Stranger In A Strange Land: Will Elon Musk Make It To Mars? by [email protected]
Elon Musk has developed a reputation for boldness, brashness, vision and, in many ways, competence. He is a complex figure, unsurprisingly, who does not suffer fools easily and who not only wants to land people on Mars, but also to create a new human society there. As he puts it, “I want to die on Mars, just not on impact.” This article reviews a new biography on Musk that traces his roots and his reach, titled Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.
Ashlee Vance’s new book, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, takes readers on a thorough and fascinating trek through the life — so far — of one of the most impressive contemporary American “Engineering Entrepreneurs,” from his birth in South Africa to his emigration to Canada as a teen, to the United States, where he completed college and went on to Silicon Valley.
Musk quickly earned his initial millions when his first company, Zip2, was bought out, then a fortune at PayPal. He came to the brink of vaporizing almost all of his money in a quest to build an electric car and meet a host of other ambitious goals, including putting satellites in orbit, supplying the international space station, laying the groundwork and developing the technology for the colonization of Mars.
It should be said upfront: This is not hagiography; Musk is represented as neither saint nor savior. It is biography — shot through with relevant strands of financial, technical and cultural history. The distinction is important, and Vance is particularly well credentialed — both on the tech side and on the business side — to “lead the tour.” He also did hundreds of interviews, and he spent thirty hours with Musk himself. For the most part, that shines through.
Out of Africa
[drizzle]Vance starts before the beginning, going back to Musk’s grandparents and beyond.
Elon Musk was born in Pretoria, about an hour away from Johannesburg, in 1971, to a Canadian mother and an Afrikaner father. In an interesting overlap, Vance was born in South Africa in 1977, although he grew up, for the most part, in Texas. On his father’s side, Musk’s family roots in South Africa go back several generations. His parents divorced when he was young; he was first in the custody of his mother, then of his father.
Musk’s father is a rare “no go” research area: Neither Elon nor anyone else in the family will talk about the ways in which he was a scarring — though by no means exclusively negative — influence. This is all the more chilling given the unsparingly intense descriptions we get of Musk’s childhood.
“Bullied” is a word we hear often. Still, the descriptions of the violence Elon Musk endured as a child, however, are disturbing. In eighth or ninth grade, for example, he was attacked by a group of boys, kicked in the head, thrown down a flight of concrete stairs, then set upon on the landing, kicked and beaten bloody until he blacked out. He required hospital care — and a week at home to recover.
Part of the “explanation” for this is that, for Afrikaners, South Africa under Apartheid, was a “hyper-masculine” culture, in which physical prowess was seen as an existential necessity. Elon, by way of contrast, was the boy who — when he had exhausted the resources of his school library — literally read the encyclopedia. He also remembered what he read, and spouted facts, statistics and explanations whenever anyone in his general vicinity launched a question.
“Those early Silicon Valley experiences … gave Elon Musk both the capital and the contacts that he was able to use as a springboard for his more ambitious projects.”
He left South Africa for good at 17. Why? As elsewhere, Vance lays out the options evenhandedly, both the surface explanations and the other possibilities, and lets the reader be the judge: Laws had changed, allowing his mother to “pass down” her Canadian citizenship to her children; Elon was on the cusp of being drafted into the South African army; he had America in his sights and Canada as the optimal gateway.
Early Valley Days
Musk went first to Queens University in Kingston, on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, about 165 miles east of Toronto. After two years there he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, pursuing joint bachelor’s degrees — one in physics, the other, via Wharton, in economics.
He apparently shared some of his undergraduate papers with Vance, on topics like space-based solar power plants and the use of ultra-capacitors for energy storage, keen to demonstrate that his interests were longstanding and consistent, that his goal had always been to make a difference, independent of the question of making a fortune.
Vance underlines the degree to which Musk’s dual-track undergraduate years were obviously reflected in his thinking, even in his early 20s.
“Musk’s clear, concise writing,” Vance tells us, “is the work of a logician, moving from one point to the next with precision. What truly stood out, though, was Musk’s ability to master difficult physics concepts in the midst of actual business plans. Even then, he showed an unusual knack for being able to perceive a path from a scientific advance to a for-profit enterprise.”
That “knack” would be crucial to Elon Musk’s business accomplishments. The successful development and commercialization of the Tesla electric cars, for example, came about in significant part because he recognized that advances in lithium ion batteries had changed the weight/power/range/cost equation that had defeated most previous efforts. There were softer skills, more human equations, however, that he would need to work on.
Musk spent his two “Penn summers” in part in internships in Silicon Valley — not always one at a time. On graduation, he and his brother Kimbal headed west and settled there. Together they would launch Zip2, Musk’s first company, which would essentially end up pushing him aside for more “mature” management — which is not to say that he didn’t profit from the experience, in every meaning of the word. Something similar happened with the company that would become PayPal, which provided an even greater payoff.
As presented by Vance, those early Silicon Valley experiences did a number of things: they gave Elon Musk both the capital and the contacts that he was able to use as a springboard for his more ambitious projects; they gave him an early, and somewhat traumatic, introduction to corporate infighting which bred a strong impulse going forward to make sure that he kept control of his companies; and they taught him at least limited lessons in how to be an effective — if hard-driving — manager.
Some of the “management learning” has about it the air of an anthropologist trying to figure out a foreign culture.
“I could code way better,” Elon Musk says of the software engineers at Zip2. “And I’d just go in and fix their [expletive] code. . . I would be frustrated waiting for their stuff, so I’m going to go and fix your code and now it runs five times faster, you idiot.”
“When considering if Musk’s aim of going to Mars is credible or hype,