ELON MUSK: MAN ON A MISSION
Astounding wealth, endless success, international fame, we're sure they're all important to the 80th richest man in the world, with a net worth of $14 billion.
But Elon Musk isn't consumed with wealth or power. In fact, what interests him most is colonising Mars, to save us all from a robot apocalypse.
Yes, this sounds incredible, insane even, but Mr Musk's plans are taking shape and he's got no other than NASA as his willing wing-man.
But why stop there? What if you could shoot from New York to Washington in an underground vacuum in under 30 minutes? What if there was a human inhabited base on the moon or even a self-sustaining city on Mars?
Thinking big has helped mankind reach incredible heights and when towering ambition meets staggering wealth and influence unbelievable things can happen.
Sorry Zuckerberg, but Elon Musk is easily our favourite billionaire. Here are just a few reasons why.
MAKING MARS OURS
(Image: Artist's concept of humans working on Mars. Image credit NASA Johnson Space Center)
The Red Planet could one day be a destination of choice and possibly much sooner than you think. In 2002 Elon Musk used $100m of his early personal fortune to found the American aerospace manufacturer SpaceX. By 2022 he hopes to be running manned missions to Mars. That's an incredible trajectory by anyone's standards.
Now you're probably thinking ‘impossible' ‘never going to happen' and ‘what about the skyrocketing costs?'. All smart and sensible proclamations. But bear with us.
STEP BACK IN TIME (& SPACE)
(Image: SpaceX Falcon series of rockets: Credit: SpaceX)
In 15 years Elon Musk has become the face of entrepreneurial space travel. Back in 2008 SpaceX's Falcon One (a cool nod to Star Wars' Millennium Falcon') became the first privately funded, liquid fuelled vehicle to put a satellite into Earth's orbit.
In 2012 the SpaceX Dragon (a slightly less cool nod to ‘Puff the Magic Dragon') made history by becoming the first commercial company to launch and berth a spacecraft at the International Space Station (ISS).
ONE ASTRONOMICAL PARTNER
(Image: International Space Station)
Even before this period, the company secured lucrative contracts with reigning space explorers supreme, NASA, encouraging SpaceX to continue to develop their Falcon ‘launch vehicles' and Dragon ‘multipurpose spacecraft' programmes, ultimately providing 12 flights of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon Spacecraft to the international space station.
In 2015 SpaceX went one step further than even NASA by successfully landing the first stage of its orbital rocket back at its launch pad – the first time in history this feat was achieved. But this accomplishment is much more than a nifty space manoeuvre.
The problem with Rockets is the cost and the biggest savings are to be made in making them more reusable. (Imagine how much your bus ticket would cost if you were helping to pay for a new bus each trip.)
RETURN OF THE ROCKET MAN
(Image: SpaceX Dragon capsule recovered after splashdown at the end of the CRS-5 mission in 2015. Credit SpaceX)
Reusability is the key to getting the cost of space travel down. SpaceX were the first to nail this and have continued to do so, potentially heralding the start of a new dawn for space travel and possibly even the future of mankind itself.
SpaceX are now turning their attention to astronaut transport, securing further NASA contracts to develop space transportation of commercial crew, an arena previously dominated by the Soviet Union's Soyux programme.
In a short time span, SpaceX has changed the space industry – probably the planet's most specialist and advanced sector. The company is now both the largest private producer of rocket engines in the world and the current holder of the record for the highest rocket thrust-to-weight ratio ever achieved. All clear evidence that Elon Musk's Mars ambitions should be taken seriously.
ONE SMALL STEP TOWARDS SAVING HUMANITY
(Image: A small selection of just some of our planet's most likely 'doomsday' scenarios)
Spoiler alert – one day in the (hopefully) far distant future planet Earth will cease to exist at the hands of any number of doomsday scenarios. (A high-energy solar flare, asteroid impact, expanding sun, local gamma ray burst, nearby supernova, cosmic collisions, super volcano explosion, engineered viruses, atomic bombs - take your pick).
Elon Musk, along with pre-eminent theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, is also cautious about the advancement of Artificial Intelligence, now expected to surpass human skills on all tasks by 2060.
He's even referred to A.I as “the biggest threat we face as a civilisation” citing his closeness to the technology as a reason for his fears:
“I have exposure to the most cutting-edge A.I and people should be really concerned by it. A.I is a rare case where I think we need to be proactive in regulation [rather] than be reactive.”
Sounds like the multi-billion-dollar magnate is keen to ensure human welfare is put above profit when it comes to possible dangers of advanced artificial intelligence, a technology that some believe could pose a threat to our very existence.
A GLIMMER OF HOPE
(Image: Artist's impression of Mars colonisation)
But it's not necessarily all doom and gloom. The catastrophes listed above could spell the end of mankind. That is, unless we preserve our species by finding a second home outside of Earth, or at least another rock to cling to until we do.
It is this global predicament – not bank balances and share prices – that appears to keep Elon Musk up at night. Multi-planetary life could serve as a genuine safeguard against threats to our survival or as Elon Musk states:
“There are two fundamental paths facing humanity today. One is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event. The alternative is becoming a spacefaring civilisation and a multi-planetary species.”
He also stated the problem in another, more succinct, but brilliant way.
“We have seven billion people on Earth and none on Mars.”
(Image: SpaceX Falcon 9 launch)
Last year Elon Musk outlined a proposed multi-stage space launch and transport system at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. Musk's plans include using a much larger version of the Falcon 9 reusable booster coupled with a “interplanetary module” to carry around 100 passengers.
Similar modules, also launched using reusable boosters, would remain in Earth's orbit to refuel interplanetary spacecraft, enabling multiple journeys to and from that base. Musk also outlined how fuel could even by synthesized from the carbon dioxide and frozen ice on Mars to power return trips back to Earth.
Exciting stuff eh? But one thing threatens to eclipse Musk's plans: Cost. When asked how much it would cost to send someone to Mars Musk's reply was a somewhat sobering “$10bn per person”.
‘VENNS' IT GOING TO HAPPEN?
So, it's safe to say that manned missions to Mars are far from a done deal. But a man like Elon Musk isn't going to let a little thing like money stand in his way.
He's been thinking of a solution to skyrocketing costs and he's developing three funding streams that simply read ‘kick-starter' ‘profit' and more intriguingly ‘steal underpants' (A jokey reference to Southpark's gnomes business plan)
On a more serious note, part of Musk's mission isn't just to raise funds, it's to reduce the gap between those who ‘can afford to go to Mars' with those ‘who want to go to Mars. Once there's convergence, there's a market. These simple venn diagrams taken from Musk's ‘New Space' commentary report illustrates the point perfectly.
Elon Musk explains:
“You cannot create a self-sustaining civilisation [on Mars] if the ticket price is $10bn per person. What we need to do is move those circles together.
"If we can get the cost of moving to Mars to be roughly equivalent to a median house price in the United States, which is around $200,000 then I think the probability of establishing a self-sustaining civilisation [on Mars] is very high. I think it would almost certainly occur.”
WHAT ELSE IS STANDING IN OUR WAY?
Elon Musk understands that to make trips to Mars actually happen SpaceX need to figure out a way to get costs down by about ‘five million percent' or roughly ‘four and a half orders of magnitude'. Impossible? Perhaps, but so was walking on the Moon.
The key elements that need to happen have been identified as full reusability of spacecraft, ability to refill fuel in orbit, propellant production on Mars and choosing the right propellant. Sounds like a plan to me, or at least the makings of one.
The first step in smashing barriers is identifying them. Furthermore, Elon Musk is fully committed to realising his dream and more than ready to put his own money where his mouth is:
“The reason I am personally accruing assets is to fund this. I really have no other purpose than to make life interplanetary”.
FAIL FAST BUT KEEP GOING
(Image: Unfortunate SpaceX 2016 rocket explosion)
Nothing worth doing is easy and SpaceX has suffered several setbacks over the years, including engulfing their flagship spacecraft in a massive fireball during a pre-launch test in 2016, blowing up its $85m Facebook satellite cargo in the process and presumably changing Mark Zuckerberg's status to ‘sad'.
But Musk's fail fast ethos comes in complete contrast to the more cautious but sluggish bureaucracy of most government funded space programmes. The South African entrepreneur famously explained his theory on failure to an interviewer back in 2005.
“There's a silly notion that failure's not an option at NASA. Failure is an option here [at SpaceX]. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough”.
USING THE MOON TO MOTIVATE PEOPLE
(Image: Artist's Impression of a manned base on the Moon)
Missteps and cost barriers aside, there's a wider issue affecting the advancement of space travel – apathy. The moon landing of 1969 was a defining moment in human history. NASA has achieved much more since, but nothing has quite captured up the public's imagination in the same way as Neil Armstrong's hypnotic, slow-mo steps on the Moon's heavily cratered surface.
But Elon Musk has a plan straight out of Moonraker's playbook, recently stating: “If you want to get the public fired up, you've got to put a base on the moon” adding that it would be the “continuance to the dream” of the Apollo missions.
Musk's Moon vision also affords other business ventures such as using satellites to provide low-cost internet to rural areas, observing crops to boost yields and monitoring our climate to warn of impending natural disasters.
You can shove your ocean view cruises or fantasy island get-aways, no view could ever be more stunning than the awesome spectre of planet Earth, in all its glory, viewed from your own little bunker on the Moon.
BACK DOWN TO EARTH (FOR NOW)
(Image: Matt Damon, colonising Mars in Ridley Scott's 'The Martian')
Unfortunately, the Moon has about as much natural resources as it does cheese. Mars, on the other hand, is rich in resources and has plenty of other Earth like attributes.
Its days are just 30 minutes longer than Earth, it has decent sunlight and a useful atmosphere, which, when compressed, could support plant life. It also has only 37% of the gravity of Earth, so launching things, like, oh I don't know, say, rockets, could be so much easier.
Powering up Mars based launches could depend on harnessing materials trapped beneath the planet's surface. Any plan to colonise Mars would likely have to make as much use of Martian materials for general survival and building as possible. That's where digging comes in and guess who's working on a revolutionary digging project back here on Earth?
HIGH-SPEED RAIL SUCKS COMPARED TO HYPER-LOOP
Elon Musk has a plan to dig tunnels beneath Los Angeles, through a venture he named ‘The Boring Company'. The idea is that the tunnels would be used to create subsonic 700mph ‘Hyperloop' routes, initially from New York to Washington and Los Angeles to San Francisco, turning arduous three-hour journeys into breezy 30-minute commutes.
Likened to vacuum tube systems, commonly used to transfer documents or money around buildings, Elon Musk himself describes his Hyperloop or ‘very high-speed transit system' as “essentially a train that's also a cross between a Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table”. It moves away from traditional wheels and uses air bearings to support moving pods instead.
But, as ever with Elon Musk, there's more going on than first meets the eye. Musk believes that the intellectual property generated by The Boring Company's diggers might be able to inform the design of future digging machines, that could one day be used to mine for ice and minerals on Mars.
This week the futurist tycoon send his Twitter followers into a frenzy by declaring that he had received ‘verbal government approval' to build his visionary hyper-loop tunnel between four major US cities.
The ensuing internet explosion caused him to quickly follow this up with a more considered message, stating: ‘Still a lot of work needed to receive formal approval'.
In reality, Musk's Hyperloop needs more testing to clearly demonstrate it can deliver along with greater commitment from various levels of US government before it can truly reach its desired momentum. But in a world that's still debating high-speed rail, Musk is proving that he's thinking light years ahead of most transport experts.
TO WRAP THINGS UP
Back in the real world, the brilliant Tony Stark is but a fictional character but Elon Musk comes a bloody close second. The man could easily be sitting on a super-yacht, sipping cocktails with Playboy bunnies, buying small islands and casually living like a god among us.
But, fortunately for us, that's not his style. Elon Musk is using his vast wealth and influence to fight for a great cause - possibly the greatest cause – the continued survival of mankind, far beyond the confines of our fragile planet.
This real-life hero is a risk-taking, forward-thinking, planet-changing player on an (almost) intergalactic scale and he's a true inspiration to a business world that thrives on shaking things up, seeing things differently and building better now.
Billionaires of the world take note. The true measure of a man isn't in the power and wealth he amasses, it's how he uses this power and influence to leave the world a better place.
Follow Elon Musk at @elonmusk
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