What You Need to Know About Elon Musk
In the space of two decades, Elon Musk revolutionised online payments, electric cars, brain implants, and space rockets. Now he's taking us to Mars. FFS - calm down, Elon!
Meet Elon Musk
Perhaps Elon Musk's most adventurous project is to secure our future as a multiplanetary species. His company, SpaceX, is planning a manned mission to Mars in 2024, leading to an estimated 80,000 humans living permanently on the red planet by the year 2040.
Not only will we thrive in Martian cities, but we'll bootstrap our way to the stars, outliving extinction level events that nature throws at the rest of humanity on Earth (self-destruction included).
"Always bear in mind that entropy is not on your side." - Elon Musk
Musk's story is an extraordinary one. His start-ups and acquisitions have made leaps in design and engineering that have remade entire industries. From online banking, to self-driving electric cars, to solar roof tiles, to reusable space rockets.
At the outset, many of Musk's ideas sound like the ravings of a lunatic. He's a visionary—he sees through the fog that blinds the rest of society.
But time has shown he has consistently won out, often in the face of adversity. Add these factors together and Elon Musk is a ray of hope for humanity. Even if he is an absolute slave driver in the workplace.
So here's what you need to know about Elon Musk's backstory and scientific ambitions.
Musk in Childhood
Elon was born, possibly engineered, in South Africa in 1971. His mother was a Canadian model and dietician, and his father was a South African electromechanical engineer. They split up when he was 10.
He grew up with his brother and sister in the suburbs of Pretoria, teaching himself computer programming and selling his first video game for $500 by the age of 12.
Unfortunately, his love of humanity was seen as "not cool" by a bunch of boys who routinely bullied and abused him. Once to the point of hospitalisation by throwing him down a flight of stairs and beating him unconscious.
I expect they're crapping in their pants today, what with Musk being one small tragedy away from becoming a supervillain.
At 18, Musk emigrated to Canada and pursued his degrees in Physics and Economics. He moved to California at 24 to begin his PhD in Applied Physics and Materials Science at Stanford, but quit after two days to crack on with saving the world and everything.
He had major aspirations for renewable energy, space travel and internet entrepreneurship, and had not a minute to waste.
Early Start Ups: Zip2 and PayPal
In 1995, Elon launched his first business, Zip2, with his younger brother, Kimbal, operating a digital city guide for newspaper giants like the New York Times.
They sold up four years later for $307 million, with Elon netting $22 million for himself. Time to buy a yacht and live the good life, no?
Not this guy. The following month, he invested $10 million into his next start-up, X.com, an e-payment company which later merged to become the ubiquitous PayPal.
In 2002, just three years after its inception, Musk and co sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion.
Now, maybe I've got supervillains on the brain but I can't read that number without saying it like Dr Evil, and neither should you. Musk netted $165 million from the deal and freed himself up to go to space.
By now we've established Elon Musk to be an insanely motivated self-made millionaire (update: billionaire—and one of the richest people in the world), and we've not even gotten to the good stuff.
With the beauty of hindsight we can see that his early companies were experiments in making money, of which he would need a great deal to pursue his dream of going to Mars.
SpaceX: Reusable Rockets and Colonising Mars
Enter SpaceX - Space Exploration Technologies Corp - whose name can't be said without inducing unconscious thoughts of low-gravity love-making.
SpaceX is the vehicle for actualising Elon's vision of seeding Mars with a colony of Earthlings. The company designs, builds and operates spaceships, with a particular interest in advancing rocket technology by making it reusable—and therefore significantly cheaper.
To date, SpaceX has created three reusable rockets (Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy) and one multipurpose spacecraft (Crew Dragon, which docked with the International Space Station in 2012, making it the first commercial vehicle to do so).
NASA has since contracted SpaceX to transport cargo to the ISS, bringing in billions of dollars to further Elon's Mars program.
The next key phase is the development of the Starship (formerly known as BFR) a booster and ship combo that will eventually replace the earlier rockets.
The next goal is to send a cargo mission to Mars in 2022. It will check on water resources and local hazards, as well as establish mining, power and life support facilities.
This will be followed by a manned mission in 2024, with the objectives of building a propellant depot and preparing for future human arrivals.
"I'd like to die on Mars. Just not on impact." - Elon Musk
Musk's biography talks of establishing a colony of 80,000 humans on Mars by the year 2040. If anyone else made such rash projections we might be inclined to slap them round the face with a wet fish. But Elon has a proven record of achieving the once-thought impossible.
How do you argue with that?
Tesla: Electric Self-Driving Cars
There's a whole other realm of Musk territory we haven't explored yet.
Shortly after launching SpaceX, he got involved with Tesla, a car company named for the engineer and physicist Nikola Tesla. Musk is now the CEO and architect of its electric vehicles, including the Tesla Roadster, the Model S, Model 3, Model X, Model Y, and Tesla Semi.
Tesla sells its electric vehicle powertrain components to other car manufacturers and has opened up the patents in good faith to speed up the development of electric cars. There is sincere care for the environment here; a bid to break our ugly addiction with petrol-guzzling autos.
Meanwhile, Tesla cars continue to become more affordable, with the Model 3 (launched in 2017) at $35,000 supported by a growing network of supercharger stations.
And then there's self-driving cars. Autonomous vehicle technology has the power to prevent up to 1.3 million road related deaths every year.
All Tesla vehicles contain the hardware to self-drive, and at a safety level that far exceeds the abilities of human drivers, hence the massive reduction in accidents.
Lawmakers are working to keep up with this technological revolution and new regulatory systems are emerging to enable autonomous vehicles like Teslas to flourish.
Neuralink, SolarCity, and The Hyperloop
In 2006, also on the renewable energy front, Musk provided the concept and capital for SolarCity, a solar power company which was eventually bought back by Tesla.
One of its landmark products is a roof tile that generates solar power, which can be stored and used at any time of day. In Buffalo, New York, SolarCity runs one of the single largest solar panel production plants in the world.
And still on the transport buzz, in 2013, Musk unveiled his concept for a high-speed transport system of reduced pressure tubes called the Hyperloop.
The design is revolutionary. Inside, pressurised freight and passenger capsules ride along on an air cushion at an average speed of 600 mph. Implementation will take a great deal more planning and the concept has been open-sourced by Musk to encourage others to run with its development.
You can't blame the man. He's got more than enough fish to fry, including OpenAI (a non-profit artificial general intelligence research organisation), Neuralink (developing high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect people with computers), and The Boring Company (his "hobby" company which bores underground tunnel systems to relieve traffic in cities).
As a self-confessed workaholic pushing 120-hour working weeks, Musk doesn't really do "spare time".
However, outside of his day-to-day work, he has been a voice of reason on Trump's presidential advisory committee. However—perhaps inevitably—he later quit in protest to Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement to reduce climate change.
Meanwhile, Musk frequently speaks out in the media on a host of issues, from the dangers of artificial intelligence, to the existence of alien life, to the inevitability of a universal income.
"The strongest argument for us probably being in a simulation I think is the following: 40 years ago we had Pong—two rectangles and a dot. That's where we were. Now 40 years later we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it's getting better every year. And soon we'll have virtual reality, we'll have augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, just indistinguishable." - Elon Musk
Elon has a complex personal life. He married the Canadian author Justine Wilson in 2000. Together they had a son, Nevada, who passed away at 10 weeks old from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), an unexplained phenomenon that occurs in less than 0.1% of babies.
The couple went on to have twin sons, then triplet sons, before eventually separating. Over the next eight years, Elon married, divorced, remarried and redivorced the English actress Talulah Riley.
He's had his ups and downs.
[Update 2020: He's since had a baby with his singer girlfriend, Grimes, who they creatively named X Æ A-Xii. You get it.]
What's Next for Elon Musk?
Musk currently divides his time between the privately held SpaceX and the publicly-traded Tesla, both multi-billion-dollar companies based in California.
After piling an obscene amount of cash into research, development and manufacturing, the wider roll-out of Tesla vehicles saw the company finally turning a profit in 2019. In 2020, despite the economic woes of coronavirus, the stock has seen an incredible investor frenzy.
The master plan is to produce more affordable cars in high volume and refine self-driving technology. It will launch a car-sharing economy, where you hire out your Tesla on autopilot when you're not using it. Of course, this also relieves the need for car ownership at all, if you choose.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is pursuing its long term aim to get butts on Mars, with most of its engineering resources going into the construction of the Starship. That's scheduled to perform its first test flight in 2022.
Life on Mars looks increasingly on the cards. Let's just hope we don't nuke ourselves first, or invent AI overlords that vow kill us all. Although I'm buoyed by the fact that Elon Musk has a solution for that in the works too.