The Rocketman

By Grayson ClaryJune 12, 2015

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

IN THE LATE 1940s, Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun wrote two books. One was The Mars Project, a groundbreaking essay that librarian Annie Platoff identified in a 2001 NASA publication as “the first serious work to demonstrate the technological feasibility of human missions to Mars.” The other, confusingly enough, von Braun called Project Mars: A Technical Tale. A dense science fiction novel, it sat unpublished for 60 years but is modestly popular today on Reddit. At least, its 177th page is popular on Reddit; it introduces an especially prescient chapter entitled “How Mars is Governed.” “The Martian government was directed by ten men,” von Braun imagined there, “the leader of whom was elected by universal suffrage for five years and entitled ‘Elon.’”

A sense of incredible destiny surrounds inventor Elon Musk, the public face of the private space industry, but come on. Reading that unlikely page, I wanted to throw my baffled hands up — a worshipful reflex, like a Catholic crossing himself in panic. Across a divide of six decades, von Braun’s governor of Mars shares a name with the entrepreneur most determined to colonize it. It would be a laughable hoax if it weren’t, as far as I can tell, entirely real: a half-terrifying coincidence, or else a one-time alignment of the stars.

“Elon Musk” must be Martian for “unlikely and unstoppable.” Certainly that’s the impression left by Ashlee Vance’s powerful new biography, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. As Vance describes it, it’s a quest “far more fantastic and consuming than anything most of us will ever experience.” Musk is (you’ll kick yourself) only 43 years old. His birthday is later this month if you want to send a card. But already he runs a rocket program more advanced than those of most governments, Space Exploration Technologies, much better known as SpaceX. He’s the will behind Tesla Motors, a company reshaping the auto industry and the US energy economy. And he stands astride history yelling — with prophetic intensity — “Hurry the fuck up already.”

I’d apologize for the profanity, but, as Vance warns, “There’s going to be a lot of ‘fuck’ in this book. Musk adores the word, and so do most of the people in his inner circle.” The blue streak reads like an amped riff on the Facebook ethos, “Move fast and break shit,” the same way Musk seems to intensify everything he touches (the volume control on Tesla’s Model S literally goes to 11). Can you blame the SpaceX team? It takes a little blasphemy and a lot of energy to get from here to Mars. President and COO Gwynne Shotwell gives Vance the best version of that vision, its challenge to cynics and critics: “If you hate people and think human extinction is okay, then fuck it. Don’t go to space.” 

Written with Musk’s cooperation, Vance’s book is the most intimate portrait yet of a subject who, even in this careful account, looms superhuman. It’s something of an origin story: the transformation of a South African boy, bullied and beaten, into the billionaire industrialist who inspired Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. It’s also a conversion narrative. Vance admits in his introduction that he was a doubter: “[Musk’s] the guy with the electric cars, solar panels, and rockets, peddling false hope.” You can tell, at turns, that a version of Vance wanted this to be the story of a long con — to find that Musk’s pitch is snake oil, the only active ingredient an unreasonable run of good luck. But a different writer finished the book. In the end Vance seems closer to the judgment of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who tells him, “To the extent that the world still doubts Elon, I think it’s a reflection on the insanity of the world and not on the supposed insanity of Elon.” 

In between one opinion and the other is an exceptional work of corporate and personal history. After an unhappy childhood, after an improvised immigration to Canada, after early success in Silicon Valley, Musk’s life kicks into breakneck gear. Vance traces with a sure hand the arc of the firms that have made Musk famous: PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla, and to a smaller extent SolarCity. It’s an improbably successful trajectory that Musk says he’s had in mind since his college days, in the early 1990s. “He viewed the Internet, renewable energy, and space as the three areas that would undergo significant change in the years to come,” Vance says, “and as the markets where he could make a big impact.” 

He has, whether you believe the foresight narrative or not. SpaceX owns a fistful of aerospace firsts, including first private spacecraft to rendezvous with the International Space Station. Vance makes a forceful and patriotic case for the firm’s broader importance: “Outside of SpaceX, the American launch providers are no longer competitive against their peers in other countries.” Bullish, he suggests, “It would not take much to argue that SpaceX is America’s only hope of competing against China in the next couple of decades.” And Tesla’s success with electric vehicles has been just as radical. In 2013, Vance notes, “Consumer Reports gave the Model S its highest car rating in history — 99 out of 100 — while proclaiming that it was likely the best car ever built.”

What about in the years ahead? For Vance’s projection, hold onto your seats:

By 2025 Tesla could very well have a lineup of five or six cars and be the dominant force in a booming electric car market. Playing off its current growth rate, SolarCity will have had time to emerge as a massive utility company and the leader in a solar market that had finally lived up to its promise […] According to Musk’s calculations, SpaceX should be conducting weekly flights to space, carrying humans and cargo, and have put most of its competitors out of business.

Well, wow. Arriving at the close of the book, this kind of talk will split readers into two camps: the already-convinced and the never-will-be. Musk inspires strong opinions out of all proportion to his presence in anyone’s daily life. He’s not exactly an inventor whose products are ubiquitous; Teslas are still fairly niche vehicles, and most of us don’t contract with commercial launch firms. But damn if Musk doesn’t get some people riled up. Biologist and Scientific American blogger DNLee tweeted in response to his recent appearance on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk, “This Elon Musk’s Mission to Mars to save Humanity sermon is White Colonialism Interstellar Manifest Destiny Bullshit.” 

In a strange way the antagonism grants his impact, an acknowledgment hard won after years of skepticism. The polarity of Musk’s celebrity seems to have shifted in the last few years — quixotic to heroic, voice-in-the-wilderness to savior-in-time-of-need. Vance holds up Musk’s proposed Hyperloop, a speculative new transportation technology, as a key tipping point. “The depth to which people believed [he could implement it],” Vance suggests, “surprised Musk and forced him to commit to the prototype.” His image pulled him in its wake: “In a weird life-imitating-art moment, Musk really had become the closest thing the world had to Tony Stark, and he could not let his adoring public down.” 

It’s not that earlier cynicism was unwarranted. For a long while, Vance points out, “Tesla had looked like an utter disaster incapable of doing much of anything right.” The rockets suffered early setbacks too. Vance notes, “It took SpaceX so much longer than it had planned to have a successful flight. The failures along the way were embarrassing and bad for business.” But following the book’s narrative, there’s no dodging the sense that it was all inevitably going to come good. Both companies seem driven almost to the point of insanity by the attitude often attributed to the US Army Corps of Engineers: “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.” Google co-founder Larry Page tells Vance, “We think of SpaceX and Tesla as being these tremendously risky things, but I think Elon was going to make them work no matter what.” 

All this makes for a compelling, even definitive record of what Musk has done to date. It adds up to a more subtle and ambivalent account of who he is. One of the books great strengths in this respect is its choral quality. Vance has secured just about every perspective you might have thought to solicit: friends and enemies, rivals and peers, wives and intimates. Everyone gets a stab at pinning down Musk’s identity, and the book is full of efforts to find the right analogy: Tony Stark, Bill Gates, Howard Hughes, Steve Jobs. “But the more you know about Musk,” Vance cautions, “the harder it becomes to place him among his peers.” He’s right. The deeper you work your way into the book, the less traction the analogies have. He is, after all, his own human being. But what kind?

Vance has a good eye here for what Virginia Woolf called “the fertile fact,” the especially suggestive biographical detail. Some of the productive leitmotifs in the book are family, gaming, and most of all food. We often catch Musk eating. Fried lobster, cotton candy, ice cream: all figure in the first five pages. Aren’t we most vulnerable when we crave? So hunger is a key piece of Vance’s reading, a suggestion that Musk is less afraid than the rest of us to desire openly. It’s also part of an introduction to Musk’s physicality, a way of grounding the rocketman before he lifts off into mythic territory. But even in these passages you can see Elon Musk, icon, taking over. “Musk stands six foot one,” Vance writes, “but ask anyone who knows him and they’ll confirm that he seems much bigger than that.” Even in the flesh, he literally stands larger than life. 

It’s hard to cut through that epic armor and get at the man underneath. Vance does the best job of anyone who has tried. Meticulous, warm, surprising, his book has the feeling — as well it should — of a grand story still unspooling. I wonder if even Musk feels fully in command of where it will go next. Then again, no one has won much betting against his vision. “I would like to die on Mars,” he says, “just not on impact.” In one classic statement of hero-worship, John Buchan once wrote that he’d have followed T. E. Lawrence over the edge of the world. Someday, a Musk biographer will likely have to.


Grayson Clary lives and works in Washington, DC.

LARB Contributor

Grayson Clary lives and works in Washington, DC.


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