Mars in his eyes

Features

30 Nov 2014

One cloudless night perhaps ten years from now, you might look up into the dark and see a planet glowing a bright, unusual orange. If Google Glass is all the rage, your helpful specs will project an info box into the stars: this is Mars, closer now than it’s been for nearly two decades.

But then, if Elon Musk is right — and he often is — you’ll already know that because you and the rest of the world will be watching, waiting; billions of tiny projected screens all tuned to the same event: the Mars landing.

The spaceship (designed and built by Musk’s company, SpaceX) will touch down on the red planet, but you’ll already know the crew, maybe a little too well. Reality TV will have part-funded the project (plans for that are already under way) and the astronauts’ every sneeze will have made news. Imagine the footage as the spaceship lands: the curve of the planet, the dust, the craters Colorado-red, growing bigger, nearer.

After the ship lands, we’ll hear from Elon Musk, founder, CEO and chief engineer of SpaceX. Elon is the ‘real life Iron Man’, Robert Downey Jr’s inspiration for the character of Tony Stark: billionaire, inventor, playboy, geek. In 2025, as now, Musk will be oddly ageless with the strange soft sheen of the super-rich. He’ll say, euphoric: ‘We’re on our way to being a multi-planet speciesl,’ which for him is the ultimate goal.

Other people fret over mortgages and the price of beer; Elon Musk worries about the future of the human race, which is why he’s aiming for Mars. Eventually, he says, being Earth-bound will do for us: asteroids, super-volcanoes, nukes or plagues. So his mission to Mars isn’t just a stunt, or a way of cheering America or a plan to put those Ruskies in their place. If the Mars landing works, it’ll be with a view to terraforming it, populating it so as to escape our own extinction.

The interior of Dragon V2, which delivers cargo to the International Space Station
The interior of Dragon V2, which delivers cargo to the International Space Station

It’s a weird thought: this planet, the subject of so much science fiction, wrapped into mankind’s fact, but don’t jeer or yawn, because it’s a process that has already actually begun. In September this year we, or America, bought into Musk’s vision. Nasa awarded a $6.8 billion joint contract to SpaceX and Boeing to take American astronauts to the International Space Station (it had previously relied on Russian Soyuz rockets) with the explicit aim of ending up on Mars. ‘Mars — that’s where we’re going,’ said an excited Charles Bolden of Nasa. This of course is terrific news, the first step towards ensuring the survival of our species, but it fills me with unspeakable dread. It’s hard for those of us who never knew the moon landings to take space seriously, and when we do, it raises terrible questions: will I have to go? Will my grandchildren? How could we leave lovely Earth behind? And: who is this Elon Musk, leading us like the Pied Piper into space? Can we trust him?

The story of Musk’s romance with the red planet begins back in 2001. Young Elon, just 30, originally from South Africa and already brimful of terrifying confidence, had just made his second great fortune after co-founding and selling the online payment system Paypal. (This was before the third fortune he made designing and selling Tesla electric cars, or the fourth one, setting up Solarcity, America’s biggest provider of solar energy.) He thought to himself back then: I’d like to get involved in space. I wonder when Nasa is due to send a team to Mars? ‘So I went to their website,’ he has said, ‘to find out, and there was literally nothing! Nothing at all.’ It turned out that Bush (the first one) had commissioned a feasibility study into a Mars mission and Nasa had come back with a $500 billion price tag — whereupon plans were instantly binned and manned space-flight became in the public mind a memory, a daydream for laughable nerds.

But then came the day of the nerds: the internet emerged and in surfed a new wave of billionaires: brighter, harder-working than any previous, often toughened by bullying. Among them Musk. Having discovered that Mars needed a champion, his first step to plan was a stunt: I’ll send some form of life there, he thought, something green that will grow in a little greenhouse on the planet’s surface. Why? Because Nasa needed cash for any Mars adventure, and that required public support. ‘The public responds to firsts,’ Musk has explained, ‘so this would have been the first life on Mars. It would have been this green plant on a red background … a great image.’ Musk’s initial idea for Mars shows not just his logic, but his instinctive understanding of PR: the green plant on a red planet; a symbol of hope. It shows his self-confidence too. This is a man whose expertise was in software: what made him think he could design rockets? But then what in his life, thus far, had shown him that he couldn’t?

Even as a child, Elon was psychotically determined. He was always a genius, says proud Mrs Musk — well, he was certainly relentless. Though small and picked on at school, he taught himself computer programming and at age 12 sold the computer code for a video game. Young Elon practiced hypnosis on his younger sister Tosca, who remembers rebelling: ‘No Elon, I will not eat that worm.’ It takes a Musk to resist a Musk: not many others have. America couldn’t resist him, he was always going to be an American one day. His first wife, Justine, was a knockout A-list beauty who should have been well out of Elon’s league. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, so she married him. Tesla, Musk’s high-end electric car company, Solarcity, and now SpaceX have all persuaded cash out of government in one way or another. Solarcity sells to the state; Tesla peddles the ‘pollution credits’ it earns from government; SpaceX has its Nasa gig. The sheer intensity of Musk’s self-belief sucks cash out of all manner of investors; it seems sometimes to suck reality into place around him, which sets his detractors off, carping that his companies survive on subsidies, not on ‘real’ profits.

Above left: The exterior of Dragon V2. Above right: SpaceX launches Falcon 9 to the International Space Station. Under an agreement with Nasa, SpaceX  is developing Dragon to fly crew
Above left: The exterior of Dragon V2. Above right: SpaceX launches Falcon 9 to the International Space Station. Under an agreement with Nasa, SpaceX is developing Dragon to fly crew

But it’s a mistake to think Musk’s braggadocio makes him a charlatan; it doesn’t. He’s not like Richard Branson, designing entertainment: a sub-orbital fun-ride for rich kids. Musk is a serious inventor and engineer, one of the best. His cars handle like a dream, his rockets fly — they even land these days. He’s in the business of inventing spacecraft that will become a xnew form of transport; that will one day leave orbit and head into space.

His other unusual characteristic is that he is driven not primarily by a desire for profit, but a desire to save the world. He chose Tesla and SpaceX against the odds, because he considered it better to have tried and failed at something worthwhile than just to squirrel away more cash.

Larry Page, co-founder of Google, net worth $30 billion, has said that if he were run over tomorrow, he’d like his money to go to Elon Musk. Why? ‘Because he’d do more good with it than any charity,’ said Page.

So would you follow him to Mars? You’ve got a decade to decide.


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