Elon Musk, the Rocket Man With a Sweet Ride

The winner of the Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for technology hopes to launch a revolution with his spaceship and electric car

Elon Musk is a man of all trades when it comes to technology. (Ethan Hill / Composite Image: NASA)
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The difference between Musk and everyone else is that passion and ambition. When Tesla nearly went bankrupt, he fired its CEO, took over the role himself and risked his personal fortune, pouring $75 million into the company. As production delays have eaten into Tesla’s cash, some analysts have doubted the company’s viability. But Musk renegotiated the terms of a government loan, sold shares in the company and seems to have fixed its production delays. “The factory is state of the art,” says Elaine Kwei, an auto industry analyst with Jefferies & Company, “and the delays were little things from other suppliers, like door handles. The car is awesome and demand doesn’t seem to be an issue; if they can sell 13,000 cars next year, they’ll break even. Tesla has the potential to dominate the EV category, similar to the Toyota Prius’ dominance of the hybrid electric segment.”

Making a lot of money on an electric car or resupplying the ISS or even launching satellites cheaper than anyone else isn’t his goal. Musk wants a revolution. To change the way the world is powered, to rid it of the internal combustion engine and to create a new age of interplanetary exploration.

In Musk’s world, we’ve broken our dependence on fossil fuels and imprisonment on Earth itself. “The question,” he says, “isn’t ‘Can you prove that we’re making the planet warmer?’ but ‘Can you prove we’re not?’ And you can’t. Think of that famous experiment about children and gratification. The kid who can delay his gratification for the cupcake for five minutes will be the more successful kid. That’s us, but we’re the unsuccessful kid. We will run out of oil and we’re engaged in this dangerous experiment of pushing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s crazy.” For Musk, the Tesla Model S and the Falcon 9 are simply the first steps toward ending that “experiment.”

Although the highest-priced Model S has a range of 300 miles, it still takes nine hours to recharge on a standard 240-volt electrical hookup, making your classic long family drive impractical, and the single largest barrier to widespread electric vehicle use. But in late October, Tesla planned to open in California the first six of a planned network of 100 electrical filling stations around the U.S., dubbed “superchargers,” which pump electricity at 90 kilowatts, adding 250 miles to the highest-priced Model S’s battery (the lowest-cost model doesn’t yet have this capability) in one hour. Where the filling stations can be solar powered, that means zero fossil fuels and zero emissions. Drive in, grab lunch, and in 30 minutes you’re cruising with another 120-odd miles of range. With an electric vehicle that has a reasonable range and rapid filling stations available, the barriers to electric cars fall; as more people get them, the laws of mass production dramatically reduce their price. Bingo; why would anyone have a car that costs 70 bucks to fill up and pollutes the planet?

Ditto with rockets. Their design and successful launch is, in fact, rocket science, and sending 10,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit, docking with the ISS and returning to Earth are incredibly difficult, hence Lopez-Alegria’s use of the word “miracle.” Yet it has been done many times before over the past 50 years. “It’s a major accomplishment,” says curator Launius, “but it’s technically insignificant. Elon himself has made a big fact that he’s not pioneering technology but leveraging what is already known.” Again, it comes down to scale. The more rockets he can build and launch, the cheaper they’ll be. These first flights to the ISS are just the means, the U.S. subsidizing the development of low-cost space technology so we can burst out into the cosmos.

“If our objective is to plant colonies on Mars and be an interplanetary species,” says Launius, “well, there are folks at NASA who believe you can’t say that with a straight face, that it rises to a giggle factor you can’t defend,” even if they dream about it. For NASA, commercial rocket companies like SpaceX are simply a cheaper, more reliable way to ensure access to the ISS for the next decade. And even that hasn’t come without an internal struggle, as old-line space apostles have argued that access to space must be a fundamental national priority and that only the U.S. government can be trusted to send humans, which Musk plans to do in the next three years. “There are people who are reluctant to look at commercial space, especially from the Apollo era,” says Lopez-Alegria, “and they say guys like Musk don’t know what they don’t know, and I want to agree—my whole life was spent in the government. But SpaceX and other companies are proving that hypothesis wrong.”

For Musk, the NASA flights are the beginning of a crazy, colossal dream that he can build and launch so many rockets that they’ll become cheap, and as reliable as an airplane flight. “We need to launch multiple rockets a day and get the cost of going to Mars to about what a middle-class house in California costs now,” he says.

Will that ever happen? Will Tesla ever rival General Motors and will Musk’s Falcon 9 pave the way to Mars and beyond? There’s no way to know, of course. Musk has to make and sell a lot of cars to a lot of fickle consumers. And even if he can send humans to space and launch a lot of rockets, that may not get us anywhere. “The fundamental challenge,” says Launius, “is to get to and from low-Earth orbit with some relative ease and with safe, reliable and less expensive methods. The more people who work on that problem the more likely we’ll solve it.”

In the end, though, the biggest issue with making us interplanetary, Launius believes, isn’t even rocket technology but the biomedical issues of long-term living in a place with low gravity and high radiation. Even space missions of ten days have radical effects on the human body, including changes in muscle mass and bone density, “and figuring out how to solve that problem is profound,” says Launius. “What happens when you carry a child to term in one-sixth or one-third of the Earth’s gravity? We don’t even know the questions to ask.”

Musk acknowledges those issues, but fiercely believes everything is solvable. “The goal of SpaceX has been to advance technology to create a self-sustaining colony on Mars. We have a long way to go and this is really hard work. It’s the most difficult thing humanity has ever done, but also the most interesting and inspiring. Do you want a future where you’re confined or reaching toward the stars? To me, the former is really depressing and I can’t wait to go. If I live 20 years, I think it’ll happen.”


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