The rocket is 10 storeys tall. As we watch, it ignites and rises slowly skyward on a tongue of flame. A few hundred metres into the air it stops and slowly descends again, landing gracefully on the same launchpad it just left. Elon Musk smiles ecstatically at his audience, like a proud father at the birth of a child. “You’re the first people to see this video,” he tells us.
The largest hall at the South by South West Interactive conference is filled to capacity with technologists and entrepreneurs, all of them entranced by this soft spoken, almost diffident man who has already transformed three industries — online commerce, cars and space travel — by the age of 41. The rocket in the video is a product of SpaceX, the company Musk founded and currently runs. One of its spacecraft, Dragon, recently made history by being the first privately owned space vehicle to dock with the International Space Station. Earlier in the interview, Musk confides the incredible anxiety he suffers whenever they launch a new rocket.
For Musk, the key to economically sustainable space travel is reusability — hence the rocket that can both take off and land. “The cost of the fuel on a Falcon (rocket) is 0,3% of the rocket itself,” he explains.
And this is about more than just servicing satellites and space stations. Musk’s true ambition is to get humans to Mars in his lifetime. He recalls being dismayed when he visited the Nasa website looking for information about missions to Mars. He could not find any, and his disappointment was an important catalyst in the founding of SpaceX.
What kind of man founds a space exploration company in the 21st century, when even Nasa itself has stopped launching people into orbit? The same kind of man that starts a company that makes high-performance electric cars. The same kind of man who co-founds PayPal when everyone thinks accepting credit-card payments on the Internet is a ridiculous pipe dream.
It’s clear that Musk cares deeply about his companies, and about making a positive contribution to humanity. “I didn’t go into the space, car or solar industries because I thought I could make a risked adjusted return. I went into them because they were areas in which I wanted to make a difference.”
This sentiment is more than just talk. During the interview, Musk reveals that his entire US$2,4bn fortune is completely invested in his companies. “Between SpaceX, Tesla and Solar City it’s all in. That wasn’t the plan,” he concludes ruefully, getting a big laugh from the audience.
Throughout his interview, I am struck by how South African he still sounds, although he has not lived in the country for more than 20 years. His soft accent is distinctive of English-speaking Pretorians.
What he seems to lack completely is the deep sense of cultural cringe that afflicts so many of us. He may be modest and refreshingly matter of fact, but there’s no sense of apologising for his talent or his ambition. He talks passionately about his love for his adoptive country: “The US is a nation of explorers — it’s a distillation of the spirit of exploration.”
This is a man who has transformed the world around him as much as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Mark Shuttleworth, and yet relatively few South Africans have heard of him.
In some ways, it is inevitable that we would lose a pioneer like Musk to the country that has specialised in welcoming them from around the globe for the last two centuries. But we should mourn that we could not offer someone like Musk more opportunities. And at the very least we should do more to celebrate him as one of our own. — (c) 2013 Mail & Guardian
- Alistair Fairweather is GM for digital operations at the Mail & Guardian
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