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Leon Musk to Ground Control

Posted by Daltons chin dimple on Tuesday, February 19, 2013

From The Sunday Times

For Elon Musk, dating beautiful women, driving his own supercar and building a fleet of space rockets is not exciting enough. This year, he vowed, it is time to have some fun.

One of his new “fun buddies” is Kanye West, the Chicago rapper who dropped by Musk’s offices on the edge of Los Angeles airport recently to talk about the Tesla, Musk’s sleek electric sports car, only to realise that this was also where Musk builds spaceships.

“He did not even know we made rockets,” says Musk, gesticulating around the former Boeing jumbo jet assembly plant now known as SpaceX. “I think this place blew his mind.”

Musk has been doing that to people a lot recently. Even building the first private-sector rockets to deliver cargo to the International Space Station for Nasa, his $1.6bn day job for the next few years, is only another step in his mission to conquer space. He dreams about retiring on Mars.

A decade ago when the South African-born computer tycoon enjoyed a billion-dollar payday selling his online money transfer company PayPal to eBay, many assumed he would go a little bonkers. He already had a reputation for enjoying fast cars and he had graduated to flying fast jets, including a Soviet-era Aero L-39 trainer (now sold) and a Dassault Falcon 900 corporate jet.

This image was enhanced when Jon Favreau, director of two of the Iron Man films, described Musk as an inspiration for the superhero’s alter ego, the industrialist Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr, who describes himself as “genius, philanthropist, playboy”.

But Musk put trivialities aside and focused on putting himself on Mars. He is, he reckons, at most 20 years away from the Red Planet.

His desk at SpaceX remains starkly uncluttered. Behind him there is a PC, bottles of red wine with vanity labels such as Meteor and Rocket Science and, in a pyramid on the wall, photographs of his five boys from his first marriage.

A decade ago, when he spent $100m setting up one of America’s first private space companies, a Nasa official said patronisingly: “Well, at least he is not doing anyone any harm.”

Now, as part of a generation of well-heeled space entrepreneurs, the 41-year-old is showing Nasa how to build rockets at a fraction of the government cost. Not having to farm out contracts to politically important voting districts helps. So do new technology and materials and rivalry with the likes of Sir Richard Branson, who test-flies his tourist spaceship this year, Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, who is building rockets in Texas, and the Google founders, who want to mine asteroids. “We keep up with each other,” says Musk.

Musk employs almost 2,000 engineers at SpaceX, refining the 180ft Falcon 9 rocket, which is topped with a partially reusable cargo-carrying capsule called the Dragon. The first Dragon went into space empty except for a 50lb wheel of Beverly Hills cheese.

Nasa, now without a shuttle, is paying Musk to deliver cargo to the International Space Station and $400m to fit out the Dragon for passengers. A new prototype rocket, the Grasshopper, which will be reusable, is also undergoing trials. “Right now, it’s like throwing a plane away at the end of every journey — we have to make spacecraft reusable,” says Musk.

With 50 launches scheduled, there are more rockets under construction at SpaceX today than anywhere else on the planet.

Unlike Bezos, who never talks about his Blue Origin spacecraft, Musk sees himself as an ambassador for the new space race. “I have had dinner with Jeff a couple of times and I think he is worried about people thinking he is distracted and blaming any Amazon mistakes on that. But it’s important to get people excited by space again,” Musk says.

He is tall and T-shirted and looks visitors in the eye. He knew his destiny early in life, having dropped out of Stanford University after two days because it was not going to get him into space. This was his childhood dream in apartheid-era South Africa where he built toy rockets and brewed his own potentially lethal jet fuel.

“There was a time when the United States was first in space — landing on the moon was probably the most inspiring event of the last century,” he says. “But now it’s our job to tell a great story about space and get people to feel they are coming along for the journey.”

Deep pockets do not ease dark nights. In 2008, after a third rocket failure, SpaceX was on the edge of collapse. “If that fourth Falcon 9 launch had not worked there was a good chance we would not have survived. So that was a white knuckle ride,” says Musk.

There are more nightmares. Other nations are jostling for space. India is aiming for the moon, Iran claims to have sent a monkey into space and China is building its own space station and, it seems, is not squeamish about how it gets there. “We have seen some very sophisticated hacking attempts to get into our databases trying to get our rocket designs — military-class hacking,” says Musk. “It is hard to trace it back definitively to the source but there are markers that point to China.”

This has redoubled his enthusiasm to get to Mars ahead of China, maybe in partnership with Nasa. He thinks he can get humanity there in about 10-20 years’ time. “Leaving Earth is our destiny and the moon is only a way-station to Mars. I see millions of people there eventually, arriving in waves every two years when the planets are aligned,” he says.

There is a moral question: is Mars ours to be exploited? “Mars does not have any life, unless it’s subterranean, so by terra-forming it [creating habitable zones on the surface] we are improving it. And I think property rights, as we understand them here, are an essential part of that process.”

Can he imagine moving to Mars? “I want to go. It may be a one-way trip for many, after the initial groups of engineers and scientists, and I can imagine living there until I die at 80 — or whatever. But there is also a lot of work to be done here on Earth, too.”

Oh yes. As well as his space activities, Musk is striving to turn the Tesla into a profitable mass-market car — and deflect from the controversy about a recent disastrous test drive by a New York Times writer. He also wants to design the electric plane he mentioned in a cameo in Iron Man 2 and develop an 800mph solar-powered levitating train he calls the Hyperloop.

On top of that, as a twice-divorced single father, he must drive his sons, triplets aged six and twins aged eight, to school in Beverly Hills each day.

Somehow he is sticking by his new year resolution to have more fun. The night we meet he is going to see Muse, the British rock band, who visited SpaceX earlier in the day with Natalie Imbruglia, the Australian singer, and Rachel Hunter, the New Zealand model also known as the former Mrs Rod Stewart. Luckily he has an iron constitution.

Mal Shot First
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Posted: 7 years 40 weeks ago

Daltons chin dimple wrote:

Leon Musk to Ground Control

Don't you mean Noel Skum?

Space Tycoon
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Posted: 7 years 40 weeks ago

Elon Musk makes me hate my own life.

Daltons chin dimple
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Posted: 7 years 40 weeks ago

 I thought that, then I realised that we are all better off than him, as human beings, because none of us has to consider Kanye West as a friend.

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"
Space Tycoon
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Posted: 7 years 40 weeks ago

He probably considers Kanye a means to an end...

Daltons chin dimple
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Posted: 7 years 40 weeks ago

 A bell-end.

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"
Space Tycoon
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Posted: 7 years 40 weeks ago

Elon Musk in on Kimmel tonight.

FYI.

Daltons chin dimple
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Posted: 7 years 40 weeks ago

 Musky!

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"
Space Tycoon
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Posted: 7 years 40 weeks ago

Good interview.  It was a Musk-see!

Daltons chin dimple
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Posted: 7 years 39 weeks ago

 Pun!  I declare a pun!!  

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"
Mal Shot First
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Posted: 7 years 26 weeks ago

This one isn't actually about Elon Musk, but it's about a bunch of other millionaires (and backers on Kickstarter) funding the mining of asteroids for rare metals:
http://penny-arcade.com/report/article/crowdfunded-satellite-an-early-st...

Sounds really cool, but it also presents the possibility of a small group of people cornering the market on platinum.

Daltons chin dimple
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Posted: 7 years 26 weeks ago

 Which is why they do it, I imagine.  Of course, there will be some kind of 'Landing Tax' to bring it back to Earth to make sure government gets their slice.

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"