Newsmaker: Elon Musk — An embarrassment of riches

Manic is a word that comes to mind. Not the sort of manic that sees deep and dark lows of depression and ultimate highs that require the intervention of mental health care professionals and liberal doses of lithium to chemically stabilise mood swings. But manic as in the sense of never being able to sit still, never being able to relax, and never being able to wake up, pull the curtains, see the blue sky and then smell the coffee.

Those are the simple pleasures most ordinary folk can appreciate on most days — but then most of us are not the world’s second wealthiest man. We will never know what it’s like to be, if stock options and bonuses fall right — bonuses disappeared with the dinosaurs, didn’t they? — to be the richest man in the world. A Lego set is the closest thing we could countenance to building a space programme, electric cars are something on the shopping list maybe after out next car is a hybrid. And cryptocurrencies? They just seem too risky for anyone of us mere non-manic mortals trying to make a few extra dollars speculating in stocks, dipping our toes into the complex world of fintech and worried that the automated phone message from the bank might turn into an call from a real person the next time.

For Elon Musk, everything is magnified. Greatly. Since the calendar pages turned March into April, the world’s second wealthiest man has picked up a bonus of $11 billion (Dh40 billion) last quarter alone — I alone would settle for $11 million over my lifetime — he is determining the rise and fall of cryptocurrencies most of us have never heard off never mind speculate in, and Tesla — his car company — is enjoying record sales right now. Oh, and his space company is flying high just for good measure too.

Manufacturers the world over are worried about a shortage of electronic chips that makes things happen. Tesla, the electric car company founded by Musk 18 years ago — that was after the Canadian-South African entrepreneur made billions previously by setting up the electronic payments company we know as PayPal — posted a record number of deliveries during the three-month period ending 31 March. It sold 185,000 vehicles over that time — but roughly double on this time last year.

True, there has been a couple of hiccups when it comes to the 49-year old’s plans — he turns 50 at the end of June — for self-driving technology. Two people died in California when a driverless car crashed, some other vehicles have caught fire too, but overall, there’s no stopping Tusk’s Tesla as electric vehicle sales surge.

He and Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, have been engaged in a bit of billionaire banter over rival plans to capitalise on space exploration. Both are aiming to build long-range orbital rockets — hey, if you have money to burn, why not? — for a coveted contract from the US government to build a spaceship to deliver astronauts to the moon as early as 2024.

Musk won. Bezos was not happy.

Bezos’ Blue Origin filed a protest with the US Government Accountability Office, accusing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) of moving the goalposts for contract bidders at the last minute.

Musk, who also leads SpaceX, fired back with a tweet that said: “Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol.”

He did not elaborate on the tweet, but pasted a screenshot of a 2019 report about Bezos unveiling Blue Origin’s moon lander on the same Twitter thread. Blue Origin has fallen far behind SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA) on orbital transportation, losing out on billions of dollars’ worth of US national security launch contracts that begin in 2022. ULA is a joint venture of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp.

These rocket start-ups mainly aim to send satellites for clients into orbit at an affordable price and reuse parts of rockets to keep costs in check.

Musk’s company is also connecting a gigantic battery into the Texas electricity grid near Houston, which had a problem when a snowstorm turned off the state’s power supply. The battery could power about 20,000 homes on a hot summer day.

Most parents would buy toys for their children. Not Elon. He buys cryptocurrency, apparently. Musk tweeted earlier this week in a string of social media posts boosting the prospects of Dogecoin, saying he planned to keep it in the family.

“Bought some Dogecoin for lil X, so he can be a toddler hodler,” Musk wrote on Twitter, using crypto slang to explain how he hopes his son will “hold on for dear life” to the digital asset known by its logo, a Shiba Inu dog. The value of one Dogecoin, expressed in United States dollars, climbed eightfold, from under one cent on January 26 to almost eight cents this week. Its proponents aim to pump the price up to $1.

Yep, this is a man whose Tesla company started out putting electric batteries into Lotus sports cars, set his sights on building a colony on Mars, put one of his vehicles into Earth orbit and, this time two years ago, managed to wipe some $5 billion (Dh18.36 billion) off his company’s worth with a tweet that its value was simply too high. Some shareholders wonder if that was the only thing that was “high”.

Born in Pretoria, on June 28, 1971, he’s son of an engineer father and a Canadian-born model mother and left South Africa in his late teens to attend Queen’s University in Ontario. He transferred to the University of Pennsylvania after two years and earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and business.

He’s been divorced three times — yes, the word manic does spring to mind again — he has five other children but also suffered the personal tragedy of losing a child in infancy. Musk will painfully know then, money can’t solve everything. Most of us will never know.



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