by Chris Waldburger

​To infinity and beyond!

Elon Musk: South Africa’s very own Iron Man

Elon Musk
On 22 May 2012, a date very few of us will associate with any kind of grand public memories, NASA administrator Charles Bolden noted the day with the following words: “We’re now back on the brink of a new future – a future that embraces the innovation the private sector brings to the table … The significance of this day cannot be overstated.”

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) usually finds itself in the media in connection with globally dramatic events – such as orbiting Earth for the first time, and landing on the moon – not for events that barely make the front pages.

But now, a single rocket launch that occurred in May this year might have altered the future of space exploration in much the same way as the prior and more spectacular events did in the 1960s.

The rocket that was launched was the unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9, the carrier of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft which, days later, made a successful rendezvous with the International Space Station, delivering food, clothing and scientific equipment.

But the main goal of the mission was to test SpaceX’s ability, as a private organisation, to develop and design effective space missions.

When the craft made a successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean a few days later, the world received its answer.

SpaceX, under the leadership of South African-born Elon Musk, had forever altered the future of space travel – becoming the first ever commercial organisation to dock a craft with the Space Station.

For NASA – an increasingly unwieldy and underfunded organisation, short of the bold vision that made it a household name – a successful collaboration with the private sector means a new and expansive approach to space. In the face of increasing austerity, the public sector has simply become unable to spend capital cost-effectively in the pursuit of exploration, which has no immediately apparent benefit for citizens.

In the United States, President George W. Bush ended the shuttle programme in 2008, and space exploration has dithered in a proverbial black hole of bureaucracy and lack of funds ever since.

Enter Elon Musk.

With the flexibility and imagination of the private sector, he believes that space exploration, as the Internet before it, must now leave the cradle of government development and enter the proliferative world of free and competitive enterprise.

“When I was studying physics in college, it seemed to me that space exploration was one of the three areas that would most affect the future of humanity, along with the Internet and sustainable energy,” says Musk.

“At the time, I didn’t expect to be personally involved in space – an arena I thought was so expensive that it could only be the province of the government.

“As for the Internet, I wasn’t sure how I could earn a living in an industry that barely existed apart from university and government networks. But in the summer of 1995, just before embarking on a PhD programme in materials science and applied physics at Stanford University, I realised that the Internet was entering a phase of exponential growth. I had the choice of either watching the Internet get built or helping to build it”, he notes.

The result would be enormous success for Musk in the Internet as it opened up to the private sector.

He believes we are now on the cusp of a similar moment in the field of space exploration, with the ultimate goal being the colonising of Mars for human life.

In statistical terms, Musk wants to reduce the costs of space travel by a factor of 100.

And so, in 2008, SpaceX was awarded a $1.6-billion (an estimated R13.4-billion) contract for flights to the International Space Station as NASA looked to replace its shuttle flights. The first successful docking was purely for cargo, yet the rockets have been designed with astronaut travel in mind, which will reputedly be the next step.

Thereafter, Musk has plans to send astronauts to Mars – with or without NASA.

He notes, “In terms of things that are actually launching, we are the American space programme.”

NASA, by throwing its lot in with private companies such as SpaceX, seems to agree with him.

On the day of the launch, NASA’s Bolden went on to state: “What’s really important is not control – as much as it is fact that the United States will once again be in the lead – (but) will be providing our own vehicles to take our own astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station.

“It’s fine to rely on partners, but that’s not where the greatest nation in the world wants to be.”

The policy therefore appears to be one in which an ailing US government leans on its private sector to maintain its national supremacy – the telling phrase being: “What’s really important is not control …”

And it is SpaceX that does appear to be in control, having released its own statement following the launch, which confirmed that the company has completed 37 of the 40 milestones of its contract.

Understandably, a rocket launch that led to Musk’s becoming the sudden and unexpected heir to Neil Armstrong’s legacy induced some raw emotion.

“Every bit of adrenaline in my body released at that moment. People were really giving it their all. For us, it was like winning the Super Bowl,” he says.

But how did a boy from Pretoria suddenly and so decisively find himself at the centre of an industry hitherto dominated by the most powerful governments in the world?

It is fairly obvious why the industry has traditionally been the realm of governments only. The possibilities of profit are not very obvious; the dangers are immense; and the start-up costs of research, development and infrastructure are literally astronomical.

Aside from the odd billionaire wanting to take a joyride, the private sector has seen little value in running a space programme.

But Musk is different: he does not want merely to dabble in space tourism, rather he wants to be on the cutting edge of scientific exploration. And, surprisingly, he is succeeding.

To understand this drive, and its pending fruition, it is necessary to trace the origins of his incredible career.

Musk was born in Pretoria in 1971 to a Canadian mother and South African father. By the age of 12, he had designed his first piece of software – a computer game – which he sold for a decent profit. The game consisted of flying spaceships.

After matriculating from Pretoria Boys High School, he left for North America, in part to avoid compulsory military service. He left without his parents’ permission.

Ultimately, Musk would graduate from the University of Pennsylvania in the US, with a degree in Physics.

After his studies, he came to his conclusion that the three areas to which he wanted to devote his career – because they presented “important problems that would most affect the future of humanity” – were the Internet, clean energy, and space.

After dropping out of a graduate programme at Stanford University, Musk, along with his brother Kimbal, founded the information technology company, Zip2, which specialised in software for news websites. Eventually, they would sell the company to Compaq for approximately $350-million (about R2.9-billion). This sale would become the springboard for Musk’s later ventures.

It was Musk’s next business that would revolutionise the Internet. In 2000, his online financial services start-up,, acquired Confinity Inc.

He then began to aggressively market Confinity’s headline product, PayPal, which would later become the global Internet payment system.

Eventually bought by eBay for over $1.5-billion (around R12.5-billion), the business would make Musk, the largest shareholder, an enormously wealthy man.

From there he had the capital to launch SpaceX – his venture into space – and later Tesla Motors and SolarCity, his ventures into clean energy.

It would take Musk seven years to build SpaceX from the ground up into NASA’s leading private contractor, while via Tesla Motors, he would help provide the international market with the first viable electric car, the 
Tesla Roadster.

Musk has provided the majority of the seed capital for Tesla, and his initial aims have been to market electric cars to the affluent, in the hope of generating enough interest in order to fund further research and development into bringing down the costs of electric cars for the wider market.

Like the entire industry, Tesla Motors has so far struggled in this endeavour.

Meanwhile, SolarCity has become the largest solar energy provider for the residential market in the US, employing more than 1 600 people.

There has been a common thread in all of Musk’s business ventures, and the thread hearkens back to his original aims of impacting the Internet, space and the clean energy industry. These aims all share the goal of making the global economy more sustainable – for the purposes of both profit and environmental conservation.

And in this field, Musk’s plans are outrageously ambitious. So much so, that in the light of what he is planning to achieve, the debt crisis and Arab conflicts will, according to him, “amount to little more than a footnote in the long-term annals of history.”

He adds, “The next big moment will be life becoming multiplanetary – an unprecedented adventure that would dramatically enhance the richness and diversity of our collective consciousness.

“It would also serve as a hedge against the myriad – and growing – threats to our survival. An asteroid or a supervolcano could certainly destroy us, but we also face risks the dinosaurs never saw: an engineered virus, nuclear war, inadvertent creation of a micro black hole, or some as-yet-unknown technology could spell the end of us.

“Sooner or later, we must expand life beyond our little blue mud ball – or go extinct,” warns Musk matter-of-factly.

As he sets about achieving this goal through the dramatic lowering of space travel costs, the grandeur of his ambition has already found a certain kind of immortality – in the cinematic character of Iron Man, also known as Tony Stark, the billionaire technologist and industrialist, played by Robert Downey Jr.

The film’s director Jon Favreau explained Musk’s influence on the character when he wrote Musk’s entry in TIME magazine’s 2010 list of the 100 Most Influential People:

“Elon Musk makes no sense — and that’s the reason I know him. When I was trying to bring the character of genius billionaire Tony Stark to the big screen in Iron Man, I had no idea how to make him seem real.

“Robert Downey Jr. said, ‘We need to sit down with Elon Musk.’ He was right.”

Iron Man, the quintessential capitalist superhero, is perhaps a fitting tribute to Musk – a flamboyant character himself, whose dreams by no means seem out of place on a movie set in Hollywood. 

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