The Man for Mars

Elon Musk
Elon Musk; drawing by James Ferguson

In 1989, an eighteen-year-old South African named Elon Musk approached a girl at a party in Canada, where he was attending college, and said, “I think a lot about electric cars. Do you think about electric cars?” That anecdote, one of scores that make up Ashlee Vance’s chatty, eponymous biography of the forty-four-year-old entrepreneur, is telling. Long before Musk parlayed the $165 million he made for his part in developing the Internet banking giant PayPal into the more than $11 billion that underwrite Musk Industries today, he was thinking ahead, envisioning a world that merged science with science fiction, a real world that he, the hero of this story, would bring to fruition.

In the decades since, Musk has built the world’s leading electric car company, Tesla Motors, beating Detroit at its own game: in November 2012, the Tesla Model S, a seven-seat sedan that sold for as much as $100,000, was named Motor Trend magazine’s car of the year. At the same time, Musk founded, funded, and runs the aeronautics company SpaceX, and he conceived and is the board chairman of SolarCity, “the country’s premier solar services company.”

Though they are distinct businesses, run independently, the three are connected, in ways big and small. Tesla cars are sold with the guarantee of free fuel in the form of solar energy from charging stations powered by solar panels supplied by SolarCity. And the lithium-ion battery technology that allows a Tesla car to go from zero to sixty miles per hour in less than five seconds and travel three hundred miles on a single charge was instrumental in solving one of solar power’s biggest obstacles—its unreliability due to cloudy days, the dark of night, and latitude. This past spring, Tesla unveiled a stylish, compact, affordable home battery called Powerwall that stores the sun’s energy and kicks in when the solar panels are unproductive. “Our goal here is to fundamentally change the way the world uses energy,” Musk declared at the product launch. “The goal is complete transformation of the entire energy infrastructure of the world.” (Another synergy, reported by Bloomberg: the Powerwall battery will be available in colors “similar to the paint used for Tesla’s Model S sedan.”)

An even more significant connection is this: while Musk is working to move people away from fossil fuels, betting that the transition to electric vehicles and solar energy will contain the worst effects of global climate change, he is hedging that bet with one that is even more wishful and quixotic. In the event that those terrestrial solutions don’t pan out and civilization is imperiled, Musk is positioning SpaceX to establish a human colony on Mars. As its website explains:

SpaceX was founded under the belief that a future where humanity is out exploring the stars is fundamentally more exciting than one where we are not. Today SpaceX is actively developing the technologies to make this…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.