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Crazy Like a Visionary
Elon Musk’s remarkable career reminds us that individuals matter.

Roger Kimball
August 23, 2015

 

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance (Ecco, 400 pp., $28.99)

 

I am an unlikely fan of Elon Musk, the flamboyant, Steve Jobs-like (some would say Tony Stark-like) entrepreneur behind SpaceX, SolarCity, Tesla Motors, and other enterprises that seemed like starry-eyed impossibilities a scant decade ago. Musk’s two governing passions, he has said repeatedly, are “sustainable transport” to battle “global warming” and finding a way to make mankind an interplanetary species, beginning with a space colony on Mars.

 

For my part, the word “sustainable” has me reaching, if not for my revolver, then at least for an air-sickness bag. I regard the whole Green Lobby as a cocktail composed of three parts moralistic hysteria mixed with a jigger of high-proof cynical opportunism (take a look at Al Gore’s winnings from the industry) fortified with a dash of beady-eyed left-wing redistributionist passion. You can never be Green enough, Comrade, and if the data show a 20-year “hiatus” in global warming (so much for Michael Mann’s infamous hockey stick), that’s no reason not to insist that capitalist powerhouses like the United States drastically curtail their CO2 emissions right now, today, while giving egregious polluters like China a decade or more to meet its quotas.

 

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Enter SpaceX. It’s an adventure story that Vance tells: Musk journeys to Moscow to try to buy refurbished ICBMs, only to find that Russian for “negotiation” means repeated vodka toasts and extortionist prices; he returns to California and resolves to do what Americans always used to do: make what he needs himself. He does it, too: the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets (the name is a bow to the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars) and the futuristic Dragon V2 space capsule for manned flight were made from the ground up by SpaceX. Along the way, there have been many “rapid unscheduled disassemblies”—i.e., explosions— as well as many near bankruptcies. But in 2008, SpaceX became the first private company to put a rocket into orbit. In 2014, it became the first private company to dock with the ISS.

 

Hitherto, spacefaring rockets were the exclusive province of nation states and bloated government contractors. Musk showed that hard work by a small group of talented people could achieve better results for less money—much less. SpaceX makes almost all its components from scratch. When it came time to devise a communications computer system, Musk insisted that it could be done for about $10,000. As one employee noted, “In traditional aerospace, it would cost you more than ten thousand dollars just for the food at a meeting to discuss the cost of the avionics.” SpaceX produced the system in record time— and it was the first of its kind to pass NASA’s protocols test on the first try. SpaceX called the system “CUCU” and delighted that at meetings “NASA officials were forced to say ‘cuckoo’ over and over again,” a small act of defiance, Vance reports, that SpaceX had planned all along to torture NASA.

 

These days, SpaceX sends up a rocket about once a month, launching satellites for private companies, NASA, and the U.S. government. At about $60 million per trip, it undercuts its competition—in Japan, Europe, Russia, and China, as well as in America—by a wide margin. In little more than a decade, the company has gone from being a joke to being one of the most active space companies in the world. Together with Boeing, it recently won a multibillion-dollar contract to carry people to the ISS by 2017. “The companies would,” Vance observes, essentially be “be replacing the space shuttle and restoring the United States’ ability to conduct manned flights.”

 

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