A lot has happened to Elon this year, from the unveiling of his magnum Starship and several high-profile launches with NASA to a petty legal battle with Jeff Bezos and a flurry of market-moving tweets from atop what he calls his “porcelain throne.” But if space was all he did, he wouldn’t be Elon Musk. He is the largest shareholder and CEO of Tesla, now valued at over $1 trillion and hegemonic in the electric car market. He founded Neuralink, a batch of mad scientists waiting for approval to put brain chips in humans next year. He is, as of last January, the richest man on Earth.
All of this and more earned him the description by Time: “clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad; a madcap hybrid of Thomas Edison, P.T. Barnum, Andrew Carnegie and Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, the brooding, blue-skinned man-god who invents electric cars and moves to Mars.”
Achievements in Space
Elon’s achievements in space, however, were the most eye-catching. The year started out strong. In April, NASA awarded SpaceX the exclusive contract to provide the lunar lander for humanity’s next date with the Moon. Blue Origin contested the decision in court, but the judge dismissed the case in November.
Elon tweeted, “If lobbying & lawyers could get u to orbit, Bezos would be on Pluto right now.”
Spacex’s Starship rocket is set to do the job for the lunar mission. There’s no way to understate it; Starship is one of the most magnificent feats of human engineering this century, needless to say this year. Standing nearly 400 feet tall when mounted on its Super Heavy booster, it is the largest, most powerful spacecraft ever developed, and it is fully reusable. Musk envisions it being a general-purpose transport vehicle for the solar system. If it works, the spacecraft will shuttle a hundred people at a time to Mars, something he plans to do by the end of this decade, and build self-sustaining colonies there to cement humanity’s presence off Earth in case of an extinction event such as an asteroid collision. But Musk is helping to guard against even that; in November, SpaceX launched NASA’s DART mission, the first-ever test of asteroid-deflection technology.
Problems at Starbase
This year’s ride has been bumpy though. Four consecutive test flights of Starship ended in messy explosions, something the locals at Boca Chica, Texas, home to SpaceX’s Starbase, didn’t appreciate. The failed launches sent debris into a nearby wildlife refuge, sparked brush fires and blew out residents’ windows. Since the Cameron County district attorney urged SpaceX to halt launches in June until the FAA could complete an Environmental Assessment, the skies have been clear of rockets.
Nevertheless, Musk says Starship will perform its first orbital test flight in January or February. If he’s wrong, both he and the company are in trouble. SpaceX employees received a frantic email from the CEO just after Thanksgiving in which he worried that if they don’t step up production of Starship’s Raptor engines, the company could face bankruptcy. He called the present situation a “disaster” and set a minimum target of one to two Starship launches per week next year.
Without Starship, Elon would be unable to put his second-generation Starlink V2 satellites into orbit, completing a constellation that currently counts about 1,900. Nearly half of those launched in 2021 alone, and thousands more are planned in the coming years. The end product will be a global web of broadband internet satellites connecting tens or even hundreds of millions of people to the digital ecosystem.
Billionaire Space Race
During the fall, Elon found the time to race against his two other billionaire rivals — Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson — to grab headlines with sensational spaceflights. The resulting mission, named Inspiration4, launched on September 15 and became the first orbital flight with an all-civilian crew. The four occupants circled the Earth for three days in a Crew Dragon capsule dubbed Resilience.
The same month, Elon broke up with his girlfriend, the musician Claire Bouchre, also known by her stage name Grimes, with whom he famously named his son X Æ A-12. Since then, he has been living as a kind of space monk in South Texas, where he rented a 400-square-foot prefab home after selling six of his houses last year. The seventh and last property finally sold earlier this month. His new abode sits right next to Starbase, which he described to Time as a “technomonastery” with few women to potentially date. The nearly $50,000 setup is fitting for a man worth over $250 billion.
As the new year begins, we’ll be waiting for Elon’s next Starship launch, Starlink upgrade, surprise space stunt or market-moving tweet, some with wild-eyed excitement, others with an apprehensive grimace.