Elon Musk has flown so high, so fast, it is hard not to wonder when, and how, he will crash to earth. How could he not? Musk is so many things – inventor, entrepreneur, billionaire, space pioneer, inspiration for Iron Man’s playboy superhero Tony Stark – and he has pushed the boundaries of science and business, doing what others declare impossible. At some point, surely, he will fall victim to sod’s law, or gravity.
He is only 41, but so far Musk shows no sign of tumbling earthwards. Nasa and other clients are queuing up to use his rockets, part of the rapid commercialisation of space. His other company, electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors, is powering ahead. Such success would satisfy many tycoons, but for Musk they are merely means to ends: minimising climate change and colonising Mars. And not in some distant future – he wants to accomplish both within our lifetimes.
Musk has a reputation for being prickly but when I meet him at SpaceX, his headquarters west of Los Angeles, he is affable and chatty, cheerfully expounding on space exploration, climate change, Richard Branson and Hollywood. Oh, and what he would like written on his Martian tombstone.
“The key thing for me,” he begins, “is to develop the technology to transport large numbers of people and cargo to Mars. That’s the ultimate awesome thing.” Musk envisages a colony with 80,000 people on the red planet. “But of course we must pay the bills along the way. So that means serving important customers like Nasa, launching commercial broadcasting communication satellites, GPS satellites, mapping, science experiments. “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.”
Musk does not look the stereotypical plutocrat. He wears jeans and a T-shirt and sits behind a rather ordinary desk overlooking a car park, beyond which is Hawthorne, California’s answer to Slough. He occupies the corner of a ground-floor, open-plan office that barely constitutes a cubicle. Walk just 40 metres, however, and there is a sight to quicken the pulse: SpaceX’s factory, a 1m sq ft sprawl where engineers and technicians work on rockets, propulsion systems and casings for satellites. Suspended over the entrance is the cone-shaped capsule of Dragon, which last year became the first commercial vehicle in history to successfully dock with the International Space Station. SpaceX’s next step is to fly humans, up to seven per Dragon, starting between 2015-17.
Musk made his mark by co-founding PayPal, which transformed e-commerce, in 1999. He sold it three years later to eBay for $1.5bn. When, armed with this fortune, he turned to space exploration, the consensus said he was nuts. Building and launching rockets was the preserve of states – big states, because small states tended to spend a fortune trying and still fail.
He was influenced, he says, by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a science fiction saga in which a galactic empire falls and ushers in a dark age. “It’s sort of a futuristic version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Let’s say you were at the peak of the Roman empire, what would you do, what action could you take, to minimise decline?”
It takes me a moment to realise it’s not a rhetorical question. Um, poison the barbarians’ water supply, I joke. Musk smiles and shakes his head. The answer is in technology. “The lessons of history would suggest that civilisations move in cycles. You can track that back quite far – the Babylonians, the Sumerians, followed by the Egyptians, the Romans, China. We’re obviously in a very upward cycle right now and hopefully that remains the case. But it may not. There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5bn years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time.”
The SpaceX factory is vast and employs 3,000 people but is remarkably clean, bright and quiet. Technicians are casually dressed in shorts or jeans, sneakers or sandals. One group checks on a Falcon 9 launch system; across the corridor another works on protective fairings to encase cargo; a few yards from that a guy with goggles produces spare parts from a 3D printer; in a sealed lab next door colleagues with hairnets and blue coats inspect equipment for a launch later this year, the company’s third supply mission for Nasa.
The factory exudes Silicon Valley’s no-fuss ethos, a streamlined contrast to Nasa bureaucracy and bloat. The space agency, having retired its shuttle fleet, increasingly outsources launch services to Musk. SpaceX’s focus on reusable technology has slashed costs – the company says it can get an astronaut to the space station for $20m, versus $70m charged by Russia for a seat on a Soyuz rocket. SpaceX is testing reusable prototype rockets that can return to Earth intact, rather than burn up in the atmosphere. If successful, rockets could be reused like aeroplanes, cutting the price of a space mission to just $200,000, for fuel.
Offering cheap, reliable delivery services to Nasa and commercial clients such as broadcasters is for Musk a means to perfect the technology that can get humans to Mars. He believes it could happen within decades – giving him a chance to live his last days there. “It’d be pretty cool to die on Mars, just not on impact,” he jokes. Turning serious, he adds: “It’s a non-zero possibility. I wouldn’t say I’m counting on it but it could happen.”
After a decade Musk’s other company, Tesla Motors, is now also reaping success: booming sales of the all-electric model S have put it into profit and driven the share price to over $100. Last month Consumer Reports, an independent testing group, rated the car 99 out of a 100, saying it performed better than any other car – electric or conventional – it had tested. Tesla is now investing in supercharger stations across the US, and speeding up battery swaps, so drivers can travel coast to coast without worrying about losing power. The same will happen in other countries.
Musk acknowledges limited progress by the Obama administration but avoids criticising the president, which may or may not be related to a $465m federal loan guarantee which helped Tesla make the model S. He already funds environmental groups, and battles by proxy; would he consider setting up his own? He looks thoughtful. “I may need to do something like that.”