Elon Musk and humanity

An evening SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch

Recently I’ve been reading about Elon Musk, a man most easily introduced (and admired) by the qualities he shares with the fictional celebrity Iron Man/Tony Stark: he’s a billionaire, he’s a technological genius, and he has a vision of saving humanity. The first two aspects place him securely in the same league as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs; but the magnitude of his dreams sets him apart, raises him into the realm of larger-than-life.

The story alone of how he made his wealth is enough material for a fascinating biography. At age twelve, in the eighties, he programmed his own computer game and sold it to a magazine for a profit. After earning degrees in economics and physics and being admitted to Stanford University, he pursued entrepreneurship and rode the dot-com wave. The second company he founded eventually became PayPal.

PayPal was bought by eBay in 2002, and this is the point of his life I’d like to frame as the turning point. Bill Gates started and ended his career with computers and software, taking up philanthropy only in his retirement. Steve Jobs arguably went further, inventing new product categories and transforming consumer tech industries before his premature death. And Elon Musk could have continued doing similar work—after eBay bought PayPal, he could have started searching for the next Internet-enabled commercial breakthrough, the next useful, popular, satisfying product. But he had grander plans. Instead of simply creating what will benefit us here and now, he looked forward to the future, and founded SpaceX.

Over the years SpaceX garnered a lot of private-company firsts: the first non-government organization to send a vehicle in Earth orbit, the first private company to launch a satellite into geosynch orbit, the first private spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station. It’s not merely a billionaire genius’s hobby project. Musk has always said that his vision is to advance humanity’s technology to the point where we become a truly space-faring civilization; he dreams of making our species multi-planetary, not just for achievement’s sake but also out of survival concerns, noting that transmitting “consciousness” to other planets will ensure its survival when something drastic happens to our current, fragile world.

In addition to SpaceX, Musk busies himself with equally-idealistic enterprises addressing more urgent concerns. He’s CEO of Tesla Motors, an electric car and battery products company which aims to eventually sell electric cars at prices affordable for the average citizen. He also founded SolarCity, now a leading renewable energy company in the United States.

(On a personal note, it’s a delightful detail of Musk’s story that his companies are named so simply, elegantly, and sharply. Consider how SpaceX inspires an excitement for exploration that the coldness of “NASA” cannot; and Tesla Motors, by evoking the name of the inventor and electrical systems pioneer, intelligently and concisely associates its brand with the nature of its products.)

The big picture

An evening SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launching a satellite. (Public domain image.)

It’s always interesting to learn what respected technologists have to say about matters of belief. In an interview on the YouTube series Metaphysical Milkshake, Elon Musk shared that he does not worship any being, but holds a firm belief in the advancement of humanity through technology. He said that he does not pray, and did not even pray when he almost died of malaria.

I was surprised then, when I came across the Wikipedia article on him, which states “[he] previously admitted to praying before an important Falcon 1 launch, asking ‘any entities that [were] listening,’ to ‘bless [the] launch.’”

However, the article is not clearly cited, and when I searched for the source, it turned out that the Wikipedia article misquoted. In the original Bloomberg Business interview (SpaceX: Elon Musk’s View from Mission Control), Musk’s reference to the “entities” was merely a “wish”. It was a passing remark made in the language of faith, and does not indicate a flash of religious yearning on his part.

Not that he’s a personality devoid of spirituality. In his case for humanity’s need to be multi-planetary, he argues that it is the logical next step when you “zoom out,” when you look at our history as a species not just in the span of centuries but in the time-scale of evolution. A voyage to Mars will be as important as when our evolutionary ancestors first crawled out from the sea to live on land, he says, and it might spell the difference between us and the hypothetical dead, one-planet civilizations littering the universe.

It is the kind of cosmic, existential thinking that renders our worldly troubles insignificant. On the topic of climate change, Musk decisively sidesteps skeptics with practical insight: we will inevitably run out of fossil fuels and be forced to search for renewable sources of energy anyway, he argues, so the question of whether carbon dioxide causes global warming or not is irrelevant, and we should start investing more in developing new energy technologies.

His wisdom is that which comes from a capacity for grand thinking, and it certainly presents Elon Musk as a prime specimen of his kind.


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