The Rocketeer

Forget Tesla. Forget the Hyperloop. Elon Musk is all about space.

Every generation or so, a visionary comes along and completely revolutionizes an industry, even an entire economy. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison are two who come to mind. To a lesser extent, so does Steve Jobs.

To this group I would add Elon Musk.

The South African-born 42-year-old immigrated to North America in his youth with a dream and little else to his name. The move coincided with his imminent compulsory service in the South African Army. "Suppressing black people just didn't seem like a really good way to spend time," he told me in an interview a few years ago. A better way, he decided, was to design and build products that might change lives.

Since then, Musk has become one of the world's great innovators. He has leveraged the millions he made through the sale of PayPal, which he co-founded, into billions -- and used that money to give life to ideas that once existed only in the imagination.

Most people who've heard of Musk probably think of him in connection with Tesla Motors, of which he's the CEO and chief product architect. Tesla, according to Consumer Reports (and recent troubles with battery packs notwithstanding), makes the best car in the world. The magazine gave Tesla's Model S, a sleek luxury sedan, its highest-ever rating for a car (99 out of 100) in May 2013. The Model S, which is all-electric, was also Motor Trend's 2013 Car of the Year. In short, Musk isn't just making great cars -- he's upending the automotive industry by making an electric car superior to every gas guzzler on the road.

The modern world's love affair with cars ensures that Tesla gets attention, and Musk also made headlines in 2013 for proposing the Hyperloop, a radical form of ground transport that would whisk passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco through partially evacuated tubes in just over half an hour. What gets less notice, but is no less deserving of it, is Musk's work in the rocket business.

Thinking it would be pretty cool to land a plant-growth experiment on Mars but finding the cost prohibitively high, Musk started his own rocket company to bring the price down. In 2010, Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, of which Musk is CEO and chief designer, became the first company to send a privately owned and operated vehicle into orbit and back. Then, in May 2012, an unmanned SpaceX Dragon capsule berthed with the International Space Station (ISS), becoming the first private vehicle to rendezvous with an orbital destination.

Musk's competitors are still playing catch-up. The NASA-designed Space Launch System (SLS), slated to take over the now-retired shuttle's job as America's spaceship, is derisively known as the "Senate Launch System" because, though overpriced and technically challenged, it's kept alive by congressional mandate. On the private side, in September, Orbital Sciences Corp. became the second company to send cargo to the ISS, but its vehicle costs more than SpaceX's model and it can't return cargo to Earth. In fact, Musk's Dragon is the only vehicle in existence capable of returning cargo from the ISS.

Musk, who comes across as soft-spoken, levelheaded, and unassuming, is looking to shake up the rocket industry even more by following a fellow visionary's example. "Henry Ford didn't invent the internal combustion engine," Musk told me while I was writing a book on commercial spaceflight back in 2004. "But he found out how to make one at low cost, and that's the appropriate analogy here." Since that interview, SpaceX has taken over a Boeing 747 fuselage assembly plant in Hawthorne, California, where it's working to make launch vehicles and spaceships more affordable by mass-producing them.

SpaceX has almost a million square feet of development and assembly space, and as with Ford's River Rouge complex, the company takes in raw materials and spits out completed products: About 70 percent of the components in SpaceX's creations are built in-house, and most are designed to work together, no matter the vehicle. The already-successful cargo ship will require only a few modifications to enable it to fly crews. And three of the Falcon 9 rocket's engine cores will combine to form the Falcon Heavy, envisioned as the most powerful booster since the Saturn V moon rocket.

Another way of making things affordable -- admittedly in the context of launches that currently cost, at minimum, tens of millions of dollars -- is to reuse rockets, which usually fall to a fiery doom after delivering payloads. If commercial aviation operated this way, transatlantic flights could easily top $1 million a seat because the ticket price would have to include the cost of a new aircraft.

In September, virtually unnoticed amid congressional squabbling that would soon shut down the U.S. government, a SpaceX Falcon 9 that had just dropped off several satellites in orbit made history: It relit three of its engines and re-entered the atmosphere at hypersonic speed without burning up. It then relit its center engine one final time to cushion its water landing. Unfortunately, the rocket was spinning too rapidly to stabilize, and it broke up on impact with the Pacific Ocean.

Speaking on a conference call with reporters a few hours later, however, Musk was anything but disappointed. "It was a really great day," he said, adding that all the booster needed in order to stabilize was landing legs, which had already been used in tests at SpaceX's McGregor, Texas, proving ground. In the matter-of-fact tones he uses when speaking of outrageous ideas -- thus making them sound eminently doable -- Musk revealed plans to try the feat again following SpaceX's next cargo delivery to the ISS, slated for February.

NASA hasn't shown this kind of boldness and willingness to take calculated risks in its manned program since the days of Project Apollo.

At a published price of $56.5 million per launch, Falcon 9 rockets are already the cheapest in the industry. Reusable Falcon 9s could drop the price by an order of magnitude, sparking more space-based enterprise, which in turn would drop the cost of access to space still further through economies of scale.

All this adds up to the linchpin of an industry in the making, which will encompass not just the odd government contract or high-end satellite launch, but also many other activities that Musk hopes will follow the advent of affordable launch vehicles. SpaceX's technology could be important for industries dependent on accurate and timely weather forecasting (such as agriculture), affordable logistics and supply-chain tracking, remote sensing, and more.

Beyond that, there's the wealth of the solar system just waiting to be claimed. Space is home to an abundance of natural resources, from solar power unfiltered by clouds and the day-night cycle to mineral wealth in near-Earth asteroids. In the last year alone, two credible private ventures have sprung up to harvest natural resources based on the promise of affordable launch technology like that which SpaceX is developing.

And Musk's initial idea of landing a small scientific payload on Mars? That has morphed into a new dream of enabling settlers to colonize the Red Planet.

When I first met Musk, before SpaceX had flown a single successful mission, he told me he wanted to have a significant, positive impact on the world. His story is still being written, but he's already revolutionizing two modes of transportation -- one firmly planted on the ground and the other heading for the stars.

What's next?

Illustration by Tadaomi Shibuya


Far From the Madding Crowd

Can ordinary citizens armed with technology change the way we make and manage peace?

On Saturday, Nov. 23, for the third evening in a row, the website Aymta.com sent a text message and e-mail blast to its subscribers, saying that a scud missile had been launched from Damascus, on its way to the northern Syrian city of Ar-Raqqah. Residents there had about ten minutes to shelter themselves however they could.

Aymta.com, designed by a 27-year-old software designer and former Syrian army conscript who is now in the United States, is an open-sourced warning system that relies on the reporting of volunteer spotters -- that is, ordinary citizens -- and a series of formulas that calculate a missile's trajectory and probable target. When it's locked on the probable destination, the site (the name of which means "when" in Arabic) automatically sends information to subscribers as a warning.

The site doesn't catch every launch, and it's hard to tell just how accurate its predictions are -- but it's something. And it exemplifies how people are using technology to save lives in war zones.

Pundits and researchers alike have focused recently on the role of technology in social-media-fueled political and social change movements, with headlines proclaiming a "Twitter Revolution" in Iran's 2009 election protests and "Facebook Revolutions" in the Tunisian and Egyptian overthrow of entrenched regimes. And the Syrian conflict is the most socially and technologically mediated conflict in history, according to experts, with an exceptional amount of what the outside world knows -- or thinks it knows -- about the three-year-old war coming from videos, blogs, and commentary circulated through social networks.

But this is only part of the new story of technology and conflict. "Crowdsourcing" is the other part. The term, which refers to the practice of soliciting services, ideas, or content from a large group, often online, was coined in 2006 (according to the world's first crowdsourced dictionary, Wikipedia). Yet it has already taken on several important functions with respect to the peacebuilding field.

First, the crowd, as we saw in the Syrian example, is helping us get data and information from conflict zones. Until recently these regions were dominated by "the fog war," which blinded journalists and civilians alike; it took the most intrepid reporters to get any information on what was happening on the ground. But in the past few years, technology has turned conflict zones from data vacuums into data troves, making it possible to render parts the conflict in real time.

Activists, citizen journalists, and ordinary folks armed with mobile phones and social networks, have come together to create real-time crisis maps and documentation of violence as it happens.

One of the early examples of this was the Libya Crisis Map -- a crowdsourced map of events unfolding throughout the rebellion that was commissioned by the U.N. -- which was put together by a loosely affiliated but committed global group of volunteer techies, called the Standby Taskforce. By sifting through social media, news reports, YouTube postings, and blogs for verifiable data, they were able to assemble a valuable picture of the unfolding crisis. They mapped where armed confrontations, humanitarian relief efforts, and other relevant activities were taking place. In Syria, a parallel effort led to the Defections Map, chronicling members of the regime who had defected based upon information from networks of activists and video announcements on YouTube. These defections were then widely reported in the offline media, such as Al Jazeera and others.

The second way technology has changed the business of peace is dollars. In the same way that entrepreneurs and young filmmakers are using sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to fund their work, so are peacebuilders. For example, Bilal Ghalib, an Iraqi-American web developer, and Mitch Altman, co-founder of Noisebridge, one of the first hacker-community workspaces in the United States, turned to Kickstarter to bring community "hackerspaces" to Baghdad. They funded tools, computers, and lounges to recreate a temporary Silicon Valley-esque atmosphere where tech geeks and entrepreneurs can collaborate and work on innovative, open-source projects -- and, in turn, create jobs for young people trying to rebuild their post conflict economies. Bilal and Mitch raised almost $30,000 to bring a community hackerspace to Baghdad, in addition to the five they have started in Egypt and two in Lebanon.

We hear stories like this all the time, where the crowd is both funder and peacebuilder, as in the Indiegogo campaign that raised enough money to enable a group of young volunteer tech activists called "PeaceGeeks" to work with grassroots organizations in conflict zones to promote peace, or HarrassMap in Cairo, which tracks and maps reports of sexual harassment.

The crowd isn't just offering new dollars for peacebuilding -- it's also generating new ideas for peacebuilding tools. Most recently, the U.S. Agency for International Development partnered with Humanity United to announce The Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention. Prize money was awarded for the best ideas to address problems ranging from documenting the evidence of atrocities to alerting vulnerable populations. And it was another crowdsourced venture -- the $5 million Knight Foundation's News Challenge -- that produced "Activist-in-a-Box," which not only allows a phone to be used as a data-entry tool (for instance, used to gather election- or violence-monitoring data) but also provides a secure platform for pushing out vital information to citizens in harm's way.

Yet for all the potential good that this new technology can do in terms of empowering the crowd as peacebuilders, there are, predictably, reciprocal opportunities for malice. Much of the time, they involve governments applying the old tricks of surveillance and repression to new mediums.

Perhaps best known is China's 50 Cent Army, the group of pro-government bloggers who are paid to blog regime propaganda and disrupt social networks with misinformation. And in Tunisia, activists found their computers infected with "key-logging" software that can communicate what they are typing.

But the Syrian conflict, once again, may be the most instructive of the dangers we see at work in times of war. The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) was recruited to hack and infiltrate activist's websites and social networks, which they have done with success, in addition to attacking critics of the regime abroad. Last October, a 21-year-old activist named Hadeel Kouki, told a panel at the U.S. Institute of Peace a chilling story of how her Facebook group was infiltrated by an undercover member of the regime. When they agreed to meet at a particular place, the police were there too. Hadeel was put in jail for nearly three months.

Despite the dangers involved, the technology-enabled crowd is only growing, and it's fed by the recent, massive spike in cell-phone ownership. Phones have become so cheap and so pervasive that even people living in abject poverty and war situations have them. In Afghanistan, for example, ranked 175 out of 182 countries in the U.N.'s 2013 Human Development Report with an illiteracy rate of about 70 percent, a 2012 survey showed that the number of people with access to mobile phones had gone up from 1.7 million in 2006 to over 17 million in 2012 -- a penetration of around 63 percent. In the field, we often hear stories about people feeding their cell phones before they feed their stomachs, and with over 6 billion in circulation world-wide, phones have actually become more numerous than toothbrushes.

Cell phones have also been changing to meet the new, subversive tasks they're being used for. New phones are being adapted with a "panic button" to allow activists to delete contacts and information that could land their peers in jail, or worse. Circumvention technologies like TOR, which reroutes internet connections through a web of users to obscure users' identities, have been developed to enable anonymity online. Secure text message services are being developed to protect both communications and databases, while others are rolling out mesh network devices that let the crowd continue to communicate, even after a regime has shut down the Internet, as we've seen happen in both Egypt and Iran.

The big question for these "peacetech" solutions is whether they truly can enable the crowd to stay one step ahead of its detractors. (On Dec. 2, Aymta.com was down, with no explanation for its disappearance.) Yet already, they have given the people a nimble set of tools that have fundamentally changed how we can see peace and conflict. If the past decade is any prelude for the next one, then we have every reason to believe these technologically enabled networks -- these crowds -- will only play an ever greater role in conflict management and peacebuilding.