What will some alien race make of it if they one day encounter, floating out of deep space, a red Tesla electric sports car with a mannequin at the wheel, David Bowie’s Space Oddity playing on the stereo and the simple message ‘Made on Earth by humans’ on the dashboard?
The flamboyant technology entrepreneur — who, on Tuesday night, put one of his own cars into orbit after launching it on his Falcon Heavy rocket — later said he’d like to think those aliens will be ‘really confused’.
They can’t be the only ones…
Elon Musk, the 46-year-old founder of the online payment system PayPal and the Tesla car company, maybe just one of a new breed of billionaire space buccaneers, but he is certainly the most eccentric.
The long-awaited maiden flight of the 230ft monster rocket, lifting off with the power of 18 Boeing 747s and a load capacity of 64 tonnes, was breath-taking — especially when its two side booster rockets returned to Earth. Just eight minutes after taking off, they landed together with almost balletic precision just a stone’s throw from the launch pad they had just left.
Third burn successful. Exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the Asteroid Belt. pic.twitter.com/bKhRN73WHF
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 7, 2018
Musk, who is intent on colonising Mars by 2040, and saving humanity in the process, says Falcon Heavy is just the start.
— Brady Kenniston (@TheFavoritist) February 6, 2018
One of the world’s great innovators, with a restless drive that has shaped his whirlwind career, he’s now working on an even more ambitious space project.
The ‘Interplanetary Transport System’ will involve building by far the most powerful rocket ever. The BFR (as in ‘Big ****ing Rocket’) will be reusable, able to ferry passengers, fuel and cargo into space to a 50-metre long orbiting spaceship. The latter, powered by a new type of engine fuelled by liquid methane, will then set off on a six-month journey to Mars with a 100-person colonising force.
Once there, Musk claims they will find a way of surviving on the red planet’s harsh environment, possibly by living inside natural lava tubes in extinct volcanoes. The idea is that the colonists would make fuel for a return trip by producing liquid methane from the planet’s supplies of carbon dioxide and ice.
That a private individual — however wealthy — could be considering doing all this is simply jaw-dropping, especially when you bear in mind the U.S. used up five percent of its federal budget to get astronauts on the Moon.
Ok, who leaked my selfie!? https://t.co/fYKXbix8jw
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 6, 2018
While it tells you something about just how much money the world’s richest people have nowadays, it also says a lot about Elon Musk, a man with an almost messianic desire to transform our lives.
There’s no doubt he’s committed his remarkable chutzpah, imagination and swashbuckling enthusiasm to pushing the boundaries of humanity. A hugely talented engineer and businessman, the brash and brainy Musk provided the inspiration for the maverick technology genius Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr) in the Iron Man superhero films.
And like a superhero, Musk —who says he’s been inspired by the comics he read as a child —has yet to admit there’s anything he can’t do. He says people must colonise Mars so mankind can find another home beyond our fragile planet.
You’d need millions of zombies for a so-called “apocalypse” anyway. Where would I even get a factory big enough to make so many!?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 28, 2018
Before then, he wants to tackle global warming by converting us to battery-operated cars. To encourage motorists to switch to this greener transport system, he set up a network of 734 charging stations around the world —including in Britain — that can give the cars 170 miles of driving range in 30 minutes.
Musk has big plans for rail, too. He has envisioned a ‘Hyperloop’ subsonic propulsion system that would whisk passengers in a partial vacuum the 350 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles in only 30 minutes.
Musk is also trying to fight global warming with SolarCity, now the second-biggest provider of solar power systems in the U.S.
SolarCity makes the fourth billion-dollar company — the others being PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX — which Musk has set up. When he is not planning an assault on Mars, he is growing ever more concerned with the development of super-intelligent robots on Earth, which he fears could run amok.
For that reason, he’s set up OpenAI, a research charity that aims to develop artificial intelligence in ways that benefit people.
Got to regulate AI/robotics like we do food, drugs, aircraft & cars. Public risks require public oversight. Getting rid of the FAA wdn’t make flying safer. They’re there for good reason.https://t.co/6OXZC3UdMW
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 26, 2017
He’s also suggested developing an Iron Man-style armoured flying suit for the Pentagon and insists we must transform into cyborgs — part human, part machine — to prevent robots taking over the planets.
Is he serious about all of this?
With Musk, it’s difficult to know sometimes.
South African-born — he now has Canadian-American nationality —Musk certainly doesn’t appear to suffer from a lack of confidence, although he says he was scarred by a deeply unhappy childhood.
The son of a half-British engineer and a Canadian model and dietitian mother, he was raised in apartheid-era Pretoria but insists he rarely saw either of his parents for the first eight years of his life. They divorced when he was nine.
His family recalls how he was six when, out playing with his two younger siblings, he reassured them they didn’t need to run home when it began to get dark. ‘There is nothing to fear — it is merely the absence of light!’
He was nicknamed ‘Genius Boy’, read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and reportedly learnt to ‘code’ within three days of being given a computer.
At school, he became so introverted that his mother feared he was deaf. Later, she realised he was simply thinking very deeply.
The smallest child in his class, he was bullied so mercilessly and physically attacked that he needed plastic surgery to rebuild his nose.
Then he learnt judo and karate and fought back. Musk claims his father, Errol, was also physically violent towards him, although the latter insists he only smacked his son once, on the bottom.
Aged 17, he emigrated to Canada, his mother’s home country, with less than £200 in his pocket. With a $28,000 investment from his father, he became a millionaire in his mid-20s after selling his first computer software company.
He then co-founded PayPal, which helps people all over the world pay securely for goods and services online. When eBay bought PayPal in 2002 for £1 billion, he netted himself more than £100 million. For all his success, he’s an inveterate risk taker, almost going bankrupt twice when he divided everything he had between Tesla and SpaceX. Today he is worth £14.7 billion.
“If one day, my words are against science, choose science.”
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 9, 2017
His character leaves something to be desired, however. His lack of empathy has prompted some to suggest he sits somewhere on the autism spectrum. Others say his problem is not having too few emotions, but too many — talking about his father is still enough to make him cry and he has admitted to his terrible fear of being alone.
However, he has a reputation as an exacting boss. He is said to have brutally high expectations and is ready to dress down any underling who doesn’t meet his deadlines for his rocket and car projects. According to a biographer, when his PA asked for a pay rise, Musk asked if he could first try doing her job. He ended up sacking her instead.
He met his first wife, novelist Justine Wilson, while they were students in Canada. Their marriage produced six sons, including one who died at ten weeks, but ended in acrimony. She said he was an icy, domineering figure determined to make her a blonde trophy wife.
He met second wife, British actress Talulah Riley, in a London nightclub in 2008, and they talked all night about spacecraft design. She insists she was genuinely fascinated. They married in 2010, divorced in 2012, remarried a year later and divorced again in 2016.
Perhaps he kept going back to her because he loathes solitude. He once admitted: ‘Going to sleep alone kills me.’ He also had a year-long romance with Amber Heard, the actress ex-wife of Johnny Depp, before he dumped her like a spent rocket booster last summer.
He recently insisted he was looking for a long-term relationship, and that he cannot be happy if he’s not in love. But given that he’s also said: ‘I’d like to die on Mars. Just not on impact,’ there may not be as many women lining up to be at his side as you might imagine.
Musk isn’t the only Silicon Valley mogul sinking billions into what’s been dubbed the ‘nerd space race’.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, a big Star Trek fan, is working on an even bigger reusable rocket than Falcon Heavy. As well as ferrying high-paying space tourists, he wants to fill near-space with orbiting hotels, floating heavy industry plants and colonies for millions of people.
The stunning Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia. We’ve sent robotic probes to every planet in this solar system. Earth is BY FAR the best one. We go to space to save the Earth. @BlueOrigin #NoPlanB #GradatimFerociter pic.twitter.com/8esV18orcJ
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) February 3, 2018
Google co-founder Larry Page and other Silicon Valley billionaires have set up Planetary Resources, a venture to explore landing on asteroids, to mine them for the rare elements.
Sir Richard Branson wants to create the first commercial space tourism business — taking passengers into orbit on Virgin Galactic.
Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is financing Stratolaunch, which aims to build the world’s biggest aircraft to launch satellites and rockets at high altitude.
And Robert Bigelow, a U.S. hotel tycoon and UFO believer, is preparing us for living on other planets. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, BEAM, is a module which he says can allow us to live on the Moon, Mars or in space.
But for all his competitors the spotlight is on Elon Musk, the first man to put a car into orbit.