Media Spotlight: Elon Musk – Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest For a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance

Spotlight

In the last quarter of the 20th century, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was heralded as the Silicon Valley wild child who broke through barriers and changed entire industries. Since his death in 2011, one man above any other has been pushed into that same spotlight – and with good reason.

As Bloomberg Businessweek technology reporter Ashlee Vance notes, rather evangelically, in his book – Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future – the man with ambitions to send everyday people quite literally to the moon is a “possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted”.

Vance’s telling of Musk’s life story is both exhaustive and well balanced. Unlike other biographies that have tended to focus on one side of the protagonist’s tale, this book delves into the side of Musk that media reports rarely cover, showing a darker side to the billionaire on whom the Iron Man superhero character is based.

Readers are told anecdotes about such incidents as when Musk ostracised an employee for missing a company event to attend the birth of his child (although Musk allegedly denies this); or when he openly stated that any woman he was with could have no more than 10 hours a week of his time – an attitude that has resulted in three marriages, albeit twice to the same woman.

Despite such tales, Musk is universally respected for his substantial achievements and even loftier ambitions. Born and raised in South Africa before moving to study in Canada, he sold his first start-up company – which provided maps and business directories – for $22m before helping to create and launch his first mega-success – PayPal.

As Vance recounts, the $250m that Musk netted from the sale of PayPal to eBay allowed the entrepreneur to explore his interests in space exploration and green technology – eventually leading to the creation of SpaceX and Tesla. 

SpaceX, a venture designed to bring to reality the concept of retail space travel, has come close to bankrupting Musk. But readers will be impressed by the dedication he applied to the project – resorting at times to Soviet-era books on rocket science to supplement his knowledge. 

Nobler yet is the Tesla project – an environmentally friendly car manufacturer that is making huge progress. In 2013, the Tesla Model S became the first non-internal combustion engine vehicle to win the Motor Trend Car of the Year award. Thanks to Musk’s quirky eye for detail, the car’s sound system turns up to volume 11 instead of 10. If this seems a little over the top, treat it as a light-hearted reminder that Musk is not your normal billionaire.

Vance’s best achievement in this book comes from telling Elon Musk’s story simply but well. It is the account of an intelligent man and, in particular, of a determined one. Musk’s work ethic has always been intense. One observer says of him in the early days: “We all worked 20-hour days and he worked 23 hours.”

Anyone who reads this book is likely not only to marvel at the list of achievements already racked up by Musk but to be hard pressed not to wonder where his story will lead next. 

Musk is a man with huge ambition and even greater drive. The final chapter on his story is, hopefully, still years away and one can only guess at the direction it will take.