Well, there you go. What started like a small whisper through the back alleys of the SXSW Austin convention centre, roared into a giant excitement tsunami: Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, The Boring Company, Solar City and SpaceX is in town! He crashed the Westworld panel at SXSW on Saturday, invited by Jonathan Nolan the co-creator of one of my favorite series: Westworld. Musk rocked the stage with the charisma of a young god-inventor on steroids.
It’s a Sad World
The world is a complicated, sometimes sad, and bloody dangerous place, and us –humans- are not really helping. Musk addressed matter of factly a plethora of explicit negatives: “There are a lot of terrible things happening all over the world, all of the time, in a lot of different areas. Lots of problems that need to get solved, preferably quickly. Too many things that are miserable, depressing. It pushes you to the ground, it gets to you. It grinds you down.”
Make people dream
“That’s why I did this”, he said: “We did send a Tesla Roadster, with a Spaceman, into space. Because we could, and because the whole space program needs so much more excitement. I want everyone to feel how exciting it is to be alive, to be working right now.”
“Life cannot, is not, and should not be about solving one miserable thing after another. If that is the only the only thing, it stops. It ends. We need things that inspire us, things that make us dream, things that energize people and make them connect with their future. That’s why we did this. Because we could. I find that incredibly exciting. I feel so much alive. I hope you feel the same way.”
The return of Musk
The surprise visit of Musk was short, concise, and powerful. Musk style quoi. But he invited the crowd to re-meet him on Sunday, for what turned out to be mostly a giant Q&A session around the billionaire, and his many ventures. So Elon Musk returned, packing the designated venue to the very limit. Musk… is clearly a popular guy.
A year to make the Mars Rocket fly
Elon Musk lobbed a little bomb in the audience by claiming that his Mars rocket will be tested on short hops before SXSW 2019, a first milestone in the long, curvy and tricky road to sending a space vehicle to Mars. SpaceX focusses on sending a cargo mission to the third planet by 2022.
“Our ultimate goal at SpaceX is to plant the seeds we need to determine the possibilities of putting a human colony on Mars. We are building, as we speak, this first interplanetary ship that will go to Mars. I am confident to think we’ll be able to test and conduct a lot of short trips, and up and down flights early next year.” After only the briefest hesitation, he added –to a round of laughter- : “Maybe sometimes, my timelines are a little, you know… optimistic“.
Big Fucking Rocket (BFR)
Compared to the current Falcon, and Heavy Falcon, the Mars engine of Musk is a gargantuan. The SpaceX codename is unceremoniously BFR, which stands for Big Fucking Rocket. Elon’s BFR rocket system will not only have capabilities for interplanetary travel, it will be fully reusable. Astoundingly the projection is that a flight with the BFR will cost less than 6 to 7 million dollars, under the initial Falcon range. This makes BFR part of the family of very affordable spaceships.
Usually, SXSW is an inspiring bonanza of optimistic people that are falling over their words, thoughts and feet to advocate how different, exciting, and obstinately rosy colourful the future is going to be, and how the world will change into a better, peaceful place where humans will happily be excited in a world full of tech, nano-bots and enhanced intelligence.
But Musk paints, -with a remarkable drive in his voice, and an energetic spark in his eyes-, a world that is dark, gloom, and possibly doomed.
“Humanity”, Musk thinks: “is dancing dangerously close to the abyss, ignoring all tell-tale signals of global warming, an over-carbonating atmosphere, and selfishly ruining our planet. We’re closer than ever to a World War III, the doomsday clock for a nuclear eradication is seconds away from boom-o-clock. Artificial Intelligence gone rogue might be an accelerator in all this.”
“I do not understand that AI researchers are not worried about the threat of machines. They should be,” Musk warns: “I have a big problem with so called AI experts that think they know more than they do. They think they’re smarter than they are. I’m very close to the cutting age of AI, and part of it frightens me. But there is a plague that touches smart people. They don’t like the idea that a machine could be smarter than them, so they think it cannot and will not happen. “
The dark ages
“If any of this happens, and unfortunately it is likely, manhood will be thrown back to the dark ages, especially if we shoot ourselves in the foot with a nuclear or biological war” Musk warned: “the current civilization will fall back in a mostly high-tech-less reality for generations, dying in a nuclear winter.”
A lot of Elon Musk’s endeavours tries to battle this certain doom: solar powered energy, electric cars and trucks, solar powered independent off-grid homes, energy saving Hyperloop transportation systems, ecological tunnel transport… Musk hopes it will help turn away or slow down certain doom.
Away from the cradle, time to grow up
With SpaceX Musk provides humanity with a second chance, a plan B, a plan that seemed directly popped from the science fiction brains of Bruce Sterling or Isaac Asimov: Musk wants to turn Mars into a getaway planet if we destroy ours. A first step in seeding humanity across the cosmos, making the chances to survive as a species higher… providing humanity with the tools to escape total destruction. “I realize earth is the cradle of humanity”, Musk says: “but it would be foolish to stay in our cradle. Time to grow up, take our wings, and fly out.”
Musk hopes that a Mars colony would be safe from carbon destruction, nuclear winter, or raging battle on earth, and is able to push the faltering flame of life and civilization forward. “The quickest way to recover might be for our colonies to come back, and help rebuild” he adds optimistically.
Musk cannot do it alone. He hopes the soon to be reality of BFR will trigger an enthusiasm close to the run the moon. He needs support on tech, knowledge, funding, goodwill, engineering, sociology, you name it. He will also need volunteers, to help… but also to move to the red planet.
“Once the colony settles, after the infrastructure is complete, like in the Wild West, there will be a real explosion of entrepreneurial opportunities. Mars will need everything. From iron foundries to pizza joints.”
Fool or god?
Musk has this relentless drive. This endless supply of untameable energy. He jungles dark doom and bright futures. He gets laughed at. Spit on. But he moves mountains. He is more stubborn than a mule, more boyish than you would think. He sparks, ignites, motivates and is a relentless driver: forward, upwards.
My nephews think Elon Musk is no other than Anthony Edward “Tony” Stark, from the Marvel comics. It makes me smile.
I know better. Elon Musk is Iron Man.