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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Can Elon Musk keep his feet on the ground as he reaches for space?

The SpaceX and Tesla chief executive dreams out-of-this-world big. But in doing so, seemingly sees humans as the pesky problem in his plans

Elon Musk. Paul Warner / Getty Images
Elon Musk. Paul Warner / Getty Images

On February 6 this year, the private American aerospace company SpaceX gave us a chance to experience one of those rare moments when humanity peaks. Having mastered what was previously thought impossible – landing a rocket upright and therefore making it easier to reuse – SpaceX went even further.

After the successful launch of its heavy-lift spacecraft, Falcon Heavy, which was carrying a Tesla car and a dummy human being in the driver’s seat, dubbed “Starman”, SpaceX landed the rocket’s two boosters side by side in perfect synchronisation. The video of this feat was spellbinding and immediately went viral. It highlights the achievements of a new generation of companies making the space race a reality and SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, suddenly took on the mantle of visionary.

A still from SpaceX’s video of Starman in a Tesla car that was launched into orbit in a Falcon Heavy rocket AFP / SpaceX
A still from SpaceX’s video of Starman in a Tesla car that was launched into orbit in a Falcon Heavy rocket AFP / SpaceX

This was going to be his year. Perhaps, whispered some, even his decade. But it would soon be blighted by failures, some technological and a few self-inflicted. His Tesla car company struggled. Its fabled Gigafactory could not ramp up production of its Model 3 and Musk complained of working too hard, punishing himself by sleeping on the factory floor “not because I couldn’t go across the road and be at a hotel”, he said, but because “I wanted my circumstances to be worse than anybody else at the company. Whenever they felt pain, I wanted mine to be worse”.

Musk the visionary was turning into Musk the mystic: a mercurial man, gifted with insight that defied sense. He ran into minor controversy again when another of his ventures, The Boring Company, which has a primary purpose to advance tunnelling technology, began to sell, and would sell out, 20,000 fully functional flamethrowers on its website. Musk thought it was funny but his disruptive nature didn’t amuse investors when he later suggested he was ready to privatise Tesla.

A Tesla Model S car with driverless technology. Bloomberg 
A Tesla Model S car with driverless technology. Bloomberg 

If he was a gifted futurologist, his enthusiasm had already begun to look like it lacked a certain Earthly wisdom. He seemed to have an inability to see things from a human perspective. Nothing highlighted this more than when he offered to send a small “kid-sized submarine” to help in the cave rescue efforts in Thailand. His offer was declined on grounds of practicality.

His response? He accused at one of the students’ rescuers, who had ridiculed his idea, of being a paedophile. They were allegations he went on to repeat not once, but twice, leading the rescuer to sue him for defamation. Musk the mystic had become Musk the mystifying, a rapid fall indeed.

Tesla had already developed something of a bad reputation for responding to complaints by owners of its cars. Three people have died in two incidents involving the Tesla Model S, in addition to countless fires and minor accidents. Yet when another customer recently complained about the automated systems that crashed the car into his garage wall, Tesla released a statement reminding customers that some of the features are still in “beta”, the term used to describe software that is still being developed. In other words, Tesla seemed to be saying: what do customers expect? Perfection?

The aftermath of the crash of a Tesla Model X in Mountain View California that killed an Apple engineer when autopilot was engaged, killing the driver. AP
The aftermath of the crash of a Tesla Model X in Mountain View California that killed an Apple engineer when autopilot was engaged, killing the driver. AP

This friction between aspirations and practicality are largely indicative of a problem with the way Musk dreams big. Putting a Tesla into space, to the music of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, for his Starman project was meant to prove the lift capacity of SpaceX’s rockets, but it was much more than that. The image of the human sailing among the stars was romantic, but also, in a sense, crass. If it changed Musk from a mere tech billionaire into a force of cultural influence, was it also a symptom of a man with too much money and too little serious intent?

More crucially, it said little about the scale of the challenges we face in conquering space. Starman will have been torn to pieces inside a year under the constant bombardment of solar radiation. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Tesla might have been first among big tech companies to make the fantasy of the driverless car a reality, but it has yet to overcome (or perhaps even recognise) the inherent flaws in that technology.

Tesla Gigafactory. Reuters 
Tesla Gigafactory. Reuters 

Driverless cars cannot be driverless under most current legislation. Videos routinely appear online of people lying or sleeping in them, but Tesla demands that a driver sits with their hands on the steering wheel, their foot ready to brake. The company asks that the non-driving “driver” remains aware of the road. In other words: it makes an unrealistic demand that doesn’t appreciate what it means to be human. It promotes passivity, but there’s also a requirement that the “driver” stays alert. It poses the question: if one needs the awareness of a driver, then why not drive? Anything else is a certain recipe for somebody falling asleep at the wheel, as Google discovered early in the testing of its own driverless solution.

Musk was back in the news recently and not simply because the United States Securities and Exchange commission has launched an investigation into the collapse in Tesla’s share prices after Musk’s ill-judged Tweet that he had secured investment to privatise Tesla. The investigation ultimately led to a fine and Musk's removal as Tesla chairman (he remains as CEO). Musk has been promoting his latest project, which will see SpaceX fly a man around the Moon.

That man is Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, a 42-year-old fashion tycoon who will crew his flight with a group of artists. The mission will serve two purposes. It will be the first of Musk’s BFR (called, in polite circles, the “Big Falcon Rocket”), which is central to Musk’s bigger ambition to land men on Mars in the next decade. Yet it will also bring money into the project. Maezawa and his crew will serve a similar purpose to Starman: a commercially astute choice that serves little scientific purpose.

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Read more:

Time for petulant Elon Musk to ditch the dummy

Elon Musk mocks SEC as judge demands they justify fraud settlement

Elon Musk’s $40 million tweets do not cost Tesla much

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It is undoubtedly a shame that Musk must look to investment from the super-rich to fund his projects, but really, it might also suggest that he is still looking for a reason for those enterprises beyond simply the technological challenge. Whether “kid-sized submarines”, driverless cars, city transport, “hyperloops” (high-speed trains using magnetic levitation in vacuum-sealed tubes), or the colonisation of Mars, Musk sees the viability of big ideas, but humans sometimes appear like a troublesome detail in his plans. Musk is a man who might well be on the cusp of achieving many great things, but those achievements will be even greater if he begins not at the technology, but with the humans that technology will ultimately serve. On the basis of the past year, that appears to be Musk’s greatest challenge.