Newsmaker: Elon Musk

Multibillionaire Elon Musk is a man on a mission. Well, several missions, actually, all of which appear to be rooted in a messianic conviction that he’s the one to save humankind from the collective error of its ways, on and off the planet. Not for nothing did Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr base his […]

Multibillionaire Elon Musk is a man on a mission. Well, several missions, actually, all of which appear to be rooted in a messianic conviction that he’s the one to save humankind from the collective error of its ways, on and off the planet.

Not for nothing did Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr base his film portrayal of the fast-talking, all-knowing, billionaire engineer Tony Stark on Musk, after a visit to his SpaceX headquarters that left him “blown away”.

With Monday’s news that Tesla Motors, Musk’s electric-car company, was buying SolarCity Corp, his solar-power company, for US$2.6 billion (Dh9.6bn), this week the focus was very much on Musk’s terrestrial ambitions.

The takeover of one of his loss-making companies by another was “a perplexing deal”, concluded a Reuters analysis. Shares in both fell.

It all made perfect sense to 45-year-old Musk, who had outlined what he called his “Master plan, part deux” in a blog last month. “The first master plan that I wrote 10 years ago is now in the final stages of completion,” he began, sounding a little like a parody of an Iron Man villain.

His expensive first-generation Tesla electric sports cars had been mocked as green status symbols for the rich, but they funded the mid-range versions that in turn would allow Tesla to embrace all “major forms of terrestrial transport”.

The problem, wrote Musk, was simple. Either we achieve a sustainable energy economy or “civilisation will collapse” – and that was where he and his master plan (part deux) came in. Working together, SolarCity Corp and Tesla would create “a smoothly integrated and beautiful solar-roof-with-battery product that just works, empowering the individual as their own utility, and then scale that throughout the world”, while expanding Tesla’s electric- and ultimately autonomous-vehicle ambitions.

Oh, and then there’s the colonisation of Mars.

Elon Reeve Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa, on June 28, 1971. His father, Errol, was a successful electromechanical engineer; his Canadian mother, Maye, a model. After the pair divorced in 1980, Musk spent the next few years with his father. Perhaps some of his father’s technical know-how rubbed off – at the age of 12, Musk made a video game that he sold to a PC magazine for $500. A weaker version of Space Invaders, it wouldn’t be Musk’s last venture into space.

At the age of 17, Musk left South Africa for Canada, where he acquired residency through his mother. After two years studying in Ontario, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1995 with degrees in physics and economics.

That year, at the age of 24, he made a crucial decision. Two days into a doctorate in applied physics at Stanford University, he quit, finding the call of the rapidly evolving internet “irresistible”.

On his Forbes List entry, Musk is described as a “self-made” man, with a personal net worth of $12.6bn, who is “trying to redefine transportation on Earth and in space”. “Self-made” isn’t entirely accurate. When Musk and his brother Kimbal started their first company in 1995, it was with $28,000 of their father’s money.

Innovative for its time, Zip2 gave internet-unsavvy businesses a map-based way of connecting with potential customers. The Musks ate and slept the project, living in their small rented office in Palo Alto and showering at the YMCA, all of which paid off when Compaq bought the company for more than $300 million in February 1999. Elon’s share was $22m. As a new dot-com millionaire, he bought a swish condo, a $1m McLaren F1 (that he subsequently crashed, uninsured) and a small aircraft (plus flying lessons).

But he was only playing at being a playboy. He immediately ploughed the bulk of his windfall into co-founding X.com, an online banking service, and the rest is start-up history. X.com evolved into PayPal. When it was bought in October 2002 by eBay for $1.5bn, Musk, the largest shareholder, pocketed $165m.

In June 2002, he founded Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX. Tesla Motors followed in July 2003, then SolarCity in 2006.

Along the way Musk has found time for children – six, with his former wife Justine Wilson, a Canadian writer he met while at university in Ontario and married in January 2000. Their first son, Nevada, died of sudden infant death syndrome at the age of 10 weeks.

In 2012, she gave an insight into her ex-husband’s character in an article she wrote for Marie Claire. When she complained that she felt like just another one of his employees, Musk retorted: “If you were my employee, I would fire you.”

In 2008, they divorced. Six weeks later, he was engaged to Talulah Riley, a young British actress. They married in 2010 and have had an on-off relationship ever since, divorcing in 2012, but remarrying 18 months later. Musk filed again for divorce in 2014. Though the petition was later withdrawn, in March this year, it was Riley’s turn to fill out the paperwork.

During one temporary separation from Riley, Musk discussed with his biographer, Ashlee Vance, the difficulties of fitting relationships into his insanely busy life. “How much time does a woman want a week?” he asked. “Ten hours? That’s kind of the minimum?”

A few years ago, wrote Vance in his 2015 biography, most people would have lumped Musk “into the category of people who hype up jet packs and robots and whatever else Silicon Valley decided to fixate on for the moment”. But since then he has transformed himself “from big talker to one of Silicon Valley’s most revered doers”.

Just how revered was illustrated last week, when Musk praised an obscure 1929 history book he had been reading. Instantly, the price on Amazon of the out-of-print Twelve Against the Gods jumped from $6.35 to $99.99, before quickly selling out. The theme of the book? The achievements of 12 characters from history, including Napoleon and Alexander the Great, “whose destiny was larger … than our own”.

Whatever Musk achieves with renewable energy on Earth, it’s in space that he hopes to make his ultimate mark. By designing and building its own cut-price rockets to deliver commercial payloads into space, SpaceX has taken on major corporations that have been involved with space exploration since the beginning and even entire countries. His family, he once joked, half expect the Russians to assassinate him.

In May 2012, one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets – a nod towards Han Solo’s clunker in Star Wars – successfully delivered SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft into orbit for its historic rendezvous with the International Space Station. SpaceX, now contracted to Nasa for a dozen such delivery trips, was the first private company to deliver a payload to the ISS.

The company’s next project is Falcon Heavy. When it launches later this year, it will be the world’s most powerful rocket, capable of lifting into space more than twice the payload of Nasa’s defunct Space Shuttle.

Alongside its price-and-payload menu for both spacecraft, SpaceX itemises the payload each would be capable of carrying to Mars – the Red Planet is Musk’s ultimate goal. In 2010, when he started talking about his interplanetary colonial ambitions, few took him seriously. Today, there are few who don’t. Certainly, wrote Vance, his thousands of employees at all three companies are aware that “putting man on Mars” is “the sweeping goal that forms a unifying principle over everything he does”, and knowing that helps them cope with his demands.

After all, wrote Vance, while “Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to … save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation”.

In the past few years, SpaceX has become the private Nasa, developing new technologies that make the colonisation of Mars a realistic prospect. Musk believes that becoming “a multi-planet species” is essential for humankind’s survival, and that making “cheap” reusable rockets is the key. The United States, he says, “would never have been pioneered if the ships that crossed the ocean hadn’t been reusable”.

In December last year, after several failed attempts, SpaceX managed to return a Falcon 9 to Cape Canaveral for a soft touchdown and subsequent reuse. In April, it pulled off another significant first, landing a Falcon 9 on a drone ship after re-entry – taking drones to where reusable rockets are going to come down will save a lot of fuel, making missions to Mars all the more feasible.

Next month, all eyes will be on the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, where Musk has promised to reveal his plans “for establishing a city on Mars”, perhaps within a decade.

As space writer Robin Seemangal noted, such ambition isn’t to be taken lightly, coming from a man “who just pre-sold over 276,000 Tesla Model 3 electric cars, landed a 14-storey rocket on a wobbly ship in the ocean and sent a spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station – all in a matter of weeks”.

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