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.