The Restless Genius Behind Tesla and SpaceX Takes a Victory

March 23, 2018 – 12:51 pm

Photograph by Platon

Any study of Elon Musk must begin at the headquarters of SpaceX, in Hawthorne, California, a few miles from Los Angeles International Airport. It’s there that visitors will find two giant posters of Mars hanging side by side on the wall leading up to Musk’s cubicle. The poster to the left depicts Mars as it is today—a cold, barren red orb. The poster on the right shows a Mars with a humongous green landmass surrounded by oceans. The planet has been heated up and transformed to suit humans. Musk fully intends to try to make this happen. Turning humans into space colonizers is his stated life’s purpose.

“I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future, ” says Musk, working on a bowl of ice cream his assistant just handed him. “If we can solve sustainable energy and be well on our way to becoming a multiplanetary species with a self-sustaining civilization on another planet—to cope with a worst-case scenario happening and extinguishing human consciousness—then, ” and here he pauses for a moment, “I think that would be really good.”

Musk’s ready willingness to tackle impossible things has turned him into a deity in Silicon Valley, where fellow CEOs like Google’s Larry Page speak of him in reverential awe, and budding entrepreneurs strive “to be like Elon” just as they strived in years past to mimic Steve Jobs. Silicon Valley, though, operates within a warped version of reality, and outside the confines of its shared fantasy, Musk often comes off as a much more polarizing figure.

He’s the guy with the electric cars, solar panels, and rockets peddling false hope, a sci-fi version of P. T. Barnum, who has gotten extraordinarily rich by preying on people’s fear and self-hatred. Buy a Tesla. Forget about the mess you’ve made of the planet for a while.

I’d long been a subscriber to this latter camp. Musk had always struck me as a well-intentioned dreamer—a card-carrying member of Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian club. This group tends to be a mix of Ayn Rand devotees and engineer absolutists who see their hyperlogical worldviews as the Answer for everyone. If we’d just get out of their way, they’d fix all our problems. When I’d caught Musk at Silicon Valley events, his highfalutin talk often sounded straight out of the techno-utopian playbook. And, most annoyingly, his world-saving companies didn’t even seem to be doing all that well.

The SpaceX Dragon capsule just after its maiden voyage to the International Space Station, Cape Canaveral, Florida, 2012


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