April 9, 2018

From the Vaults: ElonX

 “About four hours before a launch, the Falcon 9 starts getting filled with an immense amount of liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene.  Some of the liquid oxygen vents out of the rocket as it awaits launch and is kept so cold that it boils off on contact with the metal and air, forming white plumes that stream down the rocket’s sides.  This gives the impression of the Falcon 9 huffing and puffing as it limbers up before the journey. The engineers inside of SpaceX’s mission control monitor these fuel systems and all manner of other items.  They chat back and forth through headsets and begin cycling through their launch checklist, consumed by what people in the business call “go fever” as they move from one approval to the next. Ten minutes before launch, the humans step out of the way and leave the remaining processes up to automated machines.  Everything goes quiet, and the tension builds until right before the main event. That’s when, out of nowhere, the Falcon 9 breaks the silence by letting out a loud gasp.

    A white lattice support structure pulls away from its body.  The T-minus-ten-seconds countdown begins. Nothing much happens from ten down to four.  At the count of three, however, the engines ignite, and the computers conduct a last, oh-so-rapid, health check.  Four enormous metal clamps hold the rocket down, as computing systems evaluate all nine engines and measure if there’s sufficient downward force being produced.  By the time zero arrives, the rocket has decided that all is well enough to go through with its mission, and the clamps release. The rocket goes to war with inertia, and then, with flames surrounding its base and snow-thick plumes of the liquid oxygen filling the air, it shoots up.  Seeing something so large hold so straight and steady while suspended in midair is hard for the brain to register. It is foreign, inexplicable. About twenty seconds after liftoff, the spectators placed safely a few miles away catch the first faceful of the Falcon 9’s rumble. It’s a distinct sound-sort of a staccato crackling that arises from chemicals whipped into a violent frenzy.  Pants legs vibrate from shock waves produced by a stream of sonic booms coming out of the Falcon 9’s exhaust. The white rocket climbs higher and higher with impressive stamina. After about a minute, it’s just a red spot in the sky, and -poof- it’s gone. Only a cynical dullard could come away from witnessing this feeling anything other than wonder at what man can accomplish.” { Ashlee Vance – from ELON MUSK 2015  HarperCollins Publishers}

    Okey dokey – nothing like lifting a few paragraphs from a book to set the tone of this article.  It was necessary, however, to illustrate that between June 2001 and the publication of Ashlee Vance’s book (full title:  Elon Musk – Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future), Elon Musk made this happen.  Granted, it wasn’t a smooth ride, but the fact that he has transformed the whole concept of spaceflight in a mere fifteen years tells us volumes about the man.  He doesn’t care if he gets into space himself, but he does care that mankind becomes an interplanetary species. For that to happen, someone had to rethink the whole concept of going into space, so why not him?

    Elon Musk grew up in South Africa but the maternal side of his family left their European Swiss German roots behind during the Revolutionary War and settled in the midwest.  Musk’s grandfather was born in Minnesota, migrated north to Canada and eventually uprooted his family to South Africa circa 1950. Grandpa Haldeman died in 1974 at the age of 72 as the result of a plane crash.   Elon was four years old when his grandfather passed away, but the more stories he heard about his maternal grandfather, the more convinced he became that his own unusual tolerance for risk was a trait he inherited from his mother’s side of the family.  A natural born tinkerer, Elon was prone to losing himself in thought while contemplating how things worked to the point that his parents feared he may have been hard of hearing. He also read, sometimes ten hours a day. When young Elon was in the zone, nothing could distract him.  When he had read all of the science fiction books in the local libraries, he started reading Encyclopedia Britannica.  He had (and still has) the ability to absorb large volumes of information which he can then recall with uncanny accuracy.

     In a move that perhaps only his grandfather could appreciate, he packed himself off to Canada at age 17 intent that this would be the quickest way to get to the United States.  His mother’s Canadian roots paved the way for his quick immigration and in those pre-internet days, the only thing that delayed his departure was the long wait before his plane ticket arrived.  He bounced around Canada for a while, bunked with relatives and worked odd jobs while he formulated his plan. His brother Kimbal and mother eventually followed him to Canada.

     Elon displayed an early aptitude with computers and technology.  He heard the siren call of the Silicon Valley and the entrepreneurial opportunities that would be found there.  Of course, there was the matter of finishing his education, first at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and then at the University of Pennsylvania.  Upon completion of both an economics degree from the Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree in physics, he would look west. While he would eventually be accepted at Stanford, it would be summer internships (while he was still at Penn) with the Pinnacle Research Institute (who worked with ultracapacitors) and Rocket Science Games that helped him formulate his earliest business plans.  After two summers in California, he graduated from Penn and he and his brother Kimbal landed in Silicon Valley intent on making their mark in the newly emerging field of Internet business.

     Their first web based start up (Global Link Information Network) was an attempt to build a Yellow Pages – like business listing that they dubbed Zip2.  It was an ingenious idea in the early days of Yahoo! and Netscape but it was also far enough ahead of its time that the brothers settled into a hand to mouth existence trying to convince old school businesses that this was the future.  While Elon wrote lines of code, Kimbal worked the door-to-door sales angle. The tireless Elon worked around the clock coding the project as GLIN began to recruit bright employees and make important contacts. It was during these heady days of the dotcom business explosion that Elon and Kimbal learned some hard lessons.  They weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer when it came to writing a business plan or raising capital, but they plugged ahead growing their business. In 1999, Compaq Computer offered to purchase Zip2 for an astounding $307 million in cash.

    The sale of Zip2 positioned the new dot-com millionaires to move on with their next project.  Harkening back to his days as an intern at the Bank of Nova Scotia, Musk began formulating something that everyone told him wouldn’t fly in the face of banking regulations:  Internet banking. In order to compress this stage of Elon’s career, let it just be said that what was deemed ‘impossible’ by others turned into a finance start-up company called X.com.  X.com eventually partnered with another startup called Confinity who were working on a payment system of their own they dubbed PayPal. When the dust settled, the Musk brothers were in on the ground floor of a service that eBay would purchase for $1.5 billion in July of 2002.  With this $250 million sale, Elon Musk was now positioned to make his wildest dreams come true, the first of which was another startup in one of his favorite fields of interest: space!

    While the whole PayPal episode did push Musk up the financial ladder, some of the shine (of the deal) came off when some questioned his leadership skills.  An ex-employee of Confinity wrote a book (The PayPal Wars:  Battles with eBay, the Media, the Mafia, and the Rest of Planet Earth) that portrayed Musk as, “an egomaniacal, stubborn jerk, making wrong decisions at every turn.”  Silicon Valley’s tech industry gossip site Valleywag cast enough doubt on Musk’s role in running PayPal to make some wonder whether or not he was a true cofounder of PayPal or just someone at the right spot at the right time to cash in.  X.com’s chief financial officer from the start, Roelof Botha, takes exception to these attacks simply stating, “There are a lot of PayPal people that suffer from warped memories.” Nevertheless, these wranglings are all part of the learning curve Musk needed to experience to improve his business acumen.  It is also telling than many of those interviewed for Vance’s book preferred to not have their names attached to their criticisms of his management style.

    To get a foot in the door, spacewise, Musk joined a group called the Mars Society.  He made substantial donations to support their Antarctic research station that was supposed to help simulate what a mission to Mars might be like.  When they explained their project to put mice in Earth orbit aboard a craft that would spin them up to a Mars-like ? gravity, Musk took it one step farther.  Why not send the mice right to Mars, set up a breeding colony, and then return them to Earth to study the effects of the trip on them. Viewed as a $20 million dollar attention getter, lack luster support from the Mars Society led Musk to resign from their board of directors and start his own Life to Mars Foundation.  The mice to Mars idea morphed into “Mars Oasis” involving a robotic greenhouse being sent to Mars. The greenhouse would suck in some Martian soil and proceed to grow a plant to show that it could be done. Several things conspired to keep Mars Oasis on the drawing board. First, Musk underestimated the $20-$30 million dollar price tab.  Second, the Martian soil would be toxic. Third, and perhaps most telling, a project that was intended to inspire future space scientists might have the exact opposite effect if it failed. Watching a plant die on Mars was not exactly the kind of recruiting tool space science needed.

    Musk and his core team began investigating all manner of space projects that they could use to get into space.  A trip to Russia to negotiate a deal to purchase rocket bodies ended poorly when the Russian’s price was too high and they didn’t take Musk seriously.  After storming out of the meeting and taking a gloomy flight back to the U.S., Musk made the first positive step forward what would become SpaceX. Musk told his somber colleagues, “Hey, guys, I think we can build this rocket ourselves.”  From this point, Musk began doing what he had already shown he does best: he gathered information and surrounded himself with talented people who could make things happen. Elon Musk isn’t just a glory seeking multi-billionaire looking to spend his money (his estimated worth at the beginning of 2018 was $20.9 billion).  He is committed to helping solve some of humanity’s larger problems and his plans to put together the first mission to Mars melds together all three of his companies: SpaceX, Tesla Motors, and SolarCity.

    In part 2 of ElonX,  we will break down how SpaceX has changed the face of sending rockets to space.  We will also look at the rise of Tesla and SolarCity, the workings of which have the potential to preserve life on Earth, even if Musk doesn’t realize his dream to die on Mars.

Top Piece Video – Okay, I like the concept of Elon’s revolutionary ideas, and the video is typical B=52’s (Cosmic and complex), but frankly, I couldn’t find a live cut that sounded good, so go with me on this . . . Revolution Earth –  I like the sound of it anyway!