progress from there. Because the expectation was always that there’d have been a base on the moon and that we’d have sent people to Mars by the time we’d grown up. In 2001 Arthur C Clarke based his whole story on that. And yet here we are in 2013 and the United States cannot even send a person into low-earth orbit. Nobody would have believed such an outcome back in 1969.’ What made him think he could change this? ‘It was probably just thinking that something needs to be done to advance the technology. I wasn’t sure how far we’d get, but if we could move the ball forward, that would be a good outcome. Now I think we ought to be able to improve it an awful lot. And maybe get all the way there.’ Of all Musk’s innovations, this might be the most radical: developing reusable rockets. Among other things, that Falcon Heavy on the pad at Vandenberg will be testing some rudimentary elements of a system that will allow rocket boosters to land back on earth rather than tumble into the ocean after one use. Many aerospace engineers consider this impossible to do cost effectively, but Musk thinks they’re wrong. If so, SpaceX will be able to reach earth orbit for the cost of fuel alone, or about AED 730,000 – a step change in the conquest of space. And a vantage point from which Mars looks a lot closer. Even so, his talk of colonizing the red planet within 20 years looks fanciful even to believers. One NASA employee speaks of a ‘giggle factor’ in relation to such talk. ‘If there’s a giggle factor, maybe it’s because NASA have made so little progress in that direction,’ he retorts. ‘But I don’t think this is inevitable. If we can send a piece of machinery the size of a car to Mars (the rovers), we should be able to send people.’ At which point the question becomes why? ‘The overarching reason is that I think humanity needs to be on the path to becoming a multi-planet species, and to establishing life as we know it in more than one place. Fundamentally there are two reasons to go to Mars. One is defensive, as a form of life insurance, of preserving life, which we know can be wiped out by catastrophic events (such as comet strikes). And the other is that it will be the greatest adventure ever. I personally am motivated more by the second, that it would be a fantastic and exciting adventure – even for individuals who don’t want to go. Just as when we went to the moon, it was only a handful of people who went, but in a sense all of humanity went there with them. And I’m hopeful that we can do it with considerably better life expectancy than the original English colonists in America. I mean, you did not want to be part of Jamestown! It was awful – they died of every conceivable thing you could imagine and were obliterated. But eventually we got America. Which, you know, is far from perfect, but on balance a force for good.’ Would he go himself? He responds so casually it’s as if I’ve asked whether he wants sugar in his tea. ‘I’d like to, yeah.’ Would you take your kids? ‘Well, if they wanted to come. I’m not sure they will.’ You’d go and come back, or stay there? ‘In the best of circumstances I go, come back, stay here for a bit, and then when I’m, say, 75 years old, go again.’ You mean you want to retire to Mars? ‘Well, I’ve got to die somewhere, and where better than Mars? Be pretty cool!’ And I guess it would. Should we take Elon Musk seriously? As a boy, he often withdrew into his own world so completely that he was feared deaf and had his adenoids removed. Now, interview over, I get a taste of what can be the result of such intense focus. A campaign of badgering wins a test drive of the Model S, and it is an extraordinary experience. Seating up to seven, with a pair of backward-facing child seats to the rear and copious storage where a drive train would be in a petrol car, the Model S is quicker than an Aston Martin, corners as if on rails (thanks to the low placement of its heavy battery) and will ultimately be free – and carbon-free – to refuel at Tesla’s network of ‘Supercharging Stations’. The only cloud concerned a fire that broke out after a Model S battery was punctured by a nasty piece of highway debris, serving to underscore the risk attending the development of any new technology. Musk insists that under the circumstances his car performed better than a petrol car might have, but who knows? Only time will tell. Ominously for his competitors, though, a few weeks after our meeting SpaceX successfully launched the Falcon 9 v1.1, the next step on its stated path of creating the world’s largest rocket, the Falcon Heavy.