The Good, the Bad and the Elon

elon_musk_vance_bookElon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
By Ashlee Vance
392 pages. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers

Is it possible for someone to be too smart for his own good?

That’s the question that echos through Ashlee Vance’s fascinating biography of Elon Musk. The SpaceX founder comes across as a brilliant visionary with a messianic zeal to improve the lot of humanity. His ultimately goal is to establish a settlement on Mars to ensure the the human race survives if Earth gets wiped out.

And yet, his brilliance, massive ego and single-minded ambition put him miles above the mass of his fellow human beings, who he tends to mistreat in the worst ways. At his best, he has the brilliance and charisma of Iron Man’s Tony Stark, at his worst, he turns into The Simpsons’ C. Montgomery Burns. And not in a funny way.

For space enthusiasts who have pinned their fervent hopes on Musk, this dichotomy raises a couple of disturbing questions. What sort of civilization would the man create on Mars? And how long would it be before settlers would want to toss him out of an airlock sans spacesuit?

Vance’s biography traces the billionaire’s path from a rough childhood in his native South Africa, where he was bullied by his father and schoolmates, to Canada, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and outer space. Along the way, Musk and the brilliant employees he hired demonstrated the ability to look at how things were done in the banking, automotive and launch industries and apply new technologies and approaches to produce successful software, automobiles and rockets.

Musk is an enormous risk taker who has nearly bankrupted his greatest successes — Zip2, SpaceX and Tesla. The only company Musk is associated with that doesn’t seem to have ended up on the brink is Solar City, a provider of solar panel systems. It is the company Musk has had the least involvement in.

Vance makes it clear that if a few things had gone different, few people outside of Silicon Valley would have ever heard of Musk. But, he also demonstrates that the tougher things got, the more it seemed to bring out Musk’s iron will and ability to absorb enormous levels of stress.

Vance portrays Musk as often succeeding in spite of his worst instincts as a know-it-all who has no trouble belittling, berating, terrorizing and discarding subordinates. He always seeks to hire the best, challenging them to meet his exacting standards and to work insane hours in the process. Along the way, he left a fair number of people questioning his tactics and tactics.

“Elon’s worst trait by far, in my opinion, is his complete lack of loyalty or human connection,” one former employee said. “Many of us worked tirelessly for him for years and were tossed to the curb like a piece of litter without a second thought., Maybe it was calculated to keep the rest of the workforce on their toes and scared; maybe he was just able to detach from human connection to a remarkable degree. What was clear is that people who worked for him were like ammunition: used for a specific purpose until exhausted and discarded.”

Vance does a good job of describing the early struggles of Tesla and SpaceX, which both came to the brink of collapse at the same time. There are a lot of fascinating details about Falcon 1 launch operations in the remote Marshall Islands, where the first three launches failed. The next one had to succeed — and it did.

The rest of the SpaceX story is not as well told. Chapter 9, titled “Liftoff,” is the weakest section of the book. It’s a description of SpaceX’s factory, current operations and battles with its rivals that is so breathless one wonders whether the author passed out writing it.

There’s no doubt that Musk and his SpaceX team have done amazing things, but there are subtleties the author missed. For example, NASA accepted much higher risks than usual when it partnered with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation (now Orbital ATK) to develop launch vehicles and supply ships for the International Space Station. NASA was fully expecting failures, which is exactly what happened to both companies over the past year. Two supply ships were lost.

For these reasons, the U.S. Air Force was right not to rush to certify the Falcon 9 to launch military payloads. United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles, which the military uses, were developed in close cooperation with the U.S. Air Force with much less tolerance for failure. These two rockets have flown about 100 times combined without a catastrophic failure. The Falcon 9 failed on its 19th flight.

I wish Vance had talked more to Musk’s competition and others in the industry familiar with the way he operates. It would have provided a broader perspective. At times, the author is too willing to accept some of Musk’s claims at face value.

“Blue Origin does these surgical strikes on specialized talent offering like double their salaries,” Musk complains in the book about rival billionaire Jeff Bezos’ company. “I think it’s unnecessary and a bit rude.”

That’s hilarious coming from Musk, who has turned raiding other companies’ talent into an art form. Partnerships and supplier relationships are routinely used to identify top talent to hire away, and to learn enough so SpaceX can bring production in-house. This is widely known in the industry, and it is one of the primary reasons why SpaceX is so hated within it.

Vance recognizes the central role that a human settlement on Mars plays in Musk’s long-term plans. He doubts that SpaceX employees would work 60 to 80 hour weeks without Mars looming out there as a long-term goal. To paraphrase William Adama, it’s not enough for them to work; they must have something to work for. Let it be Mars.

Unfortunately, the author doesn’t spend a lot of time examining the feasibility of this grand plan. Musk admits Mars is a “fixer-up of a planet,” a clever phrase that masks the fact that Mars is trying to kill you six ways to Sunday. It’s got the terrain of Arizona, the weather of Antarctica, the atmospheric pressure of a vacuum chamber, the radiation levels of an X-ray machine, and soil that is toxic.

For a gambler like Musk, the Mars settlement will the ultimate roll of the dice. It has the potential to go wrong in much worse ways than anything he’s ever attempted. Going bankrupt would be the least worst thing that could happen.

What little musing there are in the book about Mars involve Musk talking about how to get the Mars Colonial Transporter working so he can send enough colonists there to make a settlement viable. If he can solve that problem, it will be an easy task to set up an inflatable greenhouse structure for people to live in.

They’re going to need a lot more than that. Hopefully, Musk’s thinking on this is deeper than it appears in Vance’s biography. Or that it will become a lot deeper as he gets closer to actually sending people there.

One gets the sense that you need someone with Musk’s talents to get people to Mars, but that you wouldn’t necessarily want to live in a colony he ruled given his lack of empathy. SpaceX workers go home at the end of their long days; they can quit if they get fed up with the working conditions or Musk’s behavior. Those options will be much more limited on Mars.

After much effort, William Adama and his crew eventually found an Earth that was not at all what they expected it would be. One hopes that Musk doesn’t have a similar experience.

  • ThomasLMatula

    More to the point, it is also the way that NASA and the USAF want it done. I talked to a number of retired engineers from contractors who told me they pointed out ways it could be done cheaper, but NASA or the USAF wouldn’t buy into it.

  • Vladislaw

    Distruptive and Sustaining innovations:

    “Sustaining innovations are innovations in technology, whereas disruptive innovations cause changes to markets. For example, the automobile was a revolutionary technological innovation, but it was not a disruptive innovation, because early automobiles were expensive luxury items that did not disrupt the market for horse-drawn vehicles. The market for transportation essentially remained intact until the debut of the lower-priced Ford Model T in 1908.[2] The mass-produced automobile was a disruptive innovation, because it changed the transportation market. The automobile, by itself, was not.”

  • ThomasLMatula

    That is why creating a cislunar industrial capacity is the key first step, especially as it will help accelerate the NEO mining industry. Not only will it make is more likely to identify such a target early, but also develop the infrastructure of fuel depots, space tugs, etc. needed to address it.

    There will be NEO’s reaching Earth in the future. Its our choice if it will be in the form of an impact killing millions, or in the form of consumer products benefiting millions.

  • ThomasLMatula

    They are ways to whittle down even the largest credible impacter. The key is have the deep space infrastructure to send multiple missions to it quickly and the lead time to react to it.

    The problem with existing asteroid movies is they are looking at it from the perspective of aerospace engineering, not civil engineering, and seek a single mission “magic” bullet to stop it.

    Also in terms of “Arks”, the better strategy is to simply use the same habitat technology to dig in on Earth. Even after a major extinction event impact the Earth will still be a pretty good place to live.

  • Vladislaw

    Will it really matter if SpaceX is just at the bottom line a transportation company? I believe that remark made at that MIT confrence was telling. Asked about utilizing the MCT for the moon he stated, that if you have a ship that can cross the atlantic then it would be foolish to not use it to cross the english channel.
    The reason I believe they do not talk about the moon is they do not want to get bogged down there but very much plan to sell rides there as well. There isn’t any “been there done that” for Musk. for the press for the workers, investors, NASA etc.. it is all MARS or BUST…

  • ThomasLMatula

    Because for NASA space begins and ends with Mars thanks to the “Mars Underground” that captured the agency in the 1990’s. The LRO basically required a Presidential command in the form of VSE to get approved.

  • Vladislaw

    Here again, I believe it was mars because of the whole “been there done that” aspect of Luna. America, Russia, China, Japan, India etc .. I believe Musk by passed Luna because of the “yawn factor” from people in general ..

  • Snofru Chufu

    Thank you, that is an interesting distinction between types of innovations. However, the use of word “mass-produced” for Merlin engines is a bit overrating. I would say it becomes valid a 10,000’s units/anno.

    It is not clear to me that SpaceX has reached a production number, where the higher work/cost loads to produce and assemble more parts for more engines (compared to a rocket design, which uses a smaller number of engines) is more
    as compensated by reduction of production cost for a /per part, which is produced in a higher number for a higher number of engines.

  • Snofru Chufu

    Do you have some details about that specific business organization, which makes the difference? Thank you. We are then enabled to think about why other companies are not able to do the business in same way.

  • Snofru Chufu

    Please consider that about 2,000 R7-derived rockets and about 500 Proton rockets were launched in total. Why we do not use the term mass production these cases?

  • TimR

    Killer Asteroid is not a likely scenario for the end of civilization or humans. Way down the list. If you consider the recent Ebola outbreak, a killer pathogen is unlikely that we could not foil. Remember that despite flu epidemics, starvation and wars, we quadrupled the human population between 1900 & 2000. But there are several things that could set back civilization in serious ways. So you go to Mars, Moon, Roids to expand civilization, create a space based economy that supports and eventually moderates the ups and downs of the Earthly economy. The future space economy will be based on robotics not human labor so there will be an incredible potential to throttle the space economy. So its really a means to minimize human suffering, achieving something more utopic, and lastly to save us from extinction. The world’s economy will be controlled by A.I.; were on this path now. Once our Earth and Space robotic-driven industries supply humans more resources than we demand, population growth ends and reverses, then the world economy, maintained by A.I., won’t have to make hard choices that sacrifices some humans for others. Until then, for the remainder of this century and a bit more, that’s what humans will be doing – making hard choices as we run the gauntlet. I don’t want to imagine that some future tech will repair all the damage we do to biodiversity, climate and healthy ecosystems. That w have to take responsibility for now.

  • Vladislaw

    Didn’t Musk say they will be doing 400 engines a year next year? How many main engines are built for the Atlas V per year? The Delta IV? Not massed produced for consumer consumption. More like relative to what others are producing per year? I do not buy into the launch a day senerio yet, but I believe Musk does include that for long term priced reductions.

  • Vladislaw

    500 Proton launches over 50 years, about 10 launches per year, about half with the RD253 and then the RD 275. It uses 6 main engines or about 60 per year…. still short of producing 400 per year.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I thought it was clear from the book that he was went with his father because he was a consulting engineer and gave Elon unlimited access to tech toys like computers. His first commercial success was writing a gaming program at in his early teen years.

  • TimR

    Its not mutually exclusive. Despite such advantages, he could have had or apparently did have some stressful relation with his father.

  • TimR

    Send the Weiner-mobile loaded with high explosives to blow that ‘roid to mistherines! It will fit in a Falcon 9 fairing won’t it?

  • LA Julian

    Yes. All this. (You’ve seen the “Galt’s Gulch” cartoons that illustrate how well this would work with modern technocrats, right?) It isn’t as if this hasn’t been studied, extensively, and as though there weren’t documented examples of “self-sustainble” communities failing to do so, including the recent case of the Biodome fiasco.

    But this is what happens when “hard” science people think that biology must be easy, since those “soft” types can manage it, and farming must be easier, if even uneducated peasants can do it, so of course they will simply have to, as the popular fiction puts it, “science the shit out of it” and it will be as easy as 3-D printing a new wrench or something to grow enough food to survive on (without growing things that can kill you one way or another.)

    Of course NASA knows better, which is why the fact that the ISS crew was finally able to have a little fresh salad with their meals was hailed as the amazing achievement it is — an earth crop, successfully grown in space!

    Of course it was only a few heads of lettuce in a terrarium, just try feeding a city on that! But you can’t tell the wild-eyed space colony faithers that. Why bother testing in the deserts of Terra or starting on the Moon first? You can’t doubt, or worry about breaking eggs while making a Space Colony Omelette.

    I think there is some relevant quote about people who don’t study history, as well — but why look back at the past, when we are the Wave of the Future? And future historians will write about the sad fate of the Hellas Basin Party, as they write about the Donner Party today.

  • LA Julian

    Doesn’t stop people from climbing Everest…

  • LA Julian

    Companies being willing to take a bath on per-piece sales in order to butter up high-status clients in hopes of securing a long-term contract that will (hopefully!) be profitable over time, or to look more important and successful than they are, is not unheard of outside the aerospace industry.

    Of course, you can only get away with this for so long, before you run through all your money — and if you lose money on every job, and this can’t be solved, a long-term contract is a form of slow institutional suicide.

  • Snofru Chufu

    About 35 R7 based launcher were produced per year, that are 175 RD107/108 engines per year or 700 rocket engines chambers (4 chambers owns one turbompump) per year in average. Not bad.

  • Vladislaw

    So what you are saying, with an absolute and dictorial command economy a dictator can order something to be done and damn the costs to launch militiary payloads and it can be achieved? Wow.. who would have guessed.

    I believe delivering 400 engines per year with an open market .. is just a TAD diffrent than what was achieved under the Soviet command economy.

  • Vladislaw

    You need a hinge for the Orion capsule? Well Congressman X has a mom & pop shop in their district, they can manufacture the hinge pin and send it to another mom & pop shop in my district, they can manufacture the hingle plates and send it to another mom & pop shop in my district and they can assemble the hinge and send it to another mom & pop engineering firm in my district and they can certify the assemply of the hinge .. on and on and on..

    Musk stated that in typical aerospace cost of materials were 25% plus of total costs but he found with NASA contractors the material costs were only 3% of total costs.. THAT is what SpaceX went after to bring material costs more in line.

  • Vladislaw

    Under what administrator for NASA did this happen.. who brought to the agency all mars agenda people?

  • Douglas Messier

    “When World Collides” Paramount Pictures, 1951, starring Richard Derr, Barbara Rush and Peter Hansen

    Pretty good movie

  • Kelly Starks

    > encounter a lot of skepticism about SpaceX’s profitability
    > too, …
    >….There are a lot of folks out there who seem convinced
    > that the old-line NASA contractors have figured out pretty
    > much everything there is to figure out about rockets and
    > that the way they do things is the only way things can
    > be done – i.e., expensively.

    > ….
    >….One characteristic of truly disruptive new businesses is
    > that they find ways to change the fundamental rules of the
    > game that have previously been seen to apply. …

    Musk fans say things like that a lot. The problem is Musk hasn’t innovated anything of significance, and his prices are much higher then fans like to assume (or misquote). Mostly with SpaceX Musk insists all the quality efforts, techniques, etc engineering and manufacturing developed in the last half century was a stupid mistake. Not just in aerospace engineering, but pretty much all engineering. Focuses on very old designs, cuts a insane amount of corners, and has a very high failure rate. Plays nasty in business deals with others.

    The hero worship does not extend to others in the business. Especially if you talk to them in private.

    As to if SpaceX is profitable. Likely not directly. Tesla for example sells the cars for less then the batteries cost them, but make money selling carbon credits to other companies. SpaceX had most of their R&D cost picked up by NASA and DOD (after some political encouragement). But 4,000 employees in a engineering company, with facilities, equipment, etc (Musk tends to buy expense stuff, and in expensive areas.) runs $300,000 – $400,000 per person per year. So $1.2B-$1.6b per year basic expenses, (plus other expenses paid out to other firms new projects, etc), divided by how many flights a year?

    > In contrast, ULA employs roughly the same number of
    > people at their Decatur, AL plant as SpaceX does at
    > Hawthorne, but Decatur is a final assembly facility…..

    Note though, ULA have to fulfill full Federal Acquisition Rules on their booster sales to gov, which triples to quadruples cost to venders. And they do engineering of everything to much higher quality. Hence why of the hundred flights of the Delta-IV and Atlas-V (including all the test flights), they had paying customers cargo on every flight, and they were all successfully delivered to orbit. SpaceX has had 3 mid air explosions, a couple other partial explosion, several other systems failures, and eve after a large number of test fights, still destroyed cargo.

    >…Given that SpaceX cranks out half or more as many
    > complete rockets per year as ULA – and more all the
    > time – with a fraction of the total workforce, it also seems
    > obvious that the SpaceX production facility is much more
    > highly automated than is typical of old-line aerospace.

    Actually not. Wouldn’t help much given the low production rates.

    The concerning part – is SpaceX actually does things in ways that drive costs up, not down. A lot of heavy expenses to do everything in-house, not sharing overhead across a industry, spending a fortune to develop from scratch (granted using old designs) that could be purchased for lower cost.

    Makes you wonder where he’s cutting corners to compensate?

  • Carl Davies

    Take a good look at musks actions and interactions since getting involved in spaceflight.. Mars society… Funding the Mars analogue station… This is a man who has read the case for mars and is trying to make it a savvy businessman he will obviously endorse activities that strengthen his own company… So orbiting the odd ba 330 or even dropping the odd payload on the moon doesn’t detract from that..but I’ve no doubt the ultimate goal is mars

  • Carl Davies

    Maybe Google could save the earth instead? And you could make exactly the same argument for any one of a number of apocalyptic scenarios… Why is the onus on Musk to solve them? It’s easy to criticise the rationale for building such a civilisation on Mars but blaming musk for the opportunity costs of doing so doesn’t hold any water

  • Carl Davies

    Well said

  • Vladislaw

    I agree, He never allows the conversation to move to “lets do the moon first” kind of talk. He always returns the focus to Mars.