Monday, October 12, 2020

Elon Musk’s failures

     Elon Reeve Musk, a citizen not only of his birth nation, South Africa, but also of Canada and America, has taken Space X to literally great heights as its founder, CEO, CTO, and chief designer. The company was first to land a booster for reuse, the first to land one at sea, the first to capture an expensive nose fairing for reuse, and the first to strap three rockets together to create the biggest and most powerful space torch since the moonshots. In 2018, Naomi and I watched the first spectacular Falcon Heavy launch from the Cape Canaveral VIP area and enjoyed a great catered lunch, narration by Bill Nye the Science Guy, a champagne toast, and free ball caps.

     On a much lesser NASA budget than Boeing got, Space X was the first to take back ISS astronaut transport from the Russians, with the first two Dragon commuters dressed as stylishly as Star Trek characters. His Teslas are selling like Big Macs and keep increasing their range, recently all the way to a Mars flyby piloted by Starman. (Let’s see Mercedes beat that.) His Boring Company is anything but. His largely sun-powered factories are revolutionary. His huge starship is mind-warping in its potential to make humankind a multi-planet species. His philanthropy is generous. His philosophy is extraordinarily visionary.

     But, like other geniuses such as Einstein and Edison and Ford and Howard Johnson, you only know about his astonishing string of successes. You never hear about his failures.

    When he was four years old, for example, his mother caught him repeatedly firing one of her lipsticks (her favorite shade) out of the toaster. She had to have the living room ceiling repainted.

    When he was ten, he attempted to launch the family cat into the next county with a truck inner tube tied between two clothesline poles. The fire department used a ladder truck to get the animal down off the Presbyterian Church, and his father attached his allowance to pay the cat whisperer’s fee.

   When he was fourteen, he wired up two dozen motorcycle batteries in series and fried his sister Tosca’s three-speed Schwinn trying to break the bicycle World Land Speed Record.

    At eighteen, he designed a reusable Roman candle (a precursor to his everyman’s flame thrower) that set fire to the college quadrangle.

    At twenty, he dug a rollerblade tunnel from his fraternity cross-campus to a sorority for committing an ill-fated panty raid.

    At twenty-five, he strapped speakers to a flock of Canadian geese so they could spread free classic outlaw western music to several countries while migrating. The incessant honking did not harmonize well with Willie and Waylon, however.

    But his successes have far outnumbered his failures* of course, and his stratospheric net worth of a hundred billion or so attests to that.

    Like many other admirers around this weary planet, and at a time when we all sorely need exemplary people we can look up to, eccentric, exceptional Elon has become my personal hero.


* (okay, mostly fictional)

    Since the first diagnosed U.S. Covid case on 20 January, we’ve had an average of one death every two minutes. We have the power to save 100,000 Americans in just the next hundred days if we, as a caring and compassionate people, will only mask up and distance in public. Densely populated Japan has done it. Australia has done it. New Zealand has done it. In those nations the per capita death toll is only a tiny fraction of ours.

   If we’ll come together, we can beat this lethal common enemy like they have.


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