To many, the name Elon Musk doesn’t mean anything. The names PayPal and Tesla Motors do though. This man is the name behind those two other names and he is where to look for the future of rocket science and transportation development in years to come. His company Space X, set up after selling PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002 has already docked the first private spacecraft to the Space Station. His other company Tesla Motors can also boast having the world’s first electric vehicle with a range greater than 200 miles per charge. Now, Musk is looking at trains. He claims the recently unveiled Hyperloop could get you from New York to LA in 45 minutes. Based on what he’s already done, it looks like we might be able to trust him.
Born in South Africa in 1971, Musk taught himself computer programming and by the age of 12 had sold his first program for $500, a space game called Blastar. After studying in his mother’s native Canada for two years, he achieved two undergraduate degrees in economics and physics at Pennsylvania University before moving to Silicon Valley to pursue a PhD in applied physics and materials science at Stanford. There he considered the areas he wanted to get into: “Important problems that would most affect the future of humanity. One was the Internet, one was clean energy and one was space.” Sure enough, now at the age of 42, he has ticked all three of those boxes. Setting up X.com in 1999, an email payment company which later became PayPal, SolarCity which is the largest provider of solar power systems in the U.S and of course Space X, to revolutionise space technology with “the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” Add in Tesla Motors, his latest 800mph solar powered tube train Hyperloop, a whole reel of science, health and clean energy related philanthropies as well as five children and you have the full plethora of Musk’s impact on humanity so far.
At a recent TED interview Musk was asked: “How on Earth has one person been able to innovate in this way?” Musk responded with: “Erm, I don’t know actually. [Pause] I don’t have a good answer for you. I mean, I work a lot, a lot.” With NASA queuing up for Musk’s space rockets, including one that’s reusable and one which is the world’s most powerful, the next stop for Musk is actually Mars. With backing from Barack Obama in the form of a $465 million federal loan for Tesla motors, the US government trusts what he’s doing too.
He envisages a colony on Mars of 80,000 but admits that he must pay the bills along the way. Keeping NASA on his side by helping transport cargo and people to the Space Station with his Dragon spacecraft as well as pioneering reusable rockets that slash the cost of a space mission to $200,000 for fuel.
Talking of Mars, Musk said in a recent interview at his down-dressed Space X HQ office overlooking a car park in a corner of the ground floor: “There’s no rush in the sense that humanity’s doom is imminent, I don’t think the end is nigh. But I do think we face some small risk of calamitous events. It’s sort of like why you buy car or life insurance. It’s not because you think you’ll die tomorrow, but because you might.” At the thought of one day, as an old man going on a one-way trip to Mars and what he might have written on his tombstone if he were to die there, he frowned and answered: “Holy shit, I’m on Mars, can you believe it?”
However, the private space race is heating up with NASA’s competition for delivering astronauts to low Earth orbit. The likes of Virgin Galactic, (who Musk brushes off as “not really the same”), Boeing, Sierra Nevada and even Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and Blue Origin are all having a crack.
But what can we take from Musk? What has got him such a long way in such a short space of time? Could it be the way he is an approachable jeans and t-shirt kind of guy who doesn’t care about aesthetics as much as functionality? He seems to be a very good problem finder and solver. Rockets get wasted every time they get launched into space, why can’t we reuse them? Solar panels are very expensive to install, why can’t we do this for free and charge a monthly fee instead? People are annoyed that electric cars don’t last long enough, so lets make one that goes for over 200 miles on one charge. The economist Ester Boserup coined the phrase “Necessity is the mother of invention” and this seems to be the way Elon Musk works.
In same Ted interview where Musk struggled to articulate what made him tick, the interviewer came up with his own theory. He suggested Musk had an ability “to think at a system level of design, to pull together design, technology and business into one package and then feel so damned confident that you take crazy risks that you’ve bet your fortune on.” Musk then answered that physics is a framework for thinking. “Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Musk also said: “I think also it’s really important to pay attention to negative feedback and solicit it, particularly from friends. This may sound like simple advice but hardly anyone does that, it’s incredibly helpful.”
So is that what we can learn from Elon Musk? Study physics and listen to your friends when they criticise you? To me, it’s his ability to cut through a problem to find a base to build up from and having the clarity to find the “truths” of things, as Musk puts it. Perhaps this explains why Musk is in rocket science. He’s found his base and the only way is up.