Skip to comments.Triumph of His Will (Elon Musk / SpaceX bio)
Posted on 04/07/2014 7:46:11 AM PDT by Jack Hydrazine
He is sitting at his desk, at the headquarters of his company of one of his companies SpaceX. He is eating. He is eating a plate of food that his personal assistant gave him. It is late, and he is eating to stay on schedule. He is a man of scrupulously developed politesse, and he worries that eating his scheduled dinner while completing his scheduled interview might give offense. It does not, because although he eats hungrily, he never succeeds in making his food look appetizing. On his white plate is a turkey leg, a sad bouquet of broccoli, a mound of black beans, and he eats them like an astronaut might eat his rations, with an air of hurried functionality, while talking about going to Mars.
Of course Elon Musk talks about going to Mars. He is famous for it. He has been talking about going to Mars for eleven years, and his desire to go to Mars preceded his desire to mass-produce electric cars at the other company he runs, Tesla. In 2012, SpaceX succeeded in twice sending a rocket of its own manufacture into orbit and twice linking a capsule of its own manufacture to the International Space Station, and Elon Musk succeeded in convincing some of those who have regarded him as a con man dependent on government largesse that he may yet become what one of his admirers calls the "Steve Jobs of heavy industry," if not the "Henry Ford of rockets."
Certainly, he has some of Jobs's instincts for both controlling every aspect of the companies he runs and for subjecting even his own need for control to the discipline of taste. It is impossible to sit behind the wheel of his Tesla Model S alongside one of the company's representatives without hearing that Musk designed the car's ingotlike rearview mirror himself and insisted that its dashboard have no buttons and an audio system with a volume control that "goes to 11." It is impossible to visit SpaceX's earbud-white headquarters in the featureless aerospace-dominated outskirts of Los Angeles without hearing that Musk also designed it that he picked the colors and the furniture, including the trash cans suggestive of rocket ships. He is even wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans as he eats dinner, and has just concluded a meeting in which all his engineers were wearing the same. What separates Jobs from Musk, however, is a matter of scale and stakes:
Steve Jobs made gadgets; Elon Musk is making cars and rockets. And though Jobs might have relished inspiring people to wait on long lines to avail themselves of his vision, he never dared speak of inspiring them to die.
Musk does. He has to; Mars is far away. Mars is tens of millions of miles away from Earth at its closest orbit and hundreds of millions of miles away at its most distant. It exists to the human eye not as a sphere but as a colored star, as part of the endless outnumbering firmament, as the nightly whispered message that we may not reach what awe inspires us to grasp. And so although Musk, as he eats, repeats the mantra that has won him not only investors and employees but followers he says that his goal is to "make humanity interplanetary" as a way of increasing the odds that human consciousness survives in the universe he has to admit the possibility that just as a lot of people had to die in order to settle the New World, a lot would have to die in order to settle the red one.
It is neither a decree nor a warning; it is, instead, a kind of invitation, stated with cool certainty. Musk is forty-one years old, with the face of a schoolboy and the manners the scrubbed affect of a surgeon. He has brown hair, reddish lips, and nearly hairless arms. He talks about working eighty to a hundred hours a week as often as he talks about going to Mars, but he is thick-legged and broad-shouldered and exudes physical health and power. He is often referred to as a "rock star" but maintains a studied sanity. If he is a rock star, he is one of the reasonable ones, like, say, Coldplay's Chris Martin. He laughs readily at his own most obscure jokes, smiles faintly in equal parts amusement and disappointment, and indeed acts as though only he can see the membrane that separates him from the rest of the world. Although it would be an exaggeration to say that there is something alien about him, it would be no surprise if he lifted his shirt and revealed that he had no navel.
Ever since he made his first fortune developing and then selling the Internet businesses Zip2 and PayPal, he has been capturing people's imaginations by presenting himself as a mythic figure by saying things like "The first step is to establish that something is possible; then probability will occur." But he wants more than wonder. He is a man grounded not in fancy but in a sense of his own strength, and his unlikely dream of going to Mars has allowed him to realize practical ambitions much closer to home.
"It would take six months to get to Mars if you go there slowly, with optimal energy cost," he says. "Then it would take eighteen months for the planets to realign. Then it would take six months to get back, though I can see getting the travel time down to three months pretty quickly." It is, in his words, entirely manageable "if America has the will."
And that is the key to Elon Musk. He has the will. "Elon is not afraid of breaking things he will break himself if he has to," says Justine Musk, his first wife and the mother of his five children.
He was not born in America, and yet when he was a very young man, he gave up everything to become an American. Now he wants Americans to be willing to give up everything in order to reclaim the one essential thing we've lost. He wants to make us once again "a nation of explorers" but first he has to find out what price we're willing to pay.
He grew up in South Africa without ever really considering himself South African. Like the rest of his family, he was just passing through. The Musks were a race nearly as much as they were a family, with a specialized awareness of themselves as wanderers and adventurers. Every Musk is able to tell the story of forebears whose accomplishments serve as an inspiration and whose energy endures as an inheritance a grandfather who won a race from Cape Town to Algiers; a great-grandmother who was the first female chiropractor in Canada; grandparents who were the first to fly from South Africa to Australia in a single-engine plane. "Without sounding patronizing, it does seem that our family is different from other people," says Elon's sister, Tosca Musk. "We risk more."
If the Musks had arisen from literature, they would come off as an unlikely combination of Salinger's Glasses and Faulkner's Snopeses a combination of insular giftedness and rude commercial energy.
"I have two brilliant children, but Elon's a genius," says his mother, Maye Musk. "I can explain Tosca and [Elon's brother] Kimbal pretty well. I can't explain Elon."
She was a dietitian and a fashion model; her husband, Errol, was an engineer and what a family member described as a "serial entrepreneur." According to Maye, they knew their oldest child was "advanced from the very beginning." He read continually, read not simply to amuse himself but to acquire knowledge, so they sent him to school early in Pretoria. "Elon was the youngest and smallest guy in his school," Maye says, and soon he found himself in conflict not just with other children but with what seemed like South Africa itself.
"It's pretty rough in South Africa," Kimbal Musk says. "It's a rough culture. Imagine rough well, it's rougher than that. Kids gave Elon a very hard time, and it had a huge impact on his life." Huge, Tosca says, "because there was no recourse. In South Africa, if you're getting bullied, you still have to go to school. You just have to get up in the morning and go. He hated it so much."
It turned out he had two recourses. The first was his family and his ability to think of himself as a Musk, and therefore as a kind of transcendent citizen rather than as a South African. The second was the advent of the personal computer. "He was on computers as soon as they were available to us," Tosca says. What distinguished him from the legions of other brainy put-upon children who found refuge in the digital universe, however, was his ability to put his digital identity at the service of his familial one. He had not only seen his father start businesses, after all; he had accompanied his father to Zambia, where Errol Musk had an interest in an emerald mine. "They'd go in a plane stocked with chocolate bars, because that's what the customs agents wanted," Kimbal Musk says. "You basically would give them chocolate bars, and they'd allow you to do business."
When he was sixteen, he tried opening a video arcade near his high school with Kimbal, who was a year younger. "We had a lease, we had suppliers, but we were actually stopped," Kimbal says. "We got stopped by the city. We couldn't get a variance. Our parents had no idea. They flipped out when they found out, especially my father."
Errol Musk was South African. He left his wife and his children when Elon was eight or they fled him and Elon to this day has what his brother says is "not the greatest relationship" with him. But he'd given them the curious gift of other places, taking them on annual trips intended to give them perspective on where they lived, and then the most curious gift of all: "My father was very strict," Tosca remembers. "So while everybody in South Africa had maids and servants, he'd have us play this game. It was called America, America, and when we played it, we'd have to do everything an American child would do. We'd have to clean the house, mow the lawn, do all sorts of American chores...."
Elon made his move after he graduated high school. Though he already felt like an American, he'd done research and concluded that it would be easier to obtain American citizenship as a Canadian immigrant rather than as a South African one. His mother was from Canada. Most of her family still lived there. "Elon went to visit my family and he never came back," Maye says. Kimbal and Tosca remained in high school in Pretoria, where they were not like their brother they were popular. But Elon used to practice hypnosis on them when he was a boy, Tosca says. "He wasn't very good at it. I'd be like, 'No, Elon, I'm not going to eat raw bacon.' But he kept on trying."
Now his beckoning the exercise of his will worked. One by one they followed him, first Tosca (who was then fifteen) and Maye, then Kimbal, then even his cousins on his mother's side. He robbed South Africa of all his family members with the exception of his father; as his cousin Lyndon Rive puts it, "They stayed in South Africa one generation, and then they left."
He handled getting them their citizenship between attending university in Ontario and sleeping on the pullout couch at Maye and Tosca's sublet apartment in Toronto. Then he moved to the U.S. to attend the University of Pennsylvania, and they followed him across that border as well. Ten years ago ten years after his arrival in the New World Elon Musk took the oath of American citizenship with thirty-five hundred other immigrants at the Pomona Fairplex, in a ceremony he calls "actually very moving." Tosca is the last of the family still an alien, and as she studies to become an American citizen, she has come to believe in Elon's ability to make her a Martian citizen, too. They all have. They are a family that has formed an unshakable consensus around one of its members. Tosca says, "Elon has already gone to the future and come back to tell us what he's found."
And what's most important is that before he had his fortune, before he even had many friends, he had he was born with his first followers.
In 2001, Elon Musk was discussing his fortune with a friend he'd met back at Penn, Adeo Ressi. Well, they were both discussing their fortunes, because they had both made them in the tech boom and were now wondering what to do with them. Ressi had recently sold his Internet company, Methodfive, and Musk was just about to take PayPal public. It was the weekend before Memorial Day, and they were driving back to New York City from the Hamptons. It was late, it was dark, and there were people asleep in the backseat. They started talking about outer space.
"It was almost a joke at first," Ressi says. "We were both interested in space, but we dismissed it as soon as it came up. 'Oh, that's too expensive and complicated.' Then two miles would go by. 'Well, how expensive and complicated could it be?' Two more miles. 'It can't be that expensive and complicated.' It kept going on like this, and by the time we made it through the Midtown Tunnel into New York City, we'd basically decided to travel the world to see if something could be done in space."
They'd mentioned Mars in the car "the obvious destination," Ressi says and so when Musk got to his computer, he went to the NASA Web site and searched for information on NASA's Mars mission. He found nothing. "I thought there was some kind of mistake," Musk says. "I expected to find that they were well on their way and that we'd have to figure out something else to do. But there was nothing at all."
A month later, an aerospace consultant named Jim Cantrell was driving home after work in Utah when his cell phone rang. "I had the top down on my car, so all I could make out was that some guy named Ian Musk was saying that he was an Internet billionaire and needed to talk to me. I'm pretty sure he used that phrase, 'Internet billionaire.' I told him I'd call him back when I got home, but when I called, I got a fax machine. I said, 'Sure, Internet billionaire.' Then my phone rang. I asked him what was with the fax machine. He said, 'I don't want you to know my cell number.' Then he launched right into the same pitch he has now. 'I want to change mankind's outlook on being a multiplanetary species.' I listened, and he said, 'Can we meet this weekend? I have a private jet, I'll fly to your house.' Well, that rang my alarm bells, and I said, 'No, I'll meet you at the airport in Salt Lake.' Tell you the truth, I wanted to meet him in a place where he couldn't bring a weapon, so we met in the Delta Crown Room. Adeo came, and I finally thought, Holy crap, this is interesting. I said, 'Okay, Elon, let's put a team together and see how much this is going to cost.'"
They weren't starting a rocket company. The idea at the start was, in Ressi's words, "to influence public opinion by launching a high-profile mission to Mars." That was it, and that was all they planned to buy a rocket and then send it to Mars with something in it, something alive that had a chance of staying alive. At first, they were going to send a mouse; then they thought of sending a plant, maybe a food crop in its own biosphere. "We created a company called Life to Mars, because that was the objective," Ressi says. "We were going to show the world that two guys with money and vision could reach Mars, and that it wasn't that bad a place."
They began shopping for the rocket, or, in aerospace-industry parlance, the "launch vehicle." Cantrell had arranged for them to meet with Arianespace, the European consortium that sends a significant portion of the world's satellites into space, and Musk and Ressi arranged for them to stay in Paris. "We rented the penthouse suite of one of the major hotels in Paris, across from the Louvre," Ressi says. "We had the whole top floor, usually rented by the sultan of Brunei or something. Elon and I invited all our friends. It was basically about sixty hours of meetings and thirty hours of partying, and by the time we got to Russia, we were destroyed...."
They went to Russia because Arianespace's rockets were too expensive, and they'd been told that Russia was selling what Cantrell calls "repurposed ICBMs" for $7 million apiece. A superpower had collapsed, and Musk and Ressi thought they could cash in by buying three of its rockets. "This was when it was still the Wild West over there," Ressi says. "I mean, there were like dead people on the side of the road. We got pulled over multiple times, at gunpoint, and had to bribe the police. No reason. Just 'Give us money.' 'Okay....'
"Then we started having meetings with the Russian space program, which is basically fueled by vodka. We'd all go in this little room and every single person had his own bottle in front of him. They'd toast every two minutes, which means twenty or thirty toasts an hour. 'To space!' 'To America!' 'To America in space!' I finally looked over at Elon and Jim and they were passed out on the table. Then I passed out myself."
It was no different when the Russians visited Musk and Ressi in Los Angeles. "They came to L.A. to ask us for cash," Ressi says. "'We can't continue unless you give us $5,000 in cash.' We heard this on a Saturday, because they wanted party money for the weekend. How do you come up with five grand in L. A. on a Saturday? You don't. So we went to the Mondrian, where I knew the manager. 'I need all the cash you have... .' We cleaned the Mondrian out to give the Russians their fee. The final bits of cash were ones... ."
They had two more trips scheduled to Russia; now Ressi decided, as he says, "I didn't like dealing with Russians," and told Musk he wasn't going back. Musk went anyway. On the second trip, Musk brought his wife, Justine "I think that's the trip when the lead Russian designer started spitting at us," Cantrell says and on the third and final trip he brought his money. He was ready to buy three Russian ICBMs for $21 million when the Russians told him that no, they meant $21 million for one. "They taunted him," Cantrell says. "They said, 'Oh, little boy, you don't have the money?' I said, 'Well, that's that.' I was sitting behind him on the flight back to London when he looked at me over the seat and said, 'I think we can build a rocket ourselves.'"
He showed Cantrell the spreadsheet he'd been working on. "I looked at it and said, I'll be damned that's why he's been borrowing all my books. He'd been borrowing all my college textbooks on rocketry and propulsion. You know, whenever anybody asks Elon how he learned to build rockets, he says, 'I read books.' Well, it's true. He devoured those books. He knew everything. He's the smartest guy I've ever met, and he'd been planning to build a rocket all along."
He'd even contacted someone who could build it for him at least the engine. On a dry lake bed at the outer edge of the Mojave Desert, a propulsion engineer named Tom Mueller was doing what he calls "amateur rocketry" with a group of enthusiasts who called themselves the Reaction Research Society. Except that Mueller wasn't an amateur; he worked for an aerospace company that was about to become part of Northrop Grumman, and he went out to the desert to "do the crazy stuff I wasn't allowed to do at work." He'd built a rocket engine in his garage, and one day he got a call from an associate who said that "an Internet millionaire" named Elon Musk wanted to see it. Musk wound up visiting him at a warehouse where he was assembling his engine, and seeing it was, in Cantrell's words, "apparently a religious experience for Elon."
"He was very focused," Mueller says. "He asked if I could build it, and I said, 'Yes, if I had the right people.' Then he said, 'How much will it cost?'"
And so when he returned to the United States from Russia, Elon Musk spoke to Adeo Ressi about turning the company Life to Mars into what would become SpaceX about building rockets. "He pretty much said, 'I don't need these Russians,'" Ressi says. "I was like, 'Whoa, dude. Let's use the Socratic method. I got screwed by the Russians doesn't equal Create launch company.' We wound up literally having an Alcoholics Anonymous style intervention where I flew in people to Los Angeles and we all sat around a room and said, 'Elon, you cannot start a launch company. This is stupid.'
"Elon just said, 'I'm going to do it. Thanks.'"
As soon as he started SpaceX, he started talking about going to Mars. He talked with family members, magazine writers, movie stars, and other rich people of entrepreneurial inclination. He announced that he would be the first private citizen to pioneer outer space, and, in so doing, he turned himself into a public figure. When his mother asked why he wanted to pursue celebrity, he said, "Nobody will sell me any parts if they don't know who I am."
There has always been a practical purpose to the narrative he has advanced, but the narrative has ended in the myth of a man beyond practical considerations. The mythical Elon Musk has led a charmed life. He starts companies. He is a billionaire. He has seen the future and predicates everything he does in the present on the totality of his vision. His genius is ineffable, without precedent or explanation, and yet suffices to explain him. If he succeeds, humanity succeeds; in his striving for himself, he strives for us all.
All of this is partially true, but it does him the disservice of ignoring what makes him interesting: He is a devourer as well as a creator. He is opportunistic and improvisatory. He is something of a takeover artist; he built Tesla after investing in it and ridding himself of its founders. He shares his superpower not with Tony Stark but rather with Donald Trump the ability to carry debt. He can be slippery. He is more than occasionally desperate. He has a genius for engineering but perhaps a more powerful one for salesmanship, which is why he always felt himself to be, in his heart of hearts, an American.
His life is not charmed. What he pursues he usually gets, but what he gets he sometimes loses. He met the woman who became his first wife shortly after he came to Canada. He met her saw her while attending Queen's University in Ontario, and, as his brother, Kimbal, said at their wedding, went after her as relentlessly as he went after his parents back in South Africa to buy him a motorbike and a computer. And yet Justine Musk did not see him as a man who got what he wanted so much as a man who didn't have some very basic things:
"I don't think people understand how tough he had it growing up," she says. "I was a really lonely kid and he was a really lonely kid and that's one of the things that attracted me to him. I thought he had this understanding of loneliness of how to create yourself in that. A lot of the things that come naturally to people he had to think about. It's more deliberate with him. The lessons he had to learn were different from most of us."
That was the missing dimension. The extra dimension, for Justine, was "the body he was born into." He could endure almost anything, impose his will on almost anyone. "He's a big man, he's strong-willed and powerful, he's like a bear. He can be playful and funny and romp around with you, but in the end you're still dealing with a bear."
They were married in 2000. They had their first child, Nevada Alexander, two years later. At ten weeks old, he stopped breathing in his crib; after being taken off life support, he died in Justine's arms. Elon Musk could figure out how to build a rocket from reading books, but loss the place he had to make in his life for its invisible enormity baffled him. "He was very much in the mode of stiff-upper-lip, the-show-must-go-on, let's-get-it-over-with," Justine says. "He doesn't do well in the dark places. He's forward moving, and I think it's a survival thing with him."
Six weeks after the death of her son, Justine Musk went to the office of a fertility specialist and began the process of in vitro fertilization. They had twins in 2004 and triplets in 2006. The children were all boys, and two of them were diagnosed autistic. (One, according to Justine, is no longer on the spectrum.) She wrote and published three novels, but the bearlike presence of her husband had inevitably become what it had become to his partners at PayPal and Tesla: an obliterating one. "Elon does what he wants," she says. "If you want what he wants, life can be very exciting that's how he seduces people, I think: He taps into a shared dream. But he rules through strength of will. What he has comes at a price, sometimes to Elon, sometimes to people close to him. But someone always pays."
In the spring of 2008, Justine told him how unhappy she was. They went to counseling for a month, and Elon delivered an ultimatum: accept the marriage as is. When she said she couldn't, he filed for divorce the next day, and six weeks later he announced his engagement to the British actress Talulah Riley. In 2002, he had started a rocket company without bothering to tell his wife that he was starting a rocket company he left that to Adeo Ressi. Now, though, his life was more complicated. During the intervening six years, he had turned himself into a public figure and, in so doing, risked public humiliation. He was divorcing one woman and announcing his betrothal to another while at the same time struggling to save Tesla and wagering everything he had on something he had already failed at:
Putting a rocket into orbit.
He'd used his own moneyfor the first one. He started SpaceX with $100 million of the money he made from PayPal. He used that money to build the Merlin engine designed by Tom Mueller and the single-engine Falcon 1 rocket. SpaceX was, at the time, in 2002, just what Elon Musk said it was. It was a private company, a "commercial space" company. Musk was going around and trying to drum up business.
"We were in an office in Bethesda, Maryland, and one day I got a call," says Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium, a satellite-communications provider. "'Hey, Matt, this is Elon Musk. I could be at the hotel next door in a couple of hours is there any chance that you could come for a beer?'"
Desch had his own ambitious plan; he was planning to put a "constellation" of satellites into orbit, and "a lot of the more traditional launch companies looked down their nose at us. They thought we should be thrilled if they allowed us to use their rocket ships." He met Musk and characterizes him this way: "He was not nearly as cool as he is now. He was a formerly-famous-and-trying-to-be-famous-again entrepreneur. He didn't have an entourage, and we had an incredibly content-rich conversation about the whole process. He wasn't just pitching rockets. But he didn't talk about Mars, either. That probably would have scared me at that point. For all his grand plans, he's a pretty pragmatic businessman who knows how to build a company."
By March 24, 2006, Musk had orders to put satellites into orbit in his order book and was about to get a $278 million agreement with NASA intended to help him develop his company. He had to do one thing: prove that he could fly. He used the launch pad at the testing ground on the Pacific coral atoll of Kwajalein to launch his first rocket, and he went to the launch with, among others, his engine designer, Tom Mueller.
"Everyone was cheering," Mueller says. "But my engine went on fire. It burned through the wires, and the data was terrible. Thirty-three seconds in, it flamed out and Falcon fell a mile back onto the reef. We lost everything, all data, everything. There was the jubilation of it lifting off and the agony of it crashing. It was a pretty unpleasant time to be hanging with Elon. We flew back on the jet and there was an intense session to figure out what went wrong."
One year later, there was another failure. And when the third Falcon 1 fell into the sea in August 2008 along with a payload contracted by NASA and the Department of Defense, along with the ashes of the actor who played Scotty on Star Trek Musk faced disaster.
At the same time, he was at a crisis point with his other business, Tesla. He had begun production of Tesla's first car, the high-performance Roadster, but he couldn't produce enough of them. He hadn't yet begun receiving the proceeds of a half-billion-dollar loan from the federal government, and the financial system was commencing its collapse. He was searching for money and laying off people, and he wound up closing an R&D center and taking over for the CEO he'd hired to replace another CEO he'd fired earlier in the year.
"This wasn't Elon facing adversity," Kimbal says. "This was, 'Holy shit.' Personal bankruptcy was a daily conversation. Tesla was on the limb to deliver cars that people already paid for. Bankruptcy would have been easier than what he did. He threw everything he had into keeping Tesla alive."
He threw more than that into the Falcon 1's fourth launch on September 28, 2008. When Musk had decided to go into the rocket business, Adeo Ressi had counseled against it for two simple reasons: Outcomes are binary. "Rockets explode."
"Everything hinged on that launch," Ressi says. "Elon had lost all his money, but this was more than his fortune at stake it was his credibility. He'd sold all these launches and would have to give the money back. And [if that had happened] right now we'd be having a conversation about his epic failure. If it works, epic success. If it fails if one thing goes differently and it fails epic failure. No in between. No partial credit. He'd had three failures already. It would have been over. We're talking Harvard Business School case study rich guy who goes into the rocket business and loses it all...."
The rocket didn't explode. It rose into the sky and disappeared into orbit, Elon Musk's burden lifted as if for all humankind.
The problem with the Americans is that they were like Russians. No, they weren't gangsters, and they didn't make a business model of drinking you into a stupor. But the guys in American aerospace acted like they had you, and when you showed up with the money, they asked for more. Musk didn't like that. He didn't like getting screwed. He particularly didn't like getting screwed by people who also laughed at him. One time, for instance, he needed a valve"The one we had was too small, and we needed a bigger one," Tom Mueller says. "We called a vendor and they said it would cost a quarter million dollars and it would take a year to make. We said, 'We need it this summer.' They laughed and told us to go away. So we decided to make it ourselves. They called us back in the summer. They were like, 'Hey, how is it going with that valve?' We said, 'We made it, we finished it, we qualified it, and we're going to fly it.'"
Another time, Musk had an issue with a vendor that makes the big aluminum domes that top off the fuel tanks. The issue was that they were going Russian on him. "We got a big increase from the vendor after the first units were delivered," says Mark Juncosa, SpaceX's lead structural engineer. "It was like a painter who paints half your house for one price, then wants three times that for the rest. That didn't make Elon too enthusiastic. He was like, 'All right, we're not going to get screwed by these guys....'"
SpaceX now makes its own domes as Juncosa puts it, "We have our own dome-manufacturing facility in the back of the factory." This is a big deal: Elon Musk is not just assembling rockets in Hawthorne, California; he's manufacturing 70 percent of them, piece by piece. It doesn't mean that vendors have stopped trying to screw him, though, and on the evening that Musk sits eating his medieval turkey leg at his desk, Juncosa walks in to tell him that Alcoa is going Russian on him. The problem is that the domes are made of aluminum, and Alcoa has a special machine for making the aluminum SpaceX needs. They're the only ones who have it, they spent a lot of money on it, and now they want to make SpaceX pay for it....
This conversation takes place in the second week of September. SpaceX has a launch scheduled for October, less than a month away. But what Juncosa is discussing with Musk has nothing to do with the upcoming launch. It has nothing to do with any launch on the SpaceX flight manifest or any rocket that SpaceX currently manufactures. The current SpaceX rocket is the Falcon 9 1.0. It uses nine of Mueller's Merlin engines, and it's been to space four times. But Musk doesn't have engineers like Juncosa and Mueller working on it. Instead, he has them working on the future. He has them working on the Falcon 9 1.1 and the Falcon Heavy, which is meant for deep space. More important, he has them working on making rockets reusable.
"SpaceX has the most advanced rockets in the world," Musk says, but so far the advances have been "evolutionary" because the rockets are expendable they end up in the ocean. "The revolutionary breakthrough will come with rockets that are fully and rapidly reusable. We will never conquer Mars unless we do that. It'll be too expensive. The American colonies would never have been pioneered if the ships that crossed the ocean hadn't been reusable."
This is a compelling idea. But when Musk gets into trouble, it's not because of the unifying intensity of his vision. He gets into trouble because of his divisions because he builds great products he can't deliver. Tesla is in trouble again, is running short on money again, because it is having difficulty building enough of its amazing Model S sedans for people who've already paid for them. And SpaceX does not currently face the challenge of reusability or of going to Mars. It faces the challenge of living up to the faith of guys like Iridium's Matt Desch, who's counting on SpaceX to put nearly seventy satellites into orbit over the next five years.
"Elon's got to make SpaceX a company that will deliver tens of rockets a year and get his costs down much further than they are now," Desch says. "The technical challenge isn't getting to space it's getting to space twenty times in a row. That's the really big technical challenge over the next two years. SpaceX knows that we get nervous every time we hear they have a big idea."
"Nobody understands what's driving this," Jim Cantrell says. "Right now, he's producing rockets at an industry average, and yet his flight manifest is much higher than industry average. It's exactly like Tesla. He has a rocket that works. But before he even finishes with that, he's building the next one."
And yet he can't help himself: He wants to build the next one. He has big ideas. He sells SpaceX with the reality of expendability and himself with the dream of reusability. He sells SpaceX with its launch manifest its order book and himself with Mars. His PR person describes him as "an unconventional man with conventional customers," not to mention vendors who act like Russians. So now as he finishes his turkey leg, he listens to Juncosa tell him that he's found a way to go around Alcoa, involving smaller pieces of aluminum. "Maybe," Musk says. "But they seem to be operating on the principle of 'What is the degree to which we can screw the customer, and that is the actual limit on the price.' They're giving the shaft to Tesla as well, and it really pisses me off."
The real problem, Musk tells Juncosa, is that "they make a shitload of aluminum."
"They're definitely not easy to push around," Juncosa says.
Musk smiles. He has a funny smile, boyish and playful but also private and a little rueful he tends to laugh at the world's absurdity, and smile at his own.
"It makes me want to start an aluminum company," Musk says. "There has to be some serious gravy in that."
He knows what to do when he enters into a new partnership. He takes over. When he married Justine, he told her as they danced at the reception, "I'm the alpha in this relationship." And when he invested in Tesla in 2004, he quickly took control of its board of directors and deposed founder Martin Eberhard in 2007.
And so he knew what to do when, in 2006, NASA began changing from an agency that explores space into an agency that invests in space. When its essential charter was changed, NASA didn't know what to do: "It was a whole new way of doing business for us," says Alan Lindenmoyer, the head of NASA's commercial crew and cargo program. It even hired a consultant to teach it how to do venture capitalism and develop what Lindenmoyer calls "true partnerships" with "commercial space" companies like SpaceX. Musk knew what to do, though. He'd made his money in Silicon Valley, and some of his best friends were venture capitalists. He knew what worlds await those who can make themselves indispensable to their partners.
And he was indispensable to NASA from the start. An agency emblematic of national unity in the twentieth century spent the first years of the twenty-first responding to shrinking budgets and straitened circumstance. It had been shaken to the core by the death of seven astronauts in the space shuttle Columbia's return from space in 2003. It was debating whether it had the ability to muster another attempt at manned space exploration with a new generation of rockets called Ares. It needed a visionary face to show the world that a space program carried out on the cheap could still be inspirational and expressive of national purpose. It needed Elon Musk.
"Elon came along and said, 'If you give us the money, we can do things for a tenth of what you do, but you have to leave us alone,'" says Scott Horowitz, a former space-shuttle astronaut who was in charge of NASA's exploration programs from 2005 to 2007.
And Musk got the money. In 2006, he entered into the $278 million agreement to demonstrate with three launches his ability to put his Falcon 9 rocket into space. In 2008, he won a $1.6 billion contract to bring cargo to the International Space Station. In 2010, he received another $118 million to help him complete his original demonstration agreement. Then the Obama administration killed the Ares program at the same time the shuttle was being retired, and the United States turned to private companies to restore its ability to bring its astronauts to the space station to bring any of its citizens to space. And Musk found himself in a position of simultaneous partnership and power:
"NASA has married itself to Elon," Jim Cantrell says. "There's no way that NASA can survive without him, and they're stuck."
NASA has always presented this as a healthy relationship. In return for what Lindenmoyer calls a "modest investment," NASA has developed a whole new industry, and the industry has had a chance to demonstrate that private companies can go to space more efficiently, more cheaply, and more quickly than old-line government contractors working under direct NASA supervision ever could. Although SpaceX didn't complete its three demonstration launches by its 2009 deadline, it managed to launch its first Falcon 9 and to deliver its first Dragon spacecraft into orbit in 2010. In May of 2012, the Dragon docked for the first time at the International Space Station, and in October it completed the first resupply run on its $1.6 billion NASA contract. These launches were considered historic, historic enough to warrant a personal call to Musk from President Obama. More historic still was the $440 million that NASA awarded SpaceX to compete with Boeing and Sierra Nevada for a contract to shuttle American astronauts into orbit.
Elon Musk, of course, has no doubts about who is going to win. "Sierra Nevada is just a placeholder," he says. "Boeing will never get its hardware off the ground. You know the joke about Boeing: It puts the zero in being."
He, then, appears to be on his inexorable way to his final impossible goal. And yet his marriage to NASA has not unfolded so differently from any of his others. In congressional hearings in September, Democratic congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson the ranking member of the Committee on Space, Science, and Technology asked how "commercial" commercial space companies like SpaceX really are. She questioned the wisdom of NASA's using taxpayer money to help companies develop capacities that they would then sell back to NASA once they were developed. And she pointed out that while NASA spoke of investing in fifty-fifty partnerships with commercial space companies, it was actually spending nine times what the commercial space companies were spending that the partnerships were actually ninety-ten.
Musk doesn't dispute the proportions. He points out, however, that the congresswoman was speaking strictly of SpaceX's program to put men in space a program for which NASA is the only customer. He says that NASA has paid only for the development of the Dragon spacecraft, and that SpaceX developed both the Merlin engine and the Falcon rocket completely on its own, with its original $100 million in capital. But in fact NASA has spent nearly a billion dollars on SpaceX, with barely any congressional oversight. "It seems that [Musk] has convinced a lot of people who can influence Congress to go along with his plan," Representative Johnson says. "There is a stronger message than the message of Congress coming from NASA now."
She is referring to the Obama administration. She is referring, specifically, to Musk's connections to the Obama administration. Musk has not only spent almost $1.5 million on Washington lobbyists over the last two years; he maintains what an official with close ties to NASA calls a "symbiotic" relationship with Lori Garver, a former commercial-space advocate who advised the Obama campaign and who now, as NASA's deputy administrator, has insisted that she reports to the president himself. And "commercial space" has come to resemble the old system of government contractors the Boeings, the Lockheeds it was intended to supplant, right down to the bloat*: In August, SpaceX was scheduled to receive $60 million for its first two milestones under its $440 million agreement with NASA. The milestones: holding its first meeting and revealing its financials.
"The whole commercial space moniker is a farce," says Scott Horowitz. "It's 'We don't like those contractors, let's replace them with these contractors.'"
Musk says that "it is true that SpaceX is partially a government contractor, but it would be unfair to say that SpaceX is entirely a government contractor." He says that he has been given the freedom to innovate that no government contractor ever had, and that, besides, his goal is "to go far beyond the space business." His goal is... well, everybody knows his goal. But that's the problem. NASA doesn't want to go to Mars any more than Iridium does. NASA abandoned its goal of going to Mars when it abandoned the Ares rocket, and now it is looking for a private company that can bring astronauts to the low orbit of the space station as safely as possible. NASA has developed a culture of caution, and it's being challenged by it comes into conflict with SpaceX's culture of entrepreneurial risk.
Last year, John Marshall, a member of NASA's independent review board, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, went to SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, to perform a status review. He was shocked when he was asked "to sign a nondisclosure agreement before we had any dialogue." He refused, and received access to the information he needed. But he was shocked again when he met an engineer in charge of SpaceX's software: "I thought, Oh, my gosh, you gotta be kidding me. This is a babe in the woods. This is a guy who developed games for PlayStations and has no idea of the complexities out there."
"Elon's a brilliant entrepreneur on one hand, and on the other hand he's a brat," says an official who's worked with him on the safety issues regarding manned flights. "He says he's ready now to put humans in space. No, he's not. His confidence in flying people into space is inversely proportional to his experience in doing it."
He has launched four unmanned Falcon 9 rockets into space. After the second launch, a veteran safety expert e-mailed NASA's chief safety officer and asked him about reports that the first stage of the rocket had exploded. Musk sued the man for $1 million and settled the suit on condition of his retraction and silence. This year, on October 7, he succeeded in delivering cargo to the space station. But an engine failed a minute and nineteen seconds into launch. The rocket had to adjust its trajectory to make its orbit, and dumped a satellite from a communications company called Orbcomm that burned up in the atmosphere. Musk responded to questions about the incident in the following e-mail:
"I am quite chagrined that an effort to do a small good deed for a customer is being treated in some quarters as mission failure. That was not the mission!"
But of course it was. For Orbcomm it was, and what Adeo Ressi warned Musk about when he first started his rocket company still holds true: Space is a place of binary outcomes. Rockets can explode. And the ultimate binary outcome is not success or failure; it is life and death. Elon Musk says that he wants to extend human consciousness throughout the universe. But the presence of a single human consciousness on any launch changes everything about it. He has used both his genius and his genius for salesmanship to convince NASA to marry him. But ultimately NASA doesn't care about what he cares about. It doesn't care about Mars. It cares that the man it has married knows the difference between a rocket and a rocket with a man on top and that an entire universe lies between them.
He brings his wife to lunch. In the morning, an admiring column in The New York Times portrayed him as a man who has endured the loss of two marriages, and quoted him as saying that he "would like to allocate more time to dating." But he brings Talulah Riley to lunch in Manhattan, where he has flown to celebrate the birthday of his brother, Kimbal. Talulah Riley acquired a presence in the gossip pages when she accepted a $4.2 million divorce settlement from Musk in August. Now she tousles his hair and talks about making him eat and making him get enough sleep. And then she announces her real job: keeping him from going "king-crazy."
"You've never heard that term?" she asks. "I guess no one uses it outside of England. It means that people become king, and then they go crazy."
Musk smiles, boyishly and ruefully. He is relaxing, drinking a cocktail a Rob Roy and eating with his usual urgent functionality, with hunger and speed but without relish. Those who love him worry about him about his health and they are pleased that he has accepted Talulah back into his life.
"Elon is finding that he has to have a double standard," says Adeo Ressi. "He's always had one standard for himself that he's applied to the rest of the world. But it's hard for him to be in a relationship with people who don't measure up to himself. Coming back to Talulah, he's realizing he's not going to be able to find a woman who's up there with himself. He's a billionaire, he runs two companies, so he's always been like, 'This is what I did, why can't you?' Because she's human, dude? And the single thing that has made Elon happier most recently is sort of an appreciation of how unique he is and an acceptance that not everyone needs to be equal to him to be in a relationship with him."
The central dilemma of his life with Talulah Riley his singularity, and how it applies to the rest of humanity is also the central dilemma of his life as a serial self-mythologizer, and now the conversation turns to it. He is a rich man trying to inspire a change in national consciousness. It is not enough for him to inspire Americans; he needs somehow to stand for them to stand for more than himself if he wants to restore this country's explorer's heart, its willingness to endure risk. He is, after all, talking about people dying in pursuit of his dream, and so he has to find a way to make his dream their own... but suddenly, as his plate is cleared, he appears very alone at the table, as if stuck with the check.
"It would be a terrible thing, if someone died," he says softly and matter-of-factly. "A terrible, terrible thing." He looks like a man who has said what has just dawned on him, and so he seems newly cognizant of the possibility of loss. Maybe he even looks like a man in love.
But you should know something about him. In twenty years, he plans to ask you to sell everything you own, and to give him the $500,000 he figures will be the price of a trip to Mars. Whether such a price is possible or laughable is immaterial: He will ask you to leave everything you own and everything you know. He will ask you to start a colony on a planet that exists as a red star in the night sky. He doesn't want you to come back. But he doesn't want you to die, either. For a long time he thought you would have to risk death to accomplish his dream, but now he's decided he doesn't want you to. You don't have to die for Elon Musk. For you to be willing is more than enough.
Good article about his life and how close he came to bankruptcy.
The most interesting part I found was this:
She was a dietitian and a fashion model; her husband, Errol, was an engineer and what a family member described as a “serial entrepreneur.” According to Maye, they knew their oldest child was “advanced from the very beginning.” He read continually, read not simply to amuse himself but to acquire knowledge, so they sent him to school early in Pretoria. “Elon was the youngest and smallest guy in his school,” Maye says, and soon he found himself in conflict not just with other children but with what seemed like South Africa itself.
“It’s pretty rough in South Africa,” Kimbal Musk says. “It’s a rough culture. Imagine rough well, it’s rougher than that. Kids gave Elon a very hard time, and it had a huge impact on his life.” Huge, Tosca says, “because there was no recourse. In South Africa, if you’re getting bullied, you still have to go to school. You just have to get up in the morning and go. He hated it so much.”
It turned out he had two recourses. The first was his family and his ability to think of himself as a Musk, and therefore as a kind of transcendent citizen rather than as a South African. The second was the advent of the personal computer. “He was on computers as soon as they were available to us,” Tosca says. What distinguished him from the legions of other brainy put-upon children who found refuge in the digital universe, however, was his ability to put his digital identity at the service of his familial one. He had not only seen his father start businesses, after all; he had accompanied his father to Zambia, where Errol Musk had an interest in an emerald mine. “They’d go in a plane stocked with chocolate bars, because that’s what the customs agents wanted,” Kimbal Musk says. “You basically would give them chocolate bars, and they’d allow you to do business.”
When he was sixteen, he tried opening a video arcade near his high school with Kimbal, who was a year younger. “We had a lease, we had suppliers, but we were actually stopped,” Kimbal says. “We got stopped by the city. We couldn’t get a variance. Our parents had no idea. They flipped out when they found out, especially my father.”
Errol Musk was South African. He left his wife and his children when Elon was eight or they fled him and Elon to this day has what his brother says is “not the greatest relationship” with him. But he’d given them the curious gift of other places, taking them on annual trips intended to give them perspective on where they lived, and then the most curious gift of all: “My father was very strict,” Tosca remembers. “So while everybody in South Africa had maids and servants, he’d have us play this game. It was called America, America, and when we played it, we’d have to do everything an American child would do. We’d have to clean the house, mow the lawn, do all sorts of American chores....”
“Triumph of His Will”?
That’s the actual title of the article that Esquire chose?
We are living in the post-modern era, right?
Entirely appropriate. Like Krupp and Farben in the Third Reich, Musk's businesses rely on massive grants, subsidies and loans, which our government -- in its infinite wisdom -- deem to confer upon him.
I’m glad you get the reference.
Id naturally think everyone would get the reference.
But I forget the level of ignorance.
thanks, that was an interesting read.
I’ll see if it’s available on kindle, thanks.
Wait for Michael Moore to do the film, with Space X buildings and launch vehicles spot lit from below at night, while Musk parades by lined-up employees in an open-top Tesla.
What’s the byline, Leni Riefenstahl III ?
Great article. Thanks. The writer touches on what I think is the real potential show stopper for SpaceX. They have become a business and they have substantial business lined up. The question is, can they deliver. The comments about Musk not delivering on contracts is accurate. If SpaceX can’t work its way through their launch book they’re in trouble.
He’s gonna need a bigger boat!
Well they could always do Muslim outreach
He’ll probably be the first one to establish a permanent outpost on the moon. All the other guys with private space companies will be right behind him. And in this new Space Race, I have a feeling they’ll help each other for a long while, until the third generation of private space. Then, the help will stop, and competition will be fierce, and possibly dangerous.
It makes you understand why the SpaceX and StratoLauncher joint project did not last long.
All in one room, each very successful, capable men.
Rutan & Allen have obviously settled into their respective Engineering and Finance leadership roles. Musk needs to wear BOTH hats.
‘Tain’t gonna work!
As an engineer who worked for a dozen years as a missile man, and was an amateur rocketeer with some tenuous connections to RRS (mentioned in the article), I find this fascinating. Sure, it's fascism. But they're gonna spend the money anyway. Maybe Musk can take America to the moon again. It's the only way it will happen.
And the one-way Mars trip? I'd think a long, long time before saying no. And maybe I'd say, 'Yes', under the right conditions.
Which part is fascism?
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.