Musk’s Melts Down Over Thai Cave Rescue Criticism

Elon Musk (center) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry break ground on a new launch complex. (Credit: Texas Governor’s Office)

Days after promising to behave himself better on Twitter, Elon Musk had what was arguably his worst public meltdown yet on Sunday when he leveled a charge of pedophilia against a diver who had been instrumental in saving a Thai soccer team and its coach trapped in a flooded cave.

Musk made the charge — without providing any evidence —  against Vern Unsworth, a British diver who lives in Thailand, who last week criticized submarines that a team at Musk’s SpaceX built for the rescue effort as “just a PR stunt” that had “absolutely no chance of working” in the twisted confines of the cave.

Musk, who publicized every step of SpaceX’s rescue efforts on Twitter, made a 17-hour flight to Thailand with the submarines and walked for a distance into the cave. The billionaire made the stop on his way to China to make an announcement about plans to build a Tesla Motors manufacturing plant there.

In a series of Sunday morning tweets that have since been deleted, Musk not only disputed Unsworth claims but also called him a “pedo.”

Never saw this British expat guy who lives in Thailand (sus) at any point when we were in the caves. Only people in sight were the Thai navy/army guys, who were great. Thai navy seals escorted us in — total opposite of wanting us to leave.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 15, 2018

Water level was actually very low & still (not flowing) — you could literally have swum to Cave 5 with no gear, which is obv how the kids got in. If not true, then I challenge this dude to show final rescue video. Huge credit to pump & generator team. Unsung heroes here.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 15, 2018

You know what, don’t bother showing the video. We will make one of the mini-sub/pod going all the way to Cave 5 no problemo. Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 15, 2018

When a Twitter user criticized the “pedo” tweet, Musk doubled down. “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true,” he responded.

The video of Unsworth criticizing Musk’s involvement in the rescue had circulated for several days before the billionaire’s tweet storm. Musk was apparently set off by a tweet by Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina who wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times titled, “What Elon Musk Should Learn From the Thailand Cave Rescue“. In the op-ed, she wrote:

Mr. Musk’s desire to help was commendable. But when the head of the rescue operation, Narongsak Osottanakorn, declared that Mr. Musk’s contraption was impractical for the task at hand — a task that had been completed, at that point, by some of the world’s top cave divers — Mr. Musk responded with irritation. He insisted on Twitter that leaders of the operation had in fact welcomed his assistance and that Mr. Narongsak was not the “subject matter expert.” He also expressed frustration that he was being criticized while trying to help.

Instead of venting, Mr. Musk — indeed, Silicon Valley as a whole — can perhaps see the Thai operation as a lesson. This was a most improbable rescue against the longest odds. Safely navigating 12 kids and one adult, many of whom were not swimmers, through a dangerous cave relied on a model of innovation that Silicon Valley can and should learn from.

The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.

This “safety culture” model is neither stilted nor uncreative. On the contrary, deep expertise, lengthy training and the ability to learn from experience (and to incorporate the lessons of those experiences into future practices) is a valuable form of ingenuity.

Defenders of Musk have praised the billionaire’s effort to help with the cave rescue, saying he should not be criticized even though his proposed solution arrived too late to help and might not have worked.

In a Twitter thread, Tufekci wrote that the intervention of high-profile politicians and celebrities is often the last thing that rescue personnel need in a crisis.

I was once in the middle of an earthquake rescue with an amazing team. Politest people. Their lives on the line. Humble. Years later, I just don’t have words. Literally the biggest problem they faced was local officials, politicians & celebs who butted in. Even if well meaning.+

— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) July 15, 2018

Officials pull/push actual rescuers. Sub as a back-up option (are people still working on it with domain experts?) is great to explore quietly, but the thing they fear is that an official comes and overrules the rescuers. Try this flashy thing! Happens to disastrous consequence.

— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) July 15, 2018

We had someone important and famous land with a @#$@!! helicopter to the earthquake zone to “support our work and improve our morale.” At that point, we were working round the clock next to a burning refinery and the biggest challenge was establishing silence to listen for life.+

— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) July 15, 2018

These rescuers I had been working, who were so humble, polite and expert—and who accepted everything and just worked and worked at great risk to themselves, climbing into rubble in the middle of 6.5+ aftershocks.. I learned more English curse words that day than since or before.+

— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) July 15, 2018

I’ve too-long for Twitter stories on how hard it was to keep officials on track and from meddling wrongly. Anyway, the lesson I took is that publicity—even well-meaning—and anything flashy that officials might be attracted to during a rescue is dangerous. Many stories like that.+

— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) July 15, 2018

Beyond the question of whether the submarines would have worked, the spat brings up more fundamental concerns about Musk’s behavior in recent months. During an earnings call for Tesla in May, Musk cut off analysts who he felt asked boring questions and turned most of the call over to a fan who praised him.

Musk has  also attacked Tesla critics, the media and individual reporters. He blocked this writer from following him on Twitter after receiving criticism of his actions.

Musk is not just a billionaire with a cult following, he is CEO of a public company in Tesla. As The Guardian reports, his recent outbursts have caused concerns among shareholders.

Musk has repeatedly come under fire for his behavior on Twitter and for Tesla’s PR strategy, under which it aggressively attacks critics and journalists. James Anderson, a partner at Baillie Gifford, Tesla’s fourth-largest shareholder, said in a recent Bloomberg interview the company needed a period of “peace and execution”, adding: “It would be good to just concentrate on the core task.”

Asked about the “pedo” tweet, Anderson told the Guardian in an email: “I intend to convey my – predictable I trust – feelings to the company tomorrow.” He declined to elaborate.

Musk had pledged to be less combative on social media, saying earlier this week: “I have made the mistaken assumption – and I will attempt to be better at this – of thinking that because somebody is on Twitter and is attacking me that it is open season. That is my mistake. I will correct it.”

Well, that didn’t age well. Baillie Gifford, by the way, owned 12.8 million shares of Tesla as of the end of March, which would be worth more than $4 billion at the current stock price.

Tesla has been struggling in recent months in trying to live up to promises Musk made about the company’s new Model 3 sedan. The company has repeatedly missed production deadlines while customers have reported serious quality control problems with their new vehicles.

Tesla is deeply in debt, with some critics predicting bankruptcy before the year is out. The company also faces an investigation into safety practices at its plant in Fremont, Calif.

  • Space Hack

    Zeynep makes a good point in her op-ed. The Silicon Valley style is starting to look a little outdated. Almost like Elon showed up to the cave wearing a polyester suit and a Jerry Curl.

  • Kirk

    Best I’ve seen so far: GoFundMe by Elon Musk: “Put the Thai kids back in the cave so I get to rescue them”

  • Goosegoose

    Ms. Tufekci’s assertion about “The Silicon Valley model for doing things” sounds EXACTLY like the model of a certain Mojave commercial (so-called) “spaceline’s” model for doing things too.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    Are Musk’s sins as bad as Papa John’s yet ? Another Tesla conference call should be just around the corner. How long does he get to stay as CEO if he loses it again ?

  • Ignacio Rockwill

    “I don’t know about you people, but I don’t wanna live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.” – Gavin Belson

  • Obediah Headstrong

    Musk can be an asshole. So what.

  • therealdmt

    Not his best day. Dude needs a vacation

  • Robert G. Oler

    onward and upward

  • Douglas Messier

    Musk’s public image has been crucial to selling his cars, solar panels, vision of a cleaner world and plans for Mars. People start seeing him as an utter asshole and he has negates his primary marketing tool, himself.

    A tech leader can survive all that — Steve Jobs, for instance — if they can deliver superb products. Unfortunately, the Model 3 isn’t one of them. Serious quality control problems.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    When you see someone’s ‘glory’ – ‘stolen’ during an event involving the lives and well being of other people, the main driver of certain aspects of the human condition become very apparent. Let’s just say if Musk really is going to found a human colony on Mars the colonists need to have their political offices and their function figured out well in advance and ask themselves what kinds of checks and balances exist. After this weekend when a friend called my attention to this, I was very thankful NASA is doing the certification for Dragon 2.

  • Jeff2Space

    I’m pretty sure that the cave diver told Musk that he can “can stick his submarine where it hurts.” before Musk escalated on Twitter. Not that Musk is in the right by escalating the dialog, but Musk didn’t fire the first shot here.

  • Douglas Messier

    The diver’s comments were harsh. Elon’s response is potentially libelous and defamatory if there is no evidence to back it up. He hasn’t presented any. If the charges are groundless, he’s got one helluva lawsuit to defend himself against.

    Journalists know where the line is between harsh and libelous. I’m not sure Elon does. That’s ironic given his tendency over the last few months to lecture the media about how to do their jobs.

    And that points to the larger issue: his frequent meltdowns lately. In Elon’s case, the brand is the man and the man is the brand. Iron Man is beginning to rust in the constant rain of bad press over Tesla. If Musk fails to turn around both, the outcome will be very serious.

  • Robert G. Oler

    in arguments like this it is not who fires the first shot that loses, it is the one that fires the dumb one. Elon seem to do just that

  • Paul_Scutts

    When I first heard of Musk’s offer, my immediate thought was that it sounded a really dumb idea. Dumb, not from the technology perspective, of which I knew nothing, but, because in situations such as this, don’t complicate matters when the old tried and true diving method would do. And, fortunately, it did, all were successfully rescued and that is what should only matter. Time for everyone to move on.

  • Search

    Above a certain level people shouldn’t be tweeting anyway its stupid. CEOs, Presidents, Leader of the Houses of Congress, SCOTUS…You aren’t in school among friends where the whole stream of instant opinions and commentary might be appropriate. Careers, lives, and the invested money of millions is at stake. You can always have your media folks tweet out your opinions after you’ve had 1hr to cool off.

  • Search

    So what? What are you 10? People have invested in his company that’s what for starters. Another of his companies is now a major US space launch player with 1000s of engineers careers at stake that’s what. Look up “decorum” or “candor” or “judgement” that’s what. Get it yet troll?

  • Aerospike

    Could we just end it please?
    I’m sick of reading this stuff here. It belongs to a gossip/society blog, not on a page dedicated to covering developments and activities in the space sector. While the subtitle might be “space tourism & much more” I feel that covering the eccentric behaviors of a few billionaires in details is stretching the “and much more” part a bit too far.

    Musk definitely should cut down on his twitter time, especially when he is under stress and also learn how to better deal with criticism.

    But likewise I feel like parabolic arc should focus more on issues directly related to space.

  • Aerospike

    For what it’s worth: Tony Stark used to be an utter asshole before becoming Iron Man 😉

  • mlc449

    Libelling someone is a serious matter.

  • mlc449

    What an imbecile! And even more shockingly stupid are his cult-like followers actually doubling-down on this outrageous claim by asking critics “prove Musk’s claim is NOT true”! Wha?!

    Seriously Muskovites, just…..stop.

    And the same to Trump’s increasingly dwindling band of crazy followers.

  • Jeff2Space

    Agreed, just pointing out that the cave diver isn’t a saint. Musk should be smarter about what he Tweets.

  • Jeff2Space

    I agree, but I find it curious that many articles omit the diver’s harsh statement which completely removes the context of Musk’s admittedly potentially libelous statement.

    For example, when Buzz Aldrin punched that guy on the street, it was kind of important to report that the guy was a moon landing denier who had been harassing Buzz. The context of the situation is significant.

  • Robert G. Oler

    yes…but the diver is the “diver” Musk is Musk, meaning we know his name…never argue with someone who is less known then you 🙂

  • Steve Ksiazek

    But that Tony Stark was still a self-absorbed a-hole who thought he could solve the worlds problems on his own. That is what brought about Ultron. He may think he’s the leader of the Avengers, but all they really need is his money. He really doesn’t play well as part of a team.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Innovative industrialists never do, which is why they are so successful in generating techincal and economic progress. Once Henry Ford’s son surprised him with a prototype to replace the Model T. Old Henry responded by taking a sledge hammer to it and smashing it to scrap. And he hated the press as most industrialists of that era did and you could just imagine how he would have used twitter if it was available.

  • “Vacation” was my thought exactly. Seems like the Model 3 deathmarch has fried him pretty well.

  • windbourne

    exactly right.
    One problem is that if he does not take one soon, he could put himself over an edge where it takes months/ years to come back.

  • windbourne

    I am a huge fan of Musk. However, even more so, a fan of NASA for their checks. I trust SX to do the right things, but, they can still make mistakes. NASA is a great check esp on the human systems. That is also why I want to see NASA vet the private space stations.

  • windbourne

    Model 3 has had some QA issues up front. They are getting better, and more importantly, even this weekend, we see reviewers changing their reviews.

    the only ones really blasting it, are the shorters.
    Even yesterday, a guy that was ripping on Musk turned out to have a LOT of $ on shorting Tesla.

  • windbourne

    I would have to say that he went over the edge on that.
    The diver was a jerk, but, applying that phrase to the guy, well, if there was nothing to tie him to being a pedo, then musk is likely in for some large waves.
    And unlike the Tesla ones, these will be his own makings.

  • windbourne

    lol. he will remain for at least a year.

  • windbourne


  • Douglas Messier

    This is actually news, unpleasant though it might be. I really don’t like writing about charges of pedophilia.

    Musk’s meltdowns have gotten worse and there are concerns about his stability and ability to continue to lead Tesla. Although his outbursts have been about Tesla, but he is also head of SpaceX. So, it is news.

    Beyond that, Tesla is in a crucial state. It may get through its current crisis. Or it might go bankrupt in the coming months.

    A lot of Musk’s net worth is tied up in Tesla. He’s also heavily leveraged against his holdings. Both he and SpaceX purchased millions in SolarCity bonds, whose debt was folded into Tesla when it was acquired.

    So, the fate of Tesla could have a significant impact on Musk and SpaceX. If Musk’s net worth craters, then he won’t have much money to plow into BFR and his Mars plans.

  • windbourne

    Yes, the diver was a jerk.
    BUT, there was NOTHING there that warranted what musk said UNLESS there was some proof.

    the difference with Buzz, is that the 2 were together and the other guy was in his face. Totally within his rights, in my book.
    But, Libel really is a case of the pen being mightier than the sword.
    Calling somebody a pedophile is pretty wicked.
    For Musk sake, I have to say that I HOPE that he had some reason for his labeling him. Otherwise, this is not going to be pretty for Musk.

  • Obediah Headstrong

    Musk, Bezos, Henry Ford and even Edison for that matter, are or where real assholes at times. All men with at least a tinge of sociopathic behavior as part of their personality. It is what made and makes them tick. Did it make any difference then, them not being saints? No. Will it now? No.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    They need each other. Without the dynamic private sector, NASA movies like a turtle, and will tie their hands so tight in the name of safety, they’ll make a system unsafe. That was Shuttle in a nutshell. Space X would go totally cowboy and things would move fast but people would die. Maybe even a lot of people. Put NASA and SX together and you get a better compromise. But it is a compromise, and that comes with problems all its own.

  • Douglas Messier

    The QA issues are more serious and widespread than that.