Elon Musk Is the Hero America Deserves
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- If all goes well, on May 27 two American astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, will ride in a Tesla electric car to a Florida launchpad, hop out, and then climb into the nose of a Falcon 9 rocket built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. They’ll strap in before a bank of superslick touchscreens, as opposed to a Cold War-era clutter of buttons and knobs. The rocket will blast off at 4:33 p.m. EDT and dock with the International Space Station about 19 hours later. It will be the first privately built rocket and capsule ever to put humans into space, as well as the first time in almost a decade that an American spacecraft will ferry Americans into space from American soil.
In another era and under slightly different circumstances, this event would be the whole, glorious story. Immigrant rocket man ferries brave patriots into the heavens. Plop some ice cream on the apple pie, pass the Budweisers around, and let the livestreamed adrenaline loose on the imaginations of millions of kids.
Alas, we do not live in such times. We have a Twitter President and all the tremendous, very big, super-duper baggage that comes with him. We have a Space Force. We have a virus run amok. And, in Musk, we have a Twitter Business Icon with his own impressive set of baggage. So the moment of achievement is complicated. Sort of like The Right Stuff meets The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test where the idea that “anything is possible” is as unnerving as it is encouraging.
As Musk’s biographer, I’ve spent years watching how he operates and affects everyone and everything in his orbit, from SpaceX to that other company he runs, Tesla Inc. During interviews, he can be loquacious to the point of oversharing—and then shut down for weeks or months after some perceived slight. We’ve had periods of intense and fruitful interactions, though my book left me in the Musk doghouse for quite a while. The odd e-mail returned. The odd phone call about his desire to reenact the police raid on Kim Dotcom’s compound if he ever visits New Zealand. But silence, mostly. Yet here we are, at the leaving-the-planet part of the pandemic, which would certainly qualify as a giant leap for Musk. Sure enough, he called late on May 17.
“It’s pretty intense days,” Musk says, revealing nothing about his whereabouts other than being two hours late for a dinner.
A lot can go wrong with a rocket launch, obviously, from inclement weather to much worse. The only reason NASA entertained the idea of putting astronauts in a rocket built entirely by a private company is that SpaceX has proven itself a remarkably dependable, relatively low-price, competently managed operation. Over the past decade, it’s launched about 100 rockets, landed many of them safely back on Earth, and come to dominate the industry, while being valued at close to $40 billion. It took the effort of many clever, hardworking people to pull this off, but it’s Elon Musk in all his audacious, volatile glory that made such a thing possible in the first place.
Even the most fervent Musk hater, of whom there are plenty in the U.S., has to feel some twinge of pride. At a moment when the American Empire can seem to be in decline, here’s a clear sign that great things remain possible and that humans have much left to achieve. “America is still the land of opportunity more than any other place, for sure,” Musk says, waxing patriotic. “There is definitely no other country where I could have done this—immigrant or not.” That it’s a multibillionaire, Covid-19-truthing, entrepreneurial huckster/hero delivering this message is pretty much perfect for America in 2020.
Like President Trump, Musk uses Twitter as a mainline into the id. But even by Musk’s flamboyant standards, the last couple of months have been exceptional. He’s vowed to sell almost all his possessions, announced the birth of his son, named X Æ A-12 (pronounced ex-ash-A-twelve), described Tesla as being overvalued, recited the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner, and made sure that everyone knows “Facebook sucks.” The real juice, though, has come on the topic of the coronavirus, where Musk has emerged as one of the most prominent advocates of reopening society and one of the most vocal downplayers of the virus’s effects.
He predicted in March that the U.S. would see “probably close to zero new cases” by the end of April, which was obviously wrong. Like Trump, he’s promoted the use of chloroquine, which doctors have warned is unproven to help with Covid-19 and can be very harmful. There have been no calls to inject Lysol but plenty of armchair epidemiology. And, on the subject of reopening, Musk has been less than subtle with such memorable tweets as “Give people their freedom back!” and “FREE AMERICA NOW.”
Ricardo Reyes, who served two tours of duty as Tesla’s communications chief, saw all of this and tweeted, “My lord. Seems Gorilla’s way out of the cage … And knows exactly what he’s doing.” As if to prove his former employee right on both counts, Musk on May 11 announced he would reopen Tesla’s Silicon Valley car factory in the most high-on-Twitter-dopamine way: “Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules,” he posted. “I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.” After additional threats to pull Tesla out of California and move to a more hospitable state, Musk got his way, and Tesla was given the all-clear to reopen.
As for the virus and his predictions of its imminent disappearance, Musk refuses to back down, despite clear evidence to the contrary. “I think the statistics became unreliable at the point at which they included those who weren’t actually tested for Covid but simply had Covid-like symptoms,” he says. “The statistics became bogus probably around mid-April. There’s about a hundred Covid-like symptoms. Basically anything. And then the stimulus bill gave a major incentive to have someone regarded as having Covid. The data is no longer valid. That said, I would say I was off by maybe three or four weeks.”
Suggesting that Covid-19 cases are faked sounds especially abhorrent coming from someone who tends to celebrate science. But Musk has always been a provocateur. It’s only in recent years that those outside his inner circle or who don’t work at his companies have been able to witness the Full Elon firsthand.
He’s basically become a religious figure on Twitter. The true believers think he can do no wrong and celebrate any position he takes even if it seems to contradict past positions or simple common sense. As in, is he pro-science and fighting climate change or anti-science and denying the spread of the coronavirus? The true believers don’t care. Conversely, there are the hordes of people who detest everything Musk does. They think he’s an outright fraud who lies and cheats and will do anything to make a buck.
The pandemic tweets, though, have made it harder to tell what’s up and what’s down in Musk Land. He’s been distrusted by a certain breed of conservative for years simply for producing electric cars and sounding the alarm on climate change. And now suddenly Musk’s reopening demands—combined with tweets supporting fringe right-wing causes—have aligned him with plenty of voices on the right. Texas, which tried long and hard to ban Tesla from selling or servicing its cars in the home state of Big Oil, has politicians stepping over each other to welcome Musk and his factories. True, many people, even in Texas, have bought Teslas to virtue-signal their love of the planet and hope for a better future. But the symbolism turns quickly if you believe the workers making the car are risking their health on the factory line.
Among the many questions Musk’s recent behavior raises is, Why tweet at all? Why risk alienating your base and fraying the goodwill of the superfans? Also, why spend your limited free time in a virtual cesspool?
“It’s hard to make everyone happy, especially on Twitter,” Musk says. “Look, you can either say things that are not controversial at all, and then you’re boring, and nobody cares. Some of the things I say, I would like to retract them. It’s not like I stand by all the tweets I’ve ever done. Some of them were definitely extremely dumb. On balance, the good outweighs the bad. It’s a means of communicating directly to the people without having to go through the press.”
Billionaires are not in vogue at the moment—especially tech billionaires. To Musk’s point about going around journalists, the tech press—after years and years of celebrating young, rich geeks—seems to have decided they can now do no right and have ruined civilization. But to the extent that there’s still room for nuance and complexity in the world, consider Musk’s unlikely and remarkable story.
He grew up in South Africa and had the good fortune of doing so in an upper-middle-class home. But that’s more or less where the good fortune ended. His parents divorced. He was bullied at school. And he had a disastrous relationship with his father. At 17, Musk decided to leave home, heading first to Canada and then the U.S. for university. “When I told my father I was leaving, he said I was going to fail and would be back in three months,” Musk says.
Some of his most vocal detractors have promoted the idea that Musk, like Trump, began his career backed by the deep pockets of dear old dad. Errol Musk, an engineer, owned a small percentage of an emerald mine and had a couple of good years before the mine went bust and wiped out his investment. Musk readily jumps onto Twitter to refute the charges that his empire was forged with the aid of family wealth, and part of the reason he wanted to talk to me—rather comically given the rocket launch and, well, trolls—was because the jabs bug him, and he hopes to set the record straight. For what it’s worth, my reporting, based on conversations with hundreds of people, confirms Musk’s story. Regardless of your opinion of him, he is a self-made billionaire.
“I paid my own way through college—through student loans, scholarships, working jobs—and ended up with $100,000 of student debt,” Musk says. “I started my first company with $2,500, and I had one computer and a car that I bought for $1,400, and all that debt. It would have been great if someone was paying for my college, but my dad had neither the ability nor the inclination to do so.”
Fast-forward to 2001. Musk is sitting poolside at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The Nasdaq has crashed. Sept. 11 is coming. But life is pretty good for Musk. The company he co-founded, PayPal, is about to go public. His stake will soon be worth roughly $160 million, and he’s celebrating in a cabana with some friends, amid the boozy, nearly naked masses. Only he’s celebrating like Musk celebrates. “Elon is there reading some obscure Soviet rocket manual that was all moldy and looked like it had been bought on EBay,” Kevin Hartz, one of the PayPal crew, told me for my book. “He was studying it and talking openly about space travel and changing the world.”
The Musk sitting by that pool was coming on 30 and, while wealthy and plenty full of confidence, was far from the outsize persona that rampages across Twitter today. That Musk was closer to the awkward loner from South Africa who still had room for self-doubt. He was wandering around in an existential funk, trying to figure out what to do with his money and his life.
Among the least financially advisable projects imaginable for someone in that position would be to start a rocket company. Rockets are national projects. They cost billions of dollars to develop and manufacture. Governments make them via the hard work of thousands of people spread out over many years. The handful of wealthy space enthusiasts who’d tried to make rockets in the past gave up after setting fire to their fortunes. The lesson being that one does not pivot into rockets on a midcareer whim. And you definitely don’t do it because you think it would be cool to put a small greenhouse on Mars that earthlings could all watch via the internet, Musk’s actual founding idea for SpaceX.
Cut to 2008, and things are not going well. SpaceX’s first three rockets have either blown up or failed to reach orbit. Tesla is verging on bankruptcy after struggling to get its first car to market. Musk has ripped through his PayPal money, trying to keep both of his companies alive. In the background of all this, the financial markets are cratering, real car companies are going under, and Musk is getting a divorce from the mother of his five boys. The only way out of the financial part of this mess is to persuade investors watching their portfolios collapse to take one more chance on Tesla and make NASA, if not you, believe in a space startup by getting the last remaining SpaceX rocket in the factory to orbit. (The way out of the personal mess turned out to be dating a talented and beautiful young actress, Talulah Riley.)
That Musk somehow emerged from this with both companies intact is lottery-odds improbable. If we really are living in a simulation, as Musk has suggested, it’s the only one you could run where both SpaceX and Tesla survive.
Since then, Musk has built vast rocket, car, and battery factories. He’s employed tens of thousands of people, created a worldwide car-charging network, figured out reusable rockets, started an artificial intelligence software company, dug tunnels for high-speed transport, founded a brain-machine-interface startup, and constructed a high-speed internet system … in space. (How’s your sourdough starter going?)
That he can be a tyrant to those helping him create all of this stuff is no secret. And, as regulators would attest, his business tactics and behavior can oscillate between infuriating and appalling. Yet at a time when America doesn’t seem the best at doing stuff, the guy gets a lot of stuff done. Part of the reason Musk is under fire for pushing to open his factories is because he actually has factories to open. “People should value manufacturing—the world of atoms vs. the world of bits—far more,” he says. “It is looked down upon by many, which is just not right.”
Musk has railed against Silicon Valley’s squandered brilliance for years, and he has a point. The Bay Area, home to Tesla and its car plant, boasts the world’s top engineers, biggest tech companies, and wealthiest people, as well as some of the finest universities and hospitals. Yet precious few ideas have emerged here about reopening the economy, even as the local daily deaths from Covid-19 have neared zero. The Silicon Valleyites who talk often about saving the world with their apps and baubles have been missing in action when the world actually needs saving.
Musk, true to form, says he won’t wait for people to figure out how to turn the economy back on. “SpaceX has been working this entire time, because we have a national security exemption,” he tells me. “We’ve had 8,000 people working full time through the whole pandemic. We’ve had zero serious illnesses or deaths despite working in L.A., Washington, Texas, and Florida. It’s more of the same in China [for Tesla], with 7,000 people. I think when the dust settles it will be obvious this was much less of an issue than people thought.”
The great irony in Musk’s pandemic denialism is that pandemics are the sort of thing that SpaceX was built to free us from. While the mission to the ISS may be a defining moment in his career, it’s only a steppingstone toward his company’s much bigger ambitions. Musk wants to build a human colony on Mars, in part to make people dream big, and in part to give us a backup plan for the human species in case of an asteroid strike or, you know, a plague. SpaceX engineers are busy constructing a massive craft called Starship meant to take humans to, as it says on the website, “the Moon, Mars and Beyond.” Where such a quest might have seemed laughable decades ago, it now feels very real, especially when you consider the other great irony of Musk: SpaceX, the crazy rocket company, is his most consistent and successful venture.
Following the launch of the astronauts, SpaceX is on the hook to fly several resupply missions to the ISS and to put up military satellites, communications satellites for commercial customers, and thousands of its own satellites at the heart of its Starlink space internet system. It’s also in the running to take people to the moon with NASA and apparently to fly Tom Cruise to the ISS to film a movie. This flurry of activity is part of a booming new space industry Musk and SpaceX catalyzed.
It’s because of Musk and SpaceX that I’ve turned into a space nerd. I’ve traveled from California, Texas, and Alaska to French Guiana, India, New Zealand, and Ukraine to see rockets get made and watch them go up. At every launch, the excitement comes from the unknown. There’s a thin, tall metal tube filled to the brim with liquid explosives, and it seems to huff and puff as the countdown heads to zero. At liftoff, the might of gravity becomes obvious, as this object blasts great streams of fire at the ground but struggles to gather momentum. Will it? Won’t it? Just like with Musk, you want to see what happens next.
His behavior of late will no doubt color how SpaceX’s May 27 launch is perceived, and that’s unfortunate. People can understand a businessman wanting to restart the economy, and plenty of arguments can be made that support such a position. It’s the straight-up denial of a pandemic that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people that casts a pall. But then, Musk will always do as he wishes and operate in the reality he creates. It’s this very trait that led to the formation of SpaceX.
For anyone who can look past Musk’s antics, a successful launch will be a moment of pure shared bliss at a time when the world could use some of that. At the very least, it would affirm that the government—in this case, NASA—can take intelligent risks and be courageous by partnering with a private company while keeping its safety standards intact. “There might have been 10,000 meetings,” Musk says. “There are probably 10,000 tests of one kind or another that have taken place.” Should all go well, Musk, NASA, and all of SpaceX—from its indomitable and thick-skinned president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, to every engineer, coder, and metalworker—will provide the rest of us with proof of what government and industry can accomplish when they execute on a well-thought-out plan.
Between now and the launch, Musk intends to keep on Musking. He really is doing what he tweeted: selling his possessions, including his many homes. “I’d rather just stay with friends and rotate among their houses and stay in the factories when there are issues,” he says. “I kind of like that better. It’s less lonely.” His comments may not have been thought through at, say, a NASA-like level. Asked where his six boys will stay, Musk allows that he might need some kind of residence in Los Angeles, near SpaceX headquarters. “I’ll probably rent a place or something. Renting a place that’s sort of small. But I actually don’t know where it would be.”
When the launch does take place, Musk will head to Cape Canaveral and sit with the SpaceX and NASA teams as they do their final engineering reviews. If the weather cooperates and all the technology performs as designed, two humans will safely exit the pandemic and head for the stars.
“Assuming it’s successful—I don’t want to seem presumptuous—then it will be an incredible moment for humanity,” Musk says. “I think it’s something that everyone should be able to celebrate.”
As in parties? In person? Seriously?
“I think we can have parties,” he says. “Yeah, we’ll be fine.”
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