If superheroes were real, Elon Musk would be Science Man. Or Technology Chap. Or Business Acumen Person. Either way, he’s a major force in our industrial and technological evolution, and that’s why we should all know who he is and what he’s doing. Because he’s literally trying to save the human race.
Musk is securing our future as a multiplanetary species. He’s the driving force behind a mission to Mars that will see humans living permanently on the red planet. Some 80,000 of us, in fact, by the year 2040. Not only will we thrive in Martian cities, but we’ll bootstrap our way to the stars, outliving extinction level events that nature throws at the rest of humanity on Earth (self-destruction included).
Musk’s story is an extraordinary one. His companies have made leaps in design and engineering that have remade entire industries, from online banking, to self-driving electric cars, to solar roof tiles, to reusable space rockets. At the outset, many of Musk’s ideas sound like the ravings of a lunatic. And that’s because he’s a visionary; society can’t see through the fog. But what’s equally powerful is to witness him pulling it all off in the face of adversity. Add it all together and Elon Musk is a ray of hope for humanity.
So here’s everything you need to know about Elon’s backstory and ambitions. Apparently he hates when people focus on him as the story. He would rather we focus on the science about which he cares so deeply. Hey, I’m working on that too. But there is something compelling about this extraordinary engineer that people want to figure out first.
Elon Musk in Childhood
Elon was born, or perhaps engineered, in South Africa in 1971. His mother was a Canadian model and dietician, and his father was a South African electromechanical engineer, although they split when he was 10. He grew up in the suburbs of Pretoria, teaching himself computer programming and selling his first video game for $500 by the age of 12.
He devoured Isaac Asimov’s futuristic sci-fi book series, Foundation, and was inspired by its message to pursue the noble goal of prolonging and advancing civilisation. This kid dreamed big. Unfortunately, his love of humanity was seen as “not cool” by a bunch of boys who routinely bullied and abused him, once to the point of hospitalisation by throwing him down a flight of stairs and beating him unconscious. I expect they’re shitting in their pants today. After all, Musk is one small tragedy away from becoming a supervillain.
At 18, Musk emigrated to Canada and pursued his degrees in Physics and Economics. He moved to California at 24 to begin his PhD in Applied Physics and Materials Science at Stanford, but quit after two days to crack on with saving the world and everything. He had major aspirations for renewable energy, space travel and internet entrepreneurship, and had not a minute to waste.
Elon Musk in Business
Elon launched his first business, Zip2, with his younger brother, Kimbal, operating a digital city guide for newspaper giants like the New York Times. They sold up a few years later for $307 million, with Elon netting $22 million for himself. Time to buy a yacht and live the good life, no?
Not this guy. The following month, he invested $10 million into his next start-up, X.com, an e-payment company which later merged to become the ubiquitious PayPal. Three years after its inception, Musk and co sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion. Now, maybe I’ve got supervillains on the brain but I can’t read that number without saying it like Dr Evil, and neither should you. Musk netted $165 million from the deal and freed himself up – to go to space.
By now we’ve established Elon Musk to be a genius self-made millionaire (update: billionaire), and we’ve not even gotten to the good stuff. With the beauty of hindsight we can see that his early companies were experiments in making money, of which he would need a great deal to pursue his dream of going to Mars.
Elon Musk on Mars
Enter SpaceX (which stands for Space Exploration Technologies Corp) although its short form is surely designed to induce subconscious thoughts of low-gravity love-making. SpaceX is the vehicle for formalising Elon Musk’s vision of seeding Mars with a colony of Earthlings. The company designs, builds and operates actual spaceships, with a particular interest in advancing rocket technology to make it cheaper and reusable.
To date, SpaceX has created three reusable rockets (Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy) and one multipurpose spacecraft (the Dragon, which docked with the International Space Station in 2012, making it the first commercial vehicle to do so). NASA has since contracted SpaceX to transport cargo to the ISS, bringing in billions of dollars more to further Elon’s Mars program. The next key phase is the development of the BFR: a booster and ship combo that will eventually replace the earlier rockets.
The goal is to send a cargo mission to Mars in 2022. It will check on water resources and local hazards, as well as establishing mining, power and life support facilities. This will be followed by a manned mission in 2024, with the objectives of building a propellant depot and preparing for future human arrivals.
“I’d like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.”
– Elon Musk, SXSW
Musk’s biography talks of establishing a colony of 80,000 humans on Mars by the year 2040. If anyone else made such rash projections we might be inclined to slap them round the face with a wet fish. But Elon has a proven record of achieving the once-thought impossible. How do you argue with that?
Elon Musk at Tesla
There’s a whole other realm of Musk territory we haven’t explored yet.
Shortly after launching SpaceX, he got involved with Tesla, a car company named for the engineer and physicist Nikola Tesla, and is now the CEO and architect of its electric vehicles, including the Tesla Roadster, the Model S, Model 3, Model X, and the forthcoming Model Y and Tesla Semi. Tesla sells its electric vehicle powertrain components to other car manufacturers and has opened up the technology patents in good faith in order to speed up the development of electric cars. There is sincere care for the environment here; a bid to break our ugly addiction with petrol-guzzling autos. Meanwhile, Tesla cars continue to become more affordable, with the Model 3 (2017) at $35,000 supported by a growing network of supercharger stations.
And then there’s self-driving cars. Autonomous vehicle technology has the power to prevent up to 1.3 million road related deaths every year. All Tesla vehicles contain the hardware to self-drive, and at a safety level that far exceeds the abilities of human drivers, hence the massive reduction in accidents. Lawmakers are working to keep up with this technological revolution and new regulatory systems are emerging to enable autonomous vehicles like Teslas to flourish – and sooner than you may think.
Elon Musk’s Side Projects
In 2006, also on the renewable energy front, Musk provided the concept and capital for SolarCity, a solar power company, which was eventually bought back by Tesla. One of its landmark products is a roof tile that generates solar power, which can be stored and used at any time of day. In Buffalo, New York, SolarCity is also developing one of the single largest solar panel production plants in the world.
And still on the transport buzz, in 2013 Musk unveiled his concept for a high-speed transport system of reduced pressure tubes called the Hyperloop. The design is revolutionary. Inside, pressurised freight and passenger capsules ride along on an air cushion at an average speed of 600 mph. Implementation will take a great deal more planning but the concept has been open-sourced by Musk to encourage others to run with its development.
You can’t blame the man. He’s got more than enough fish to fry, including OpenAI (a non-profit artificial general intelligence research organisation), Neuralink (producing ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect people with computers), and The Boring Company (described his “hobby” company which will develop underground tunnel systems to relieve traffic in cities like Los Angeles).
Elon Musk in His Spare Time
Outside of his day-to-day work, Musk has been a voice of reason on Trump’s presidential advisory committee. However – perhaps inevitably – he later quit in protest to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement to reduce climate change. Meanwhile, Musk frequently speaks out in the media on a host of issues, from the dangers of artificial intelligence, to the existence of alien life, to the inevitability of a universal income.
“The strongest argument for us probably being in a simulation I think is the following: 40 years ago we had Pong – two rectangles and a dot. That’s where we were. Now 40 years later we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, we’ll have augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, just indistinguishable.”
– Elon Musk
Elon also has a complex personal life. He married the Canadian author Justine Wilson in 2000. They had a son, Nevada, who passed away at 10 weeks old from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), an unexplained phenomenon that occurs in less than 0.1% of babies. The couple went on to have twin sons, then triplet sons, before eventually separating. Over the next eight years, Elon married, divorced, remarried and redivorced the English actress Talulah Riley. He’s had his ups and downs.
Elon Musk in The Future
What’s next for Elon? A necessary workaholic, he puts in around 100 hours a week, dividing his time between the publicly-traded Tesla (currently valued at $50 billion) and the privately held SpaceX (worth around $20 billion). Tesla is bringing about a revolution in sustainable vehicles, while simultaneously reducing road deaths with its safer-than-human driving ability. After piling an obscene amount of cash into research, development and manufacturing, the wider roll-out of Tesla vehicles will finally see the company hit profitability in 2018 which will be a relief from an investor perspective and give Tesla a chance to breathe. The master plan is to produce more affordable cars in high volume, as well as refine the self-driving technology and create a car sharing economy, where you can hire out your Tesla on autopilot when you’re not using it, or relieve the need for car ownership at all, if you choose.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is completing its first manned spacecraft, called Crew Dragon, which will take over from Russia in 2018 in flying astronauts to and from the ISS. The long term aim is to get butts on Mars, and most of SpaceX’s engineering resources are going into the construction of the mighty BFR, which is scheduled to perform its first test flight by 2022. Life on Mars looks increasingly on the cards. Let’s just hope we don’t nuke ourselves first, or accidentally invent super artificial intelligent overlords that vow to kill us all. I’m buoyed by the thought that Elon probably has a solution for that in the works, too.