A Kiwi and a Black Swan Walk into a Rocket Factory . . .
"He's so audacious, it seems limitless."
As a child, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, was an avid reader. At elementary school in South Africa, he worked his way through all the books in the school library and had to resort to reading the encyclopedia. "I read everything I could get my hands on, from when I woke up to when I went to sleep," he said. Musk learned to appreciate the art of storytelling.
Among the books he devoured were a few about Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph and the practical light bulb. Musk would come to admire him as a role model who set an example for how to turn flights of fancy into workable technologies that transformed society-all while making a profit.
Edison knew that the commercial viability of his inventions depended on his ability to garner support from the public and investors. By contrast, Nikola Tesla, arguably a more talented inventor, frequently found himself short of funds and subsequently saw his brilliant creations founder in the marketplace. Like Musk more than a century later, Edison would woo the public and investors with audacious claims about the transformative powers of his technologies. In 1878, he promised a reporter from The New York Sun that his just-conceived incandescent bulbs would, with the help of up to twenty dynamos powered by a 500-horsepower steam engine, light up the entire lower part of New York City in just a few weeks. His electric light would replace gas lights, Edison predicted, and the wires that carried the light would also be used to transport power and heat.
The electric power would run an elevator, sewing machines-anything with a motor-and the heat would cook food and provide warmth in winter. This fantastic electric network, in other words, would facilitate nothing less than the creation of a new world. "It was an incredibly wild boast bordering on fantasy, yet the paper took it seriously," wrote Maury Klein in The Power Makers. "If nothing else, it made good copy."
Edison failed to mention that his bulbs at that point could burn for only a few hours and that the electrical infrastructure needed for them to work at scale was as yet undeveloped. It took another two years for him to discover that a carbonized bamboo filament could burn for more than a thousand hours. What mattered most for the promise, however, was the story.
Today, Musk makes wild claims about a radically advanced future. Electric vehicles will replace all other cars on the road, he says. The sun will provide most of the world's power. By 2060, there could be a million people living on Mars, which would in turn create a "strong economic forcing function" to improve space travel, leading almost certainly to the colonization of the rest of the solar system. Musk's conception of the future is like something out of an Isaac Asimov novel. However, now that his companies have made reusable rockets that can land themselves on the launch pad and have created award-winning electric sedans that can outperform million-dollar supercars, the papers take him seriously. If nothing else, it makes good copy.
Like Edison, too, Musk is willing to combat opponents who would undermine his vision. During a public relations crusade to discredit alternating current, a form of electric power that posed a commercial threat to his preferred direct current, Edison went so far as to support the use of the electric chair for executing criminals who had been sentenced to death, paying an engineer to use alternating current for the task. Musk's arguments against competing technologies have been less ruthless, but he has nevertheless proven willing to disparage rivals, as evidenced by his dismissal of the hydrogen fuel cells favored by Toyota as "fool cells."
Musk's combative streak was also on display in February 2013 when the New York Times reporter John Broder wrote a withering review of the Tesla Model S after it ran out of energy during a winter road trip from Washington, DC, to Milford, Connecticut. Broder was testing Tesla's new high-speed charging technology, Superchargers, on the route. Unfamiliar with the technology and faced with what he claimed was conflicting advice from Tesla officials, Broder charged the car insufficiently and failed to make it to his destination. His ensuing write-up featured a photo of the Model S on a flatbed pickup truck. The piece ran under the headline stalled out on tesla's electric highway.
Musk reacted furiously. He would later claim that the negative review cost the company about $100 million in value, including hundreds of canceled orders. To counter the bad press, he wrote a blog post that referred to data logs showing how fast Broder had driven, how long he charged at each stop, and to what extent he had tinkered with the climate control settings. Musk accused Broder of sabotaging the test drive so he could tell a salacious story-but it was a misdemeanor Musk wasn't entirely innocent of himself.
As a reporter working for a technology news site called PandoDaily, I was unimpressed with the way Musk handled the response to Broder's story. The crux of the critique I wrote was encapsulated in the headline: elon musk should stop whining and let his data do the talking.
Despite my critical reaction, I was becoming more and more fascinated by Musk. I had first encountered him when my then boss, Sarah Lacy, interviewed him for the PandoMonthly speaker series. I was in China on a reporting trip at the time, but I watched the video online. Musk distinguished himself from previous guests with his scale of ambition and willingness to take on hard problems. The sectors he had chosen to enter-space, automotive, and, through his founding investment in SolarCity, energy-were as far removed as possible from Silicon Valley's frivolities du jour, such as photo-sharing apps or games like Flappy Bird. Each came with its own entrenched, politically connected, and deep-pocketed incumbents; each demanded intestine-inverting amounts of capital for even peripheral participation; and each was in desperate need of modernization.
Asked by Lacy if he would ever again start an Internet company, Musk gave a response that was both understated and radical. "I'm trying to allocate my efforts to that which I think would most affect the future of humanity in a positive way," he offered. "There's lots of entrepreneurial energy and financing heading towards the Internet, whereas in certain sectors like automotive and solar and space, you don't see new entrants." That's a problem, he said, because it's new entrants more than anything else that drive innovation.
Not long after Musk's takedown of Broder, I attended a talk at the South by Southwest technology conference given by Astro Teller, head of Google's think-big department, Google X, which had produced the company's self-driving cars and its Wi-Fi weather balloons. "Elon Musk is a national treasure," Teller told the audience. He suggested that Musk isn't the smartest man in the world, but that he has the creativity and courage to try things that others regard as too far out. "He's like a walking moonshot," said Teller. "He's so audacious, it seems limitless."
Musk was enjoying a hot streak. In May 2012, SpaceX became the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. At only ten years old, it had enjoyed a steady four-year run of success, launching satellites and cargo into orbit for a fraction of the cost of its competitors. It was profitable, too, worth about $2 billion. In November 2012, Motor Trend magazine announced that the Tesla Model S had won its 2013 Car of the Year award-the first unanimous winner in the magazine's history-emphatically legitimizing the electric car company. The next month, SolarCity, for which Musk served as chairman of the board, had a successful debut on the public market, its stock ending the day at 47 percent above its initial offering price. Tesla's stock also surged over the course of 2012, doubling in price since its 2010 initial public offering to hit more than thirty dollars a share and a market capitalization of $4 billion.
Just four years earlier, both Tesla and SpaceX had been on the verge of bankruptcy, the former struggling to weather the economic crisis, the latter having seen its first three launch attempts end in shrapnel. To cap it off, Musk was going through a divorce with his first wife, Justine Wilson. Musk's audacity looked like it would be rewarded only with ignominy. Now, though, he seemed unstoppable.
At the time, the tech media were in search of a successor to Steve Jobs, whose death in October 2011 had left a vacuum. The industry was bereft of a star, a visionary leader who could inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs and drive sales of magazines whose covers carried his or her visage. Here, perhaps, was a man who could take up the mantle. Musk's approach contrasted sharply with many of his contemporaries-including Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, and Yahoo!'s Marissa Mayer-who were wrapped up in more earthly enterprises, chasing advertising and retail dollars rather than trying to nudge the needle of history. Musk was more akin to Henry Ford, who pioneered mass manufacturing of automobiles, or Howard Hughes, the filmmaker and aviation innovator, or, indeed, Edison, whose commercially viable inventions ushered in a new era of prosperity.
In August 2013, when Musk released the plans for "a fifth mode of transport" that he said would zip people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in thirty minutes, his fame reached a new level. The so-called "Hyperloop" hit the headlines of the national news broadcasts, which hailed it as a high-tech thrill ride that could change the way we think about public transport. Musk wasn't promising to build the Hyperloop himself-he was merely publishing the plans so that some enterprising souls with more time on their hands might attempt to make it a reality. The skeptics were quick to question whether the designs were feasible, technically or economically or politically. No matter. Musk had taken another step from eccentric CEO to fledgling folk hero.
I focused my ensuing write-up on Musk's planetary-scale thinking. While America was still in search of "the next Steve Jobs," here was someone who was already operating on a different plane of purpose. Musk's methods could spur other entrepreneurs and inspire future generations of innovators. These contributions, coupled with his companies' extraordinary goals, were more meaningful than developing beautiful computing devices. I still feel that way.
I shouldn't have merely contrasted him to Jobs. I should have compared him to Edison. Like Musk, the self-taught Edison credited books as the source of much of his knowledge. Like Musk, Edison was a workaholic, devoting most of his waking hours to his laboratory. Like Musk, Edison dreamed up grand visions and communicated them in such a way as to inspire wonder. Like Musk, Edison accelerated a technological revolution. Edison's was electric light; Musk's was electric cars.
I was working out of my spare bedroom in Baltimore at the time. My life consisted of waking up every morning, wondering what I was going to write, and then, after a flurry of phone calls and interviews, pounding out two stories a day for PandoDaily's website. I often didn't shower until dinnertime. And then, a day after my piece hailing Musk's audacity ran, a publisher proposed I write a book about the man I had said was more important than Steve Jobs. I was flattered but didn't want to get too excited. I knew immediately that the biggest challenge would be getting Musk to cooperate in such a venture.
In doing the initial research, I called some of Musk's friends and associates to ask them how I could maximize my chances of securing his cooperation. One of his friends told me he was close with his mother, Maye, and that I should try to reach her. I found that Maye Musk had a website to promote her services as a model and nutritionist, and she listed her e-mail address. I wrote to her and asked if she'd be willing to have a conversation about the best way to approach her son to discuss the book. She wrote back promptly and said she'd check with Elon.
Musk's assistant reached out to me. Maye had forwarded my e-mail to Elon and he wanted to talk. Four months earlier, a public relations woman at SpaceX had told me that Musk liked a story I had written about a tech lobby group called FWD.us that had been bankrolled by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. I didn't think that necessarily meant much. But in early September, Musk called me at my apartment and surprised me by saying he thought my writing was "awesome" and "insightful." He didn't have time to work on a book with me, and he was planning to write his own, but he asked if I would be interested in working "at a place like Tesla." He had been looking for a communications leader and found that he had an "allergic reaction" to most public relations people. At first, the idea seemed absurd. But I did think that, if we met in person, I might be able to convince Musk to participate in the book project. "I'd be reluctant to leave journalism," I told him.
I paid for my own flights to Los Angeles so I could meet him at the SpaceX headquarters on October 17, 2013. I showed up in the lobby wearing a blue plaid shirt and jeans and carrying with me an orange backpack. Our meeting was scheduled for 1:00 p.m., but Musk was late. Eventually, his assistant emerged through double glass doors and said he was stuck in a meeting but I could wait at his desk, which was in a corner near the lobby.
Chest-high partitions separated Musk's corner from the rest of the office, and the desk faced a window through which I could see the front parking lot, a hedge, and the tops of cars rushing by on a busy multilane commuter road. A large Apple monitor sat on the desktop alongside a hardcover copy of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins's An Appetite for Wonder, a pair of aviators, a folded wad of bills, a Tesla Model S key fob, and a neat stack of documents, one of which appeared to show a mock-up of a space suit that didn't look too far removed from the superhero costume worn by Robert Downey Jr. in the Iron Man movies. In a frame mounted on one of the partitions was a certificate from the Dutch Party for the Animals, recognizing the entrepreneur for his plans to establish a vegetarian colony on Mars.
I'd been sitting there for ten minutes when Musk, who's six foot two, walked in and clasped my puny hand in an all-encompassing grip. "Hi, Hamish." He seemed in high spirits, having just emerged from a discussion with his engineers about how to make SpaceX's next rocket reusable. "Is it going to work?" I asked, expecting a pat answer. He then dove into a detailed explanation about how complicated it is to smooth the wobble of a cylinder that is reentering Earth's atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. He spoke in a soft South African accent that had been hybridized over the course of twenty-five years in North America. While his vowels remained flat and long, he would roll his r's on words like motor and car to make himself understandable to Americans, a linguistic trick to which I was highly attuned because, as a New Zealander, I did it myself. He was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt over a black crew-neck T-shirt. He had dark, sleepy eyes and a mouth that turned down at the sides but easily broke into a thin-lipped smile. Then, leaning back in his office chair, he turned to business.
Copyright © 2017 by Hamish McKenzie. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.