31 May 2015
The Big Bang Theory is about fictional scientists, but now the show is funding a scholarship for real-life science students. The Big Bang Theory Scholarship Endowment has already raised four million dollars to support undergraduate students at UCLA who are studying the sciences. Starting in the fall, twenty Big Bang Theory grants will be awarded to UCLA science students who have gotten in on academic merit, but need extra support to supplement their financial aid, according to a UCLA statement. Every year, five more students will be added.Rico says it's a fraction of what they make per show, but a good thing.
Chuck Lorre, co-creator and executive producer of The Big Bang Theory, is mostly funding the endowment, with help from show co-stars like Jim Parsons, Simon Helberg, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, Mayim Bialik and Johnny Galecki, and with contributions from Warner Bros. and CBS, the Los Angeles Times reports. This is the first UCLA scholarship from the cast and crew of a television series.
“We have all been given a gift with ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ a show that’s not only based in the scientific community, but also enthusiastically supported by that same community. This is our opportunity to give back,” Lorre said in a statement. “In that spirit, our Big Bang family has made a meaningful contribution, and together we’ll share in the support of these future scholars, scientists and leaders.”
The first group of scholars will be announced on the set of The Big Bang Theory this fall.
Posted by Rico at 12:51
In 1940, one B-17 bomber cost a little over two hundred thousand dollars to produce. That's over three million dollars in today's money. With 12,731 B-17s produced, the production run would cost over $38 billion today.Rico says there were prettier aircraft (though damn few), and bigger aircraft (the B-29), but no better aircraft for getting the job done and getting home safely...
The Army Air Corps (USAAC) proposed the Flying Fortress on 8 August 1934 to replace the smaller, aging Martin B-10 (photo, top).
Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, fewer than two hundred B-17s were in service with the Army.
The YB-40, a modified B-17F, was developed as a super-armed gunship to protect other bombers in the days before escort fighters. Its gross weight was four thousand pounds heavier than a fully armed B-17, increasing its time to climb to twenty thousand feet from twenty-five minutes to forty-eight minutes.
The B-17G had thirteen .50-caliber machine guns. Gun locations included: single-gun waist and cheek gunners, and chin, top, ball, and tail turrets.
Over six hundred thousand tons of bombs were dropped by B-17s on Nazi Germany alone during World War Two (photo, bottom).
Crew members dealt with very cold flights in the unpressurized cabins, with temperature gauges in the cockpit frequently reading minus forty degrees Fahrenheit. Crews stayed warm in fleece-lined uniforms.
Late in World War Two, at least 25 B-17s were fitted with radio controls and television cameras, loaded with twenty thousand pounds of high-explosives, and dubbed BQ-7 "Aphrodite missiles" for Operation Aphrodite. These "Aphrodite missiles" were to be flown into targets via CQ-17 "mothership" control aircraft. However, of the fourteen missions using Flying Fortresses, none were successful.
Approximately forty B-17s were captured and refurbished by the German Luftwaffe, with about a dozen put back into the air.
A Philippines-captured USAAF Boeing B-17D, in Japanese markings, was flown to Japan for thorough technical evaluation by the Japanese Air Force.
B-17s were flown all over the world, in the air forces of various nations and as civilian aircraft.
Of the 12,731 originally produced, less than fifteen B-17s fly today (photo, middle).
A B-17 sustained a mid-air collision with a German BF-109, yet managed to fly home and land in terrible condition without major injuries to any of the crew members. With its strength and reliability, it's no wonder that this iconic airplane gained the nickname The Flying Fortress.
Posted by Rico at 09:05
Frostbite and altitude sickness were not exactly the sensations I had in mind when I started planning my Hawai'ian vacation.
Yet there I was, listening to a safety briefing from Katie, a guide who was about to drive me and a small group of other tourists up to the fourteen-thousand-foot summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai'i. Pregnant women really shouldn’t do this trip, Katie warned us. Too dangerous. Neither should anyone under sixteen. And older people, forget about it.
Our group of satisfactorily athletic thirty-somethings should be fine, Katie said. But if any of us got a little woozy or cold— even with all the extra layers we were instructed to pack alongside our bathing suits and flip flops— she had some spare oxygen and a set of heavy winter coats in her van.
Going from sea level in the town of Hilo, where it was a balmy eighty degrees, to the thin air above the tree line where there is forty percent less oxygen and, on that afternoon in late March, a wind chill in the teens, was going to take some mental and physical acclimation. I was glad Katie was there in case I froze or fainted.
We chose March because it straddles the line between winter and spring, and we knew there was a better chance of seeing the island’s wide range of climates on full display.
I had looked into the weather conditions on the mountain about a week before the trip and was floored by what I saw: the National Weather Service had issued a blizzard warning for the area. Six inches of snow and gusts of wind up to eighty miles per hour were expected. Yes, in Hawai'i.
This is the Hawai'i that most mainlanders don’t realize exists. It’s a place of vast geographical diversity where smoking volcanoes, an alpine desert, and misty tropical forests are all contained within an area not quite the size of Connecticut.
It’s a place where the hotels have fireplaces for the cold nights and outdoor showers for the hot afternoons; where the sand can be white or black or green; where the landscape is so otherworldly that there are places with nicknames like Little Mars; where hilly pastures and cattle ranches seem as if they could be in the American West.
This is the Big Island, where you can go from Montana to the moon in just a couple of hours in your rental car.
Often overlooked, underrated and misidentified, the Big Island is known by Hawai'ians for having the most spectacularly strange landscape of any of the islands. Before leaving on this trip, I would tell people I was visiting the Big Island, and almost all of them would look back at me and nod knowingly: “Oh, yeah. Where in Honolulu are you staying?”
The Big Island has no place even remotely as large and chaotic as Waikiki, which, for the record, is on the island of Oahu. At four housand square miles, the Big Island is large enough that all the other Hawai'ian Islands could fit on its surface. The closest thing that approaches a city on Hawai'i is Hilo, a town on the mossy, rainy eastern side that is home to about forty thousand people.
Hilo was where my partner, Brendan, and I based ourselves for our first of six nights on the Big Island. Its simplicity set the tone for our trip. There was a low-energy, unpretentious feel that would become pleasantly familiar most places we went.
Your only options for hotels are mostly small, local establishments. Don’t expect to find your Starwood points of much use in Hilo. We picked Arnott’s Lodge, a little compound of unremarkable but perfectly adequate apartment-style rooms that didn’t cost us more than a hundred dollars a night. Arnott’s also leads tours of the island, and that’s how we connected with Katie.
Katie drove us and another small group of tourists from the mainland up to Mauna Kea’s summit, which is entirely accessible by road, most of it paved. The drive to the top was about an hour and a half, not including a stopover at the visitors’ center at nine thousand feet for some quick acclimation. She encouraged us to hike around there for a while to get used to what it would be like once we got to the top. We were a little wheezy but decided we’d probably be fine.
As we made the journey up those last five thousand vertical feet in the van, we left all signs of vegetation behind. The scrubby, spiny bushes and small trees disappeared. There was nothing but rock of a rusty brown color. And then blinding white.
Even at the end of March, an ice-glazed snowpack still encrusted quite a bit of the summit. We saw fresh ski tracks on some of the mountain faces, and a group of kids using boogie boards as sleds. The snow banks on the side of the road were four feet high in some places. As we were far above the cloud layer, the sun was brilliant.
The road was not especially steep, just winding. The local officials take safety very seriously, much to the irritation of some residents. They often close the road because of bad conditions, making what Hawai'ians consider to be the realm of the gods inaccessible. It has to accommodate a lot of traffic, surprisingly enough, because the summit is home to a number of observatories. That’s another point of contention with locals, who consider construction there a sacrilege.
The high elevation, lack of man-made light sources and usually clear weather make for some of the best stargazing conditions on the planet. Geologists say that this is actually the tallest mountain on earth. When measured from its base on the sea floor, it is more than thirty-three thousand feet high, nearly a mile taller than Mount Everest.
We reached the top a few minutes before sundown and then set out into the cold, our hoods up and our hands plunged deep into the warmth of our jacket pockets. It was about 35 degrees. It dawned on me that this was the only car ride in my life that had begun with the air-conditioner blasting and ended with the heat cranked all the way up.
Something other than the scenery caught our eyes: Japanese tourists, throngs of them, all clad in orange parkas that looked like prison jumpsuits.
Katie said that the tour companies that cater to the Japanese do this, probably so their charges are easier to spot in case they wander off. Feeling a little lightheaded and woozy myself, I started to imagine how it might not be so difficult for someone to just disappear in a high-altitude mental fog.
Since we were some seven thousand feet above the clouds, there was nothing but open sky all around us. As the wind howled and our faces froze, we watched the sun sink into the horizon just to the west of Maui, which loomed in the distance. I couldn’t help but think of the people watching the same sunset from the beach in their sandals and swim trunks.
One fact about the Big Island that seemed inescapable as we drove from town to town was how nature seemed so stubbornly intent on keeping anyone from getting too comfortable. I was reminded of this when I heard the civil defense reports on the radio every day, alerting islanders to the latest movements in lava flow.
I saw it in the smoldering forests that were slowly being engulfed by the lava’s creep, and in a patch of asphalt that was all that remained of a destroyed road in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. There were the constant reminders of tsunamis, too, with distinctive disc-shaped sirens along the road in coastal areas and the signs pointing the way to the safest evacuation route.
For some people on the Big Island, the ability to go on living life as they know it is dependent on the whims of what’s melting deep inside the earth. This is especially true for the Hawai'ians who live in the path of Kilauea, an especially active volcano that is threatening to overtake the town of Pahoa on the island’s southeastern horn.
One of the best vantage points from which to absorb the Big Island’s continuing destruction and creation is from a helicopter. It’s not cheap, just to get that out of the way. Brendan and I paid around $270 each for a tour through Paradise Helicopters in Hilo that lasted about an hour. I was initially skeptical. But looking back, I can’t imagine doing the trip without seeing what an active volcano looked like from the air.
We did the “doors-off” option, which is exactly what it sounds like and probably even more terrifying than you’d think. I was a complete wreck; so tense as our pilot, Joyce, dipped and weaved over the smoking, sulfurous vents that I was afraid to inhale too deeply because I feared I might somehow burst my seatbelt and go tumbling out. But I think that looking through a window with the doors on would have been much less memorable.
To explore the park, we based ourselves in the village of Volcano, just outside the boundary. At an elevation just shy of four thousand feet, Volcano is a good ten degrees cooler than sea level. It’s also in the middle of a rain forest and feels like a world away from the beach or the snowy summits above.
We put our heads down for the night at the Volcano Rainforest Retreat, a collection of Japanese-style bungalows shrouded by lush ferns and bamboo. The property was in perfect harmony with the free-spirit, arty ethos of the village. A little sign in our kitchenette said: “Peace is our gift to each other”. The shelves were lined with books with titles like Castrating an Ego and Loving Yourself. There was a tiny flat-screen television, but it was covered by a quilt, as if to suggest that no one should need to watch television in a place so beautiful and disrupt a place so serene. (We never even thought about turning it on.)
The village has a few bed-and-breakfasts and cafes, all along a single mile-long stretch of road. We had a lunch of miso soup and vegetarian lasagna at Café Ono, which doubled as an art gallery and had a resident goat named Ernest tied up in back.
The park itself was just a few more minutes down the road. During the day, we drove all the way down to where the park ends at the ocean. We wound our way through lava fields that looked like the set of an alien movie, barren and brown with few signs of life. We were struck by how young the landscape was. A sign alerted us to the date the lava flow we were driving over began: 1974, which, Brendan noted with amazement, made it just a few years older than the two of us.
Seeing the park in the day is one thing. But many visitors don’t realize that returning at night can be just as breathtaking. From an overlook not far from the main visitors’ center, you can watch the caldera glowing in the distance. That smoking crater you see by day illuminates the sky at night in a blaze of orange.
You can even do this the civilized way, with a cocktail in hand. Brendan and I stopped at the Volcano House, a hotel inside the park with a restaurant and bar with panoramic views of the crater.
There was a chill in the air. A fire in a big stone fireplace crackled. The lulling strains of Hawai'ian music in the background were really the only reminder that I was on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific. It’s nothing fancy. You’re in a national park, after all. But that eleven-dollar lychee martini was certainly worth it for the views.
While the Big Island is really not all that big relative to the distances most mainlanders are used to driving on vacation road trips, it can seem like a daunting surface to cover. Considering how long it takes to get to Hawai'i in the first place— five hours from the West Coast and twice that from the East— who can blame you for wanting to park yourself in immobile bliss at the beach?
We decided to try a little of that for two days. And ultimately we realized that while that might be fine strategy for other beach vacations, say, to Waikiki or Maui or the Caribbean, it would be an injustice to hole yourself up in a Big Island resort for a week.
For two nights we stayed at the Big Island’s priciest resort, the Four Seasons at Hualalai on the warmer, drier western coast. Maybe its exorbitance seemed too out of place for two travelers who had spent the last several days discovering the unpretentious beauty of Hawai'i. Or perhaps it was that with a thirteen-hundred-dollar per night price tag, we were a little more on alert for things that didn’t quite work.
But for a nightly rate that equals a month’s rent in many places, the resort was unforgivably stingy and frustratingly unaccommodating in some ways, we found. I emailed the concierge two weeks before our arrival to ask for help in securing a dinner reservation off-property. They assured me they were on top of it, and then never followed up, but they did apologize. There were little annoying disclaimers warning us that we would be charged a thirty-dollar-per-person fee if we did not show up for our dinner reservation. If we wanted faster Wi-Fi in our room, that would cost us an extra $25.
When we went to the Tranquility Pool, which is off-limits to anyone under 21, staff members acted as if they were doing us a favor by finding us a pair of empty chairs. “We’re really busy” were the first words out of the attendant’s mouth— much to our amazement since we looked around and saw ample room to add a couple of chairs and even a few scattered empty ones. My tranquillity was quickly dissipating.
The bartender could barely be bothered to make eye contact with the patrons. And he displayed a little sign at all times— Hours 11 to 5— that read like an admonishment not to dare ask for a drink if it was too close to 5 o’clock. And sure enough, at just a few minutes to 5 on both days we were there, he moved the sign over to the front of the bar to ward off any pesky, thirsty violators of his last-call diktat.
That’s not to say we had an awful time. Hardly. Our room was elegantly done in dark woods with a high gabled ceiling. It was steps from the beach, and we would fall asleep to the sounds of the thumping surf. The bath products were sumptuous. I’ve never smelled so good after a shower.
But extravagances like the Four Seasons are not why most people visit the Big Island. And we were reminded of this when we ventured out on our last full afternoon there on a drive to the little town of Hawi, about an hour away on the northern coast. The drive took us through one little ecosystem after another, from dry, cactus-covered lava fields, to hilly pastures of brilliant green grass where cattle roamed behind barbed wire fences, to pine-forested flatlands.
Hawi is like many little no-stoplight towns on the Big Island in that its architecture seems, incongruously enough, borrowed from the Old West. The stores and restaurants are built from wood and have big open porticoes looking out onto the street. They were painted in bright blues, yellows and greens. There was an excellent selection of places to get iced Kona coffee and ice cream, and an impressive collection of crafts and artwork made by local artists that weren’t trinkety or tacky. We had lunch at Sushi Rock, which serves rolls with a quirky local touch, like seared filet mignon from one of the nearby cattle ranches.
Hawi was a great place to wrap up our visit exploring the northern tip of the island. We ended up there after hiking down into the Polulu Valley, one of several deep chasms on the north end that have been carved out of the shoreline and are ringed with waterfalls and covered in lush vegetation. It took us only about ten minutes to hike down and fifteen back up. There was a black sand beach at the bottom. What was most striking about the vegetation was how abundant the pine trees were. I’d been to palm-lined beaches before, but not a pine-lined one.
As we made the climb back up and over the mountains to return to the Four Seasons, we could see Mauna Kea’s fourteen-thousand-foot summit sprinkled in snow. Thinking of the people up there wheezing and freezing, we called the hotel and asked them to set aside two chairs in the sun at the Tranquility Pool. Some immobile bliss seemed in order.
Where to StayArnott’s Lodge is nothing fancy. But its spare apartments, with kitchens and ample space, are a fine place to base yourself on the Hilo side of the island. Rooms with private baths start at $75. 98 Apapane Road in Hilo; arnottslodge.com.
Volcano Rainforest Retreat is just as advertised: a sanctuary in the middle of a lush, misty forest on the edge of Volcanoes National Park. Rates from $190. 11-3832 12th Street in Volcano; volcanoretreat.com.
Four Seasons Hualalai is luxury at its priciest and most elegant on the Big Island. Families can camp out by the Sea Shell Pool while adults can lubricate and relax by the Tranquility Pool. Ocean-view rooms start around $1,000. 72-100 Kaupulehu Drive in Kailua-Kona; fourseasons.com/hualalai
Where to WanderMauna Kea, the Big Island’s fourteen-thousand-foot summit, is a dizzying experience, both for the exceptional views and the oxygen depravation. Best seen with a guided sunset tour like the ones offered by Arnott’s.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the kind of place that will make you rearrange your itinerary because you won’t want to leave. Allow enough time to hike the trails or drive from the visitors’ center down to the shore.
Hawi, high above the ocean, is a perfect place to refuel after hiking the Pololu Valley.
Where to EatOn Hawi’s main drag, Sushi Rock offers filet mignon on a sushi roll and an ahi poke roll served with wasabi-infused purple sweet potato. 55-3435 Akoni Pule Highway in Hawi; sushirockrestaurant.net.Rico says that he and his father went to the Big Island back in 1967 to go scuba diving, and ate well (first sushi in a now-long-career of it) in Kailua; we got to see Richard Boone on the pier there...
If it’s Wednesday or Saturday, visit the Hilo Farmers Market for local coffee and macadamia nuts. Snack on exotic fruit straight off the branch or buy lunch from the vendors. Kamehameha Avenue and Mamo Street in Hilo; hilofarmersmarket.com/index.html
If you’re driving near Waimea, Village Burger is your stop for lunch. If beef isn’t your thing, they have ahi tuna and veggie burgers. 67-1185 Hawai'i Belt Road in Waimea; villageburgerwaimea.com.
30 May 2015
The Obama administration recently removed Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, a crucial step in President Obama’s push to normalize ties between Washington and Havana.Rico says the Cubans are too suspicious to agree to all that...
Secretary of State John Kerry rescinded Cuba’s designation at the end of the congressional notification period, which began on 14 April 2015, when Obama announced his intention to remove Cuba from the list.
“While the United States has significant concerns and disagreements with a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions, these fall outside the criteria relevant to the rescission of a state sponsor of terrorism designation,” Jeff Rathke, the State Department spokesman, said in a statement.
The action came amid signs of difficulty in the negotiations between American and Cuban officials to carry out the historic reopening that Obama announced in December of 2014. Despite widespread optimism, officials failed in talks last week to reach an accord on re-establishing diplomatic relations and opening embassies.
Cuba’s removal from the terrorism list was harshly criticized by several declared or prospective Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress, a sign that the détente may become an issue in the 2016 campaign.
Former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, who is widely expected to run, called the decision “further evidence that President Obama seems more interested in capitulating to our adversaries than in confronting them.”
The House speaker, John A. Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, said the administration had “handed the Castro regime a significant political win in return for nothing”. He vowed that the House would ensure that sanctions on Cuba would stay in place.
But the ease with which the administration removed Cuba from the list— a step that Cuban-American lawmakers had promised to try to block through congressional action, but ultimately did nothing to stop— reflected the degree to which Obama’s new policy has shifted the debate over Cuba.
Critics of lifting longstanding travel, trade, and financial restrictions on Cuba are increasingly finding their efforts overtaken by events. Although Obama would need Congress to lift the trade embargo and tourism ban, his move last year to relax some travel strictures and trade regulations has paved the way for direct flights and ferry rides, as well as business ventures between the United States and Cuba.
“When people get more freedom, they want even more of it,” said Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, who has pressed for the lifting of remaining sanctions. “Time has gotten away from those who favor the old policy. It’s so yesterday.”
Cuba’s removal from the list— which now includes only Iran, the Sudan, and Syria— is an important step in Obama’s effort to move past the Cold War-era hostility that has characterized the relationship. Obama met with President Raúl Castro of Cuba last month in Panama at the Summit of the Americas (photo), in the first such encounter in a half-century.
The reaction from Cuba was muted. The state news media took note of the move in brief articles, but without comment from government leaders. Cubans, however, had viewed the nation’s terrorism designation, in effect since 1982, when the government was sponsoring leftist insurgences, as a blemish on its image and a hindrance to its access to American banks.
Even with the terrorism issue now resolved, American and Cuban officials face challenges in pressing forward on the rapprochement. The talks last week, the fourth round since the normalization process was announced, broke off without resolution of issues holding up the conversion of the diplomatic outposts known as interests sections into full-fledged embassies.
United States negotiators want assurances from the Cubans that American diplomats at an embassy in Havana would be able to move freely around the country and speak with anyone, including opponents of the government. Cuban officials, who have frequently accused the United States of working to undermine the government by aiding dissidents, have resisted the request. American officials have also sought guarantees that Cubans visiting an American embassy in Havana would not be harassed by the police.
Posted by Rico at 08:18
29 May 2015
Former SS lieutenant Gerhard Sommer, at the top of a most-wanted list of Nazis, has been declared unfit for trial by prosecutors in Germany, saying he has severe dementia.Rico says someday they'll be like the Mongols, just a dim bad memory...
Sommer, 93, was one of ten ex-Nazi officers found guilty in absentia in Italy of one of the country's worst civilian wartime massacres. He was convicted for his role in the murders of nearly six hundred civilians in the Tuscan village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema in August of 1944.
The Nazis, who were retreating in northern Italy ahead of Allied troops, surrounded the village early on 12 August and, in the space of a few hours, murdered men, women, and over a hundred children.
Sommer was serving at the time in an SS Panzer division. He now lives in a nursing home in Hamburg-Volksdorf and tops the Simon Wiesenthal Center's list of most-wanted Nazi criminals.
Hamburg lawyer Gabriele Heinecke, who has campaigned on behalf of the victims' families to put him on trial, said she was unhappy with the way specialists had reached the conclusion that Sommer was suffering from dementia.
When asked by Berlin website Tageszeitung if she thought dementia could be faked, Heinecke said: "Of course. In matters of pensions it's something that happens every day."
The decision to drop the trial comes as Oskar Groening, another 93-year-old former Nazi, described as The Bookkeeper of Auschwitz, is being tried in Germany on at least three hundred thousand counts of accessory to murder.
For years, attempts have been made to put Sommer on trial in Germany, and prosecutors in Hamburg said that, if he had been deemed fit, he would "with high probability have been charged with over three hundred cases of murder, committed cruelly and on base motives".
In 2012, the case was dropped for lack of evidence after a ten-year investigation, but it was eventually re-opened in August of 2014.
Posted by Rico at 18:39
A Ukrainian man suspected of being a Nazi war criminal has died in Canada. Vladimir Katriuk (photo) was second on a most wanted list compiled by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a US organization which investigates Nazi war criminals. Katriuk passed away aged 93 after a long illness, his lawyer said. His death came just hours after the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said Canada should ensure he was held accountable for alleged war crimes.Rico says that World War Two won't really be over until the last Nazi finally dies...
Russia charged Katriuk earlier this month, and issued a request for him to be deported from Canada to Russia to face trial.
Russia's investigative committee alleged he took part in a 1943 massacre in the village of Khatyn, which was then in the Soviet Union and is now part of Belarus.
It is thought that all 156 residents of the village were killed by a Nazi battalion made up largely of Ukrainians soldiers.
Katriuk denied any involvement in the massacre, but a 2012 study by Sweden's Lund University said that he was a key participant. A witness told the authors of the study that he lay in wait outside a barn that had been set on fire and shot anyone who attempted to escape.
Katriuk allegedly deserted from his SS unit in 1944. Court documents show he lived in Paris before emigrating to Canada in 1951. He later became a Canadian citizen and lived with his French-born wife in Ontario, working as a bee-keeper.
Canadian authorities investigated Katriuk, but decided not to revoke his citizenship after failing to find evidence of atrocities.
Posted by Rico at 07:37
China's top court said it has executed a primary school teacher found guilty of raping or sexually abusing twenty-six girls.Rico says it's something we might well emulate (and fuck the Eighth Amendment). But raping a four-year-old? Gotta be some quaint old Chinese torture suitable for that...
Li Jishun had committed the crimes between 2011 and 2012 while teaching at a village school in Gansu province. He preyed on pupils aged four to eleven who were "young and timid", according to a statement by the Supreme People's Court. It said there have been more than seven thousan child sex abuse cases in recent years and that the trend is on the rise.
Li had raped twenty-one of his victims and sexually abused the other five in classrooms, dormitories, and the forest surrounding the village near Wushan. The statement said that some of his victims had been raped or abused more than once. It made no mention of how he was caught. But it said that the Gansu court had found him "a grave threat to society" and noted that he had committed the crimes within just one year.
"The Supreme People's Court thus believes that it was appropriate for Li Jishun to be executed," it said. Local media ran the story with caricatures depicting him as a wolf gobbling up children.
His sentencing was met with widespread approval on China's microblogging platform Weibo, with many expressing shock at the youth of his victims.
"Four years old? I can't believe it," said one. "A death sentence is too good for this man," wrote another commenter.
In a rare disclosure of abuse statistics, the Supreme People's Court told local media that the courts heard 7,145 cases of child sexual abuse between 2012 and 2014.
The figures showed that the number of cases went up by about forty percent during those years.
Posted by Rico at 07:36
28 May 2015
In 2008, a meteorite fell into the Earth's atmosphere and exploded over the Nubian Desert in the Sudan. It was the first time a meteorite had been identified and tracked before it hit the planet, and meteorite hunters rushed to the scene. Many fragments of the Almahata Sitta meteorite, as it became known, were recovered.Rico says it's easier to buy a mined one...
It quickly became clear that the rock fragments contained diamonds. That wasn't too surprising: some kinds of meteorite often do. But a new study suggests those diamonds were far larger than any yet seen in a meteorite.
According to the scientists involved, that means these diamonds formed in an unusual way. Large diamonds are most likely to form inside a really big lump of rock, like a planet. If they're right, these diamonds come from a planet that existed when our solar system was forming, and that has since been shattered.
The results were published in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta.
Masaaki Miyahara of Hiroshima University in Japan and his colleagues examined samples of the meteorite. The diamonds are mostly tiny, around forty micrometers across, although one is almost a hundred micrometers. However, some of them appear to have been broken, and the separate crystals are all oriented in the same way. This suggests that some of the small diamonds used to be part of a larger one.
The standard idea is that diamonds in meteorites form when asteroids collide. The shock of the impact is enough to crush carbon into tiny diamonds. But these diamonds seem to be too big to be explained that way. Instead, the authors think there are two ways they could have formed. It could be that the diamonds formed by the slow deposition of single carbon atoms, in the thin gases of outer space. But this seems unlikely.
The more likely possibility is that the diamonds formed inside a planetesimal: a lump of rock not quite large enough to count as a planet, but far bigger than any asteroid.
This planetesimal must have existed in the early days of the solar system, before the planets had properly formed and settled down into their orbits. If that's true, it must have long since been blown to bits, and the Almahata Sitta meteorite is a fragment of it.
We can't know for sure if that is true, and it's a big extrapolation from a few diamonds in one meteorite. However, the early system was a turbulent place, with lots of fragments of rock and ice whizzing around and colliding with each other.
Posted by Rico at 09:04
The BBC has an article about some very cool (and expensive) vehicles:
In 1944, Willys set about creating a civilian version of the Army’s quarter-ton jeep. The first model available to the car-buying public, the CJ-2A (CJ-1 and CJ-2 were prototype designations), went on sale in July of 1945, and its success would usher in other military-to-civilian transitions, notably Land Rover’s Series 1 in 1948) Volkswagen’s Type 181 “Thing” in 1968) and General Motors’ Hummer H1 in 1992). These vehicles’ heroic reputation and all-conquering capability have cemented their appeal among all manner of outdoors enthusiasts, hip-hop personalities, and playboy despots. In their spirit, we present a nonet of military trucks a civilian can buy, sans weaponry, along with a look at a vehicle that is gunning to become the next military truck (and to someday spawn a Schwarzenegger-caliber civilian version of its own).
Country of origin: US
Like the original Willys/Ford jeep, the gargantuan, six-wheel-drive DUKW dates to World War Two. The designation is an amalgam of internal letter codes: D: built in 1942; U: utility truck; K: front-wheel drive; W: rear-wheel drive, but the amphibious DUKW is better known by a friendlier name: the Duck. Built on GMC's heavy-duty CCKW military truck chassis, the Duck featured a slab-sided boat hull for a body and a single 25 inch propeller behind its rearmost axle. Powered by a 92-horsepower in-line six-cylinder engine, it tipped the scales at close to fifteen thousand pounds . What it lacked in speed, however, the Duck made up for in indefatigability. Like the wartime jeep, the DUKW proved (figuratively as well as literally) bulletproof. Of the roughly twenty thousand Ducks built between 1942 and 1945, a surprising number are still road- and sea-worthy. Many have found a second calling as tourist conveyances in cities such as Boston and London, but a few serve as adventure toys for private collectors. (The pristine example shown here was part of Auction America's Littlefield Collection sale in 2014.) Several companies, including the US-based Chicago DUKWs, offer Duck-specific sales and restoration services, as well as parts and tech support to keep the eighty-year-old machines on the road and on the water.
Price varies, though the restored example pictured sold at auction in July of 2014 for $78,775
Country of origin: US
The annual Easter Jeep Safari is the highlight of the year for thousands of off-road aficionados from across the US. Set amid the challenging terrain of Moab, Utah, the event offers a week of rock-hopping and camaraderie, and gives Jeep designers and engineers the opportunity to push the boundaries of the company's vehicles. The military-styled Staff Car is one of seven Jeep-derived concept vehicles unveiled in Utah this year, the Safari's 49th. Based on the Wrangler Unlimited, the concept is painted Sandstorm tan and topped with a stretched canvas roof. It features open fenders and low-back bench seats and, like the World War Two four-by-four that inspired it, there are no B-pillar or doors (although there is an integrated roll hoop). The steel-beam front and rear bumpers were pulled from the Jeep J8 military truck. Power comes from the standard Wrangler's 3.6-liter gasoline V-6 engine, paired with a six-speed manual transmission and, of course, four-wheel drive and the Wrangler Rubicon's Dana 44 locking axles. A lift kit from Jeep Performance Parts raises the ride height by two inches. There's a fender-mounted blackout light, a vintage jerrycan, a flank-mounted shovel and axe, and steel wheels wrapped with 35-inch Firestone mil-spec tires. And because beverages are better than bullets, what appears to be an old ammo box is actually a cooler with space for 85 frosty cans.
Price: NA (Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Hard Rock 4x4, $40,990)
Country of origin: France
Renault’s mighty Sherpa owes its appeal not only to the olive drab versions piloted by French and NATO soldiers, but to the charismatic appearances of the civilian model in the grueling Dakar Rally. Available by special order in Russia, Africa, and the Middle East, the non-military Sherpa can be had as an unarmored station wagon or pickup, or, for war-zone duty, a fully-armored wagon. Power comes from a deafening 4.76-liter four-cylinder diesel engine. Its 215 hp and 590lb-ft of torque reach all four wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission.
Price in the UAE: approximately 1 million dirham ($272,000)
Country of origin: Russia
That the military Tigr bears a passing resemblance to the American Humvee is, to the Russian truck’s vociferous fans, nothing more than coincidence. Beneath its expansive hood rumbles a 5.9-liter diesel engine, which meets a six-speed manual transmission and permanent four-wheel-drive. Production of the civilian Tigr– which can soften its brutality with the addition of such creature comforts as leather, air conditioning and a thumping audio system– is hardly a top priority for GAZ, and acquiring one is neither simple nor inexpensive, but a successful buyer is fairly guaranteed to be the only Tigr-tamer in his okrestnosti.
Price in Russia: approximately 3.5 million rubles ($110,000)
Rico says, no, not this Tigger:
Country of origin: Austria
As production vehicles go, the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen, otherwise known as the G Class, is ancient. Merely revised during more than thirty years of production, this brick-like military machine in a civilian paint job still manages to capture the imagination of those who dream of traffic parting with their approach – business tycoons, action-film stars, the Pope. Like the “standard” G63 AMG, the new G63 AMG 6x6 packs a twin-turbo 5.5-liter V8 engine producing 536 hp and 560 lb-ft of torque. The engine meets the six-by-six drivetrain from Mercedes’ hulking Zetros truck, yielding sixteen inches of ground clearance, sufficient to ford water as deep as forty inches. Getting behind the wheel of this ultimate G Class, unless you happen to be, say, a James Bond villain, will be tricky. The vehicle is not (legally) destined for North America or right-hand-drive countries, and Mercedes has promised that production volume will be “very small”.
Price in Germany, exclusive of VAT: 379,000 euros (approximately $523,000)
Country of origin: South Africa
Ten tons of South African stoutness, the Marauder is possessed of a double-skin monocoque that helps it resist virtually all forms of light-arms fire, as well as the occasional anti-tank mine. It also, as Top Gear’s Richard Hammond learned, is rather good as a city runabout, provided the pilot steers clear of fast-food drive-throughs.
Country of origin: US/Israel
A scooter on the battlefield? Roger that. Meet the Knightrider, from US scooter-maker Go-Ped. It may bear a passing resemblance to the neighbour kid’s Razor, but don’t be fooled: this two-wheeler is no toy. Based on Go-Ped’s Hoverboard civilian electric scooter and the police-spec ESR-750 Portable Patrol Vehicle, the matte-black Knightrider was designed for stealthy special-forces maneuvers over hostile terrain, with fat knobby tires and a long-travel cantilever-style suspension. The Knightrider’s lithium-ion polymer battery pack and Torkinator electric motor deliver a maximum cruising range of 25 miles and a top speed, thanks to a short-burst Turbo mode, of nineteen mph. So who is using the Knightrider? That’s strictly need-to-know, according to Go-Ped. Says Tactical Division chief executive Dr. Ran Lapid: “I can only confirm that the Knightrider was tested by the most prestigious special ops commando units in the world.”
Price: Go-Ped ESR-750 Portable Patrol Vehicle, $4,700
Country of origin: United States
Designed to thwart “enemy ballistics, treacherous terrain, and other mission-crippling obstacles”, the MV850, from US-based Polaris Industries, is the first military ATV to make use of non-pneumatic tires. The company promises that the single-seat trucklet’s TerrainArmor tires, invented by Wisconsin-based Resilient Technologies, can shake off shots from a .50-caliber gun or penetration by a railroad spike, even while carrying a full combat load. In both the MV850 and its equally tenacious civilian counterpart, the WV850, a 77-horsepower, 850cc two-cylinder engine is matched to a single-speed transmission and all-wheel drive. With TerrainArmor's proven survivability on the battlefield, it's a safe bet that the US military is looking closely at non-pneumatic tires for bigger machines, including the coming replacement for the Hummer.
Country of origin: Britain
The Qt Wildcat (formerly known as the Bowler Wildcat) is a Land Rover Defender-based cross-country rally runner. The new Supacat LRV 400 is the military version of the Wildcat, and it delivers the rally car’s high-speed all-terrain capability in a somewhat more weaponized package. Perfect for special forces teams, border patrol agencies and the like, the LRV (which stows neatly aboard a CH-47 Chinook helicopter for easy transport) packs a 3.2-liter five-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine from Ford that’s good for 236 horsepower, although buyers may opt for gasoline V8 engines producing as much as 640hp. Top speed with the standard diesel is a hundred mph, but the addition of a armor plates, winches, and a roof-mounted .50-caliber machine gun may sap performance a bit.
Price: approximately $250,000
Country of origin: United States
How do you replace a fleet of aging Humvees that numbers in the tens of thousands? With a bit of technological derring-do. Wisconsin-based Oshkosh Defense has developed the L-ATV prototype to pick up where the Humvee has left off, carrying a diesel-electric hybrid powertrain that allows the purpose-built vehicle to run near-silent when missions require it. The US government has taken delivery of two dozen L-ATV prototypes for testing, but civilian sales do not figure in Oshkosh’s immediate product plans.
Rico says he can't afford any, but wishes he could... (And where the hell would you park them?)
Posted by Rico at 09:03
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is getting another shot on the big screen.Rico says he liked the first one (hardly a dud, especially Connery, though several of the others were wasted roles); hopefully, this version will be as good.
As initially reported by the Tracking Board, 20th Century Fox will revisit Alan Moore’s 1999 comic-book series that was infamously adapted into the 2003 dud that starred Sean Connery as Alan Quatermain. The books combined the characters from several classic Victorian Age works of fiction into a tale of a group of, well, extraordinary literary figures, including Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Mina Murray, Tom Sawyer, Dr. Jekyll, and 'The Invisible Man', Hawley Griffin.
The 2003 big-budget adaptation, which stands as the retired Connery’s last on-screen role, was conceived as a potential franchise, but it was panned by both critics and audiences, grossing just under seventy million dollars. Fox later planned a television series, but the pilot was never ordered to series.
John Davis will produce the reboot through his Davis Entertainment banner.
Posted by Rico at 09:02
Daniel Roberts has a Fortune article about a bizarre new iPhone bug:
A single line of text can reportedly freeze and shut down iPhones.Rico says some things are not funny...
Technology blogs are reporting that a specific text message, when sent to an iPhone from any device, causes the phone to crash, shut down, and turn back on and, in some cases, some users are still unable to access messages again until the offending sender sends another text message. (The recipient can also return the phone to normal by responding to the sender from a different device, like an iMessage-enabled Mac or iPad, some sites report.) Users on Reddit have been discussing the problem and how to fix it.
The text message itself is not exactly something people would happen to be writing in the course of a normal day. If someone texts this to you, they are likely doing it with malicious intentions. We won’t replicate the specific message here, but it includes the words “effective”, “power,” and then a string of characters, including Arabic and Chinese letters.
A post on Reddit’s Apple subreddit, however, does share the message. And it is quickly resulting in people using the text to play jokes on their friends.
It’s unclear whether this is an accidental bug, or a sort of failsafe that Apple intended by design. We’ve reached out to Apple for comment on the issue and will update this story. Some news sites have suggested the cause of the bug is a problem with how the iPhone displays Arabic text. Regardless of the cause, the issue appears to be already becoming a popular and dangerous tool for aggravating pranks.
Apple sent Fortune the following comment regarding the bug: “We are aware of an iMessage issue caused by a specific series of unicode characters and we will make a fix available in a software update.
Laura Lorenzetii has a Fortune article about who's on top:
Google isn't number one any longer. After a brief demotion to the number two spot last year, Apple has won back its title as the world’s most valuable brand, according to the annual BrandZ ranking put together by marketing research firm Millward Brown.
Google briefly claimed the most valuable brand title last year, interrupting Apple’s three-year run. Apple’s brand value boomed 67% this year, hitting an impressive $247 billion. Google’s brand value, meanwhile, climbed 9% to $174 billion over that same period, making it the number-two-most valuable brand this year.
Millward calculates the most valuable brands using a mix of market data and consumer surveys to isolate what portion of a company’s value is due to its brand name.
Here are the eight most valuable brands for 2015:Rico says that since he doesn't own a share of any of them, it doesn't really matter to him...
1. AppleBrand value: $247 billion
Last year’s value: $148 billion
Change from last year: 67%
2. GoogleBrand value: $173 billion
Last year’s value: $158 billion
Change from last year: 9%
3. MicrosoftBrand value: $116 billion
Last year’s value: $90 billion
Change from last year: 28%
4. IBMBrand value: $94 billion
Last year’s value: $108 billion
Change from last year: -13%
5. VisaBrand value: $92 billion
Last year’s value: $79 billion
Change from last year: 16%
6. AT&TBrand value: $89 billion
Last year’s value: $78 billion
Change from last year: 15%
7. VerizonBrand value: $86 billion
Last year’s value: $63 billion
Change from last year: 36%
Brand value: $84 billion
Last year’s value: $81 billion
Change from last year: 4%
Posted by Rico at 09:00
SpaceX started with a plan to send mice to Mars. It got crazier from there.Rico says if you've got the balls and the money, why not?
In late October of 2001, Elon Musk went to Moscow to buy an intercontinental ballistic missile. He brought along Jim Cantrell, a kind of international aerospace supplies fixer, and Adeo Ressi, his best friend from Penn. Although Musk had tens of millions in the bank, he was trying to get a rocket on the cheap. They flew coach, and they were planning to buy a refurbished missile, not a new one. Musk figured it would be a good vehicle for sending a plant or some mice to Mars.
Ressi, a gangly eccentric, had been thinking a lot about whether his best friend had started to lose his mind, and he’d been doing his best to discourage the project. He peppered Musk with links to video montages of Russian, European, and American rockets exploding. He staged interventions, bringing Musk’s friends together to talk him out of wasting his money. None of it worked. Musk remained committed to funding a grand, inspirational spectacle in space and would spend all of his fortune to do it. And so Ressi went to Russia to contain Musk as best as he could. “Adeo would call me to the side and say, ‘What Elon is doing is insane. A philanthropic gesture? That’s crazy,’” said Cantrell. “He was seriously worried.”
The group set up a few meetings with companies such as NPO Lavochkin, which had made probes intended for Mars and Venus for the Russian Federal Space Agency, and Kosmotras, a commercial rocket launcher based in Moscow. The appointments all seemed to go the same way, following Russian decorum. The Russians, who often skip breakfast, would ask to meet around 11 am at their offices for an early lunch. Then there would be small talk for an hour or more as the meeting attendees picked over a spread of sandwiches, sausages, and, of course, vodka. After lunch came a lengthy smoking and coffee drinking period. Once all of the tables were cleared, the Russian in charge would turn to Musk and ask: “What is it you’re interested in buying?” The big windup may not have bothered Musk as much if the Russians had taken him more seriously. They viewed Musk as a novice when it came to space, and did not appreciate his bravado. “One of their chief designers spit on me and Elon because he thought we were full of shit,” Cantrell said. Team Musk returned empty-handed.
In February of 2002 the group returned to Russia, this time bringing Mike Griffin, who had worked for the CIA’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel; NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and was just leaving Orbital Sciences, a maker of satellites and spacecraft. Musk was now looking for not one, but three missiles and had a briefcase full of cash, too. They met with Kosmotras officials in an ornate, neglected, pre-revolutionary building near downtown Moscow. The vodka shots started— “To space!” “To America!”, and, a little buzzed, Musk asked point-blank how much a missile would cost. Eight million dollars each, they said. Musk countered, offering eight million for two. “They sat there and looked at him,” Cantrell said. “And said something like, ‘Young boy. No.’ They also intimated that he didn’t have the money.” At this point, Musk had decided the Russians were either not serious about doing business, or were just determined to part a dot-com millionaire from as much of his money as possible. He stormed out of the meeting.
The team went out into the snow and dreck of the Moscow winter, hailed a cab, and drove straight to the airport. The Russians were the only ones with rockets that could possibly fit within Musk’s budget, and they were too difficult to deal with. “It was a long drive,” Cantrell said. “We sat there in silence looking at the Russian peasants shopping in the snow.” The somber mood lingered all the way to the plane, until the drink cart arrived. “You always feel particularly good when the wheels lift off in Moscow,” Cantrell said. “It’s like, ‘My God. I made it.’ So, Griffin and I got drinks and clinked our glasses.” Musk sat in the row in front of them, typing on his computer. “We’re thinking, ‘Fucking nerd: What can he be doing now?’ ” At which point Musk wheeled around and flashed a spreadsheet he’d created. “Hey, guys,” he said, “I think we can build this rocket ourselves.”
Just a few months before, in June of 2001, Musk had turned thirty. “I’m no longer a child prodigy,” he told his college sweetheart and new wife, Justine, only half joking. Musk had emigrated from South Africa in 1988 and had made millions off two Internet companies, Zip2 and PayPal. Now, he was expected to act like a stereotypical dot-com rich guy and start some other web service. Musk, though, wanted more. As a child, he had dreamed of rocket ships and space travel, devouring Heinlein, Asimov, and Douglas Adams. For most people, a triumph in Silicon Valley would be the goal. For Musk, it was a stepping stone.
The changes in his attitude and thinking were obvious to friends, including a group of PayPal executives who gathered in Las Vegas one weekend to celebrate the recent sale. “We’re all hanging out in this cabana at the Hard Rock Cafe, and Elon is there reading some obscure Soviet rocket manual that was all moldy and looked like it had been bought on EBay,” said Kevin Hartz, an early PayPal investor. “He was studying it and talking openly about space travel and changing the world.”
Elon and Justine decided to move south to begin their family and the next chapter of their lives in Los Angeles. Unlike many Southern California transplants, they were drawn by the technology. The mild, consistent weather made it ideal for the aeronautics industry, which had been there since the 1920s, when Lockheed Aircraft set up shop in Hollywood. Howard Hughes, the Air Force, NASA, Boeing, and a mosaic of support industries followed suit. While Musk’s space plans were vague at the time, he felt confident that he could recruit some of the world’s top aeronautics thinkers and get them to join his next venture.
Musk started by crashing the Mars Society, an eclectic collection of space enthusiasts dedicated to exploring and settling the Red Planet. They were holding a fund-raiser in mid-2001, a five-hundred-dollar-per-plate event at the house of one of the well-off Mars Society members. What stunned Robert Zubrin, the head of the group, was the reply from someone named Elon Musk, whom no one could remember inviting. “He gave us a check for five grand,” Zubrin said. “That made everyone take notice.” Zubrin invited Musk for coffee ahead of the dinner and told him about the research center the society had built in the Arctic to mimic the tough conditions of Mars and the experiments they had been running for something called the Translife Mission, in which there would be a capsule orbiting earth carrying a crew of mice. It would spin to give them one-third gravity— the same as Mars— and they would live there and make babies.
When it was time for dinner, Zubrin placed Musk at the VIP table next to himself, the director and space buff James Cameron, and Carol Stoker, a planetary scientist for NASA. Musk loved it. “He was much more intense than some of the other millionaires,” Zubrin said. “He didn’t know a lot about space, but he had a scientific mind. He wanted to know exactly what was being planned in regards to Mars and what the significance would be.” Musk took to the Mars Society right away, and joined its board of directors. He donated an additional hundred thousand dollars to fund a research station in the desert.
Musk’s friends were not entirely sure what to make of his mental state at that time. He’d caught malaria while on vacation in Africa and lost a tremendous amount of weight fighting it off. Musk stands 6-1 but usually seems much bigger than that. He’s broad-shouldered, sturdy, and thick. This version of Musk, though, looked emaciated and with little prompting would start expounding on his desire to do something meaningful with his life. “He said, ‘The logical thing to happen next is solar, but I can’t figure out how to make any money out of it,’ ” said George Zachary, an investor and close friend of Musk’s, recalling a lunch date at the time. “He started talking about space, and I thought he meant office space, like a real estate play.” Musk had already started thinking beyond the Mars Society’s goals. Rather than send a few mice into earth’s orbit, Musk wanted to send them to Mars.
“He asked if I thought that was crazy,” Zachary said. “I asked, ‘Do the mice come back? Because, if they don’t, yeah, most people will think that’s crazy.’ ” Musk said that the mice were not only meant to go to Mars and come back, but they also would come home with the baby mice, too.
Musk built a network of space experts, and brought the best of them together at a series of salons, sometimes at the Renaissance hotel at the Los Angeles airport and sometimes at the Sheraton in Palo Alto. Musk had no formal business plan. He mostly wanted them to help him develop the mice-to-Mars idea, or at least to come up with something comparable. Musk hoped to hit on a wondrous gesture for mankind— some type of event that would capture the world’s attention, get people thinking about Mars again, and have them reflect on man’s potential. Scientists showed up from NASA’s JPL. Cameron was there again, along with Griffin. No one on the planet knew more about the realities of getting things into space than Griffin, and he was consulting for Musk. Four years later, he would be running NASA.
The experts were thrilled to have another rich guy appear who was willing to fund something interesting in space. They happily debated the merits and feasibility of sending up the mice. But the discussion turned to a different project, the Mars Oasis. In this scenario, Musk would buy a rocket and use it to shoot what amounted to a robotic greenhouse to Mars, a space-ready growth chamber for plants that could open up briefly and scoop in some of the Martian regolith, or soil, and then use it to grow a plant, which would in turn produce the first oxygen on Mars. Much to Musk’s liking, this plan seemed both ostentatious and feasible.
Musk wanted the space greenhouse to have a way to send a video feed to earth, so people could watch the plant grow. The group also talked about mailing kits to students around the country who would nurture their own plants simultaneously and notice, for example, that the Martian plant could grow twice as high as its earthbound counterpart in the same amount of time. Musk’s enthusiasm for the idea started to inspire the group, many of whom had grown cynical about anything novel happening in space again. There were immense engineering challenges that would need solving. Getting Martian soil into the structure seemed not only hard to do physically but also problematic, because the regolith would be toxic. For a while, the scientists debated growing the plant in a nutrient-rich gel instead, but that felt like cheating. Even the optimistic moments were awash in unknowns. One scientist found some very resilient mustard seeds and thought they could possibly survive a treated version of the Martian soil. “There was a pretty big downside if the plant didn’t survive,” said Dave Bearden, a space industry veteran who attended the meetings. “You’d have this dead garden on Mars.”
The main thing troubling the space experts was Musk’s budget. Following the salons, it seemed like Musk wanted to spend somewhere between twenty and thirty million dollars on the stunt, and everyone knew that the cost of a rocket launch alone would eat up that money and then some. Musk, however, had his own plans. He’d been devouring books he’d borrowed from Cantrell and others. They included Rocket Propulsion Elements, Fundamentals of Astrodynamics, and Aerothermodynamics of Gas Turbine and Rocket Propulsion. According to Musk’s calculations, he could undercut existing launch companies by building a modest-size rocket that specialized in carrying smaller satellites and research payloads to space. In June of 2002, he founded Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX. He was on his way to Mars.
SpaceX’s first headquarters was in an old warehouse in El Segundo, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. It had 75,000 square feet of open space and several receiving bays, allowing Musk to drive his silver McLaren F1 sports car right into his office. It was a sparse, hangarlike building with a dusty floor and curved ceilings. During the first week of SpaceX’s operations, delivery trucks showed up with laptops and printers and folding tables. Musk walked over to one of the loading docks, rolled up the door, and offloaded the equipment himself. Desks were eventually interspersed around the factory so the computer scientists and engineers designing the machines could sit with the welders and machinists building the hardware. In aerospace, this was daring. Traditional aerospace companies separate engineers and machinists by thousands of miles.
SpaceX planned to do a lot of things differently. Instead of assembling parts from thousands of suppliers, the company would build as much machinery as it could in-house. This included things like a mobile launchpad and— most ambitiously— rocket engines. Wherever possible, SpaceX would be faster, cheaper, and better than its competitors. It would launch multiple rockets each month, make money off each one, and never need to become a huge contractor dependent on government funds. SpaceX’s first rocket would be called the Falcon 1, a nod to the Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon. At a time when the cost of sending a quarter-ton-pound payload into orbit started at thirty million dollars, Musk promised that the Falcon 1 would be able to carry a fourteen-hundred-pound payload for seven million dollars.
The proposed timeline for upending the aerospace industry was comically short. One of the earliest SpaceX presentations promised the first complete engine by May of 2003, a second engine in June, the body of the rocket in July, and everything assembled by August. A launchpad would be ready by September, and the first launch would take place in November of 2003, or about fifteen months after the company started. A trip to Mars was naturally slated for somewhere near the end of the decade. “Elon has always been optimistic,” said Kevin Brogan, an early SpaceX recruit. “That’s the nice word. He can be a downright liar about when things need to get done. He will pick the most aggressive time schedule imaginable assuming everything goes right, and then accelerate it by assuming that everyone can work harder.”
Musk sought out young overachievers, personally calling top students in aerospace programs and recruiting them over the phone. “I thought it was a prank call,” said Michael Colonno, who heard from Musk while attending Stanford. “I did not believe for a minute that he had a rocket company.” Once the students looked Musk up on the Internet, selling them on SpaceX was easy. As word of SpaceX’s ambitions spread, top engineers with a high tolerance for risk from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital Sciences fled to the upstart, too.
Throughout the first year at SpaceX, one or two new employees joined almost every week. Brogan was employee tenty-three and came from TRW, a soon-to-be-shuttered aerospace player, where he’d been used to various internal policies blocking him from doing work. “I called it the country club,” he said. “Nobody did anything.” Brogan started at SpaceX the day after his interview and was told to scrounge around the office and find a computer to use. “It was go to Fry’s and get whatever you need and go to Staples and get a chair,” Brogan said.
One of the first projects was the construction of a gas generator, a machine not unlike a small rocket engine that produces hot gas to power pumps. Tom Mueller, another TRW veteran, Tim Buzza, a defector from Boeing, and a couple of young engineers assembled the generator in Los Angeles and then packed it into the back of a pickup truck and drove it out to the desert to test it. A town about a hundred miles from Los Angeles, Mojave had become a hub for aerospace companies such as Scaled Composites and XCOR.
The SpaceX team borrowed a test stand from XCOR that was just about the perfect size to hold the gas generator. The first ignition run took place at 11 am and lasted ninety seconds. The generator worked, but it let out a billowing black cloud that settled right over the airport tower. In the days that followed, SpaceX’s engineers perfected a routine that let them do multiple tests a day— an unheard-of practice at the airport— and had the gas generator tuned to their liking after two weeks of work.
The SpaceX team made a few more trips to Mojave and some other spots, including a test stand at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California and another in Mississippi. While on this countrywide rocketry tour, the SpaceX engineers visited a three-hundred-acre test site in McGregor, Texas, a small city near the center of the state. The site was a leftover from another billionaire, Andrew Beal, a real estate and finance whiz in Texas, who had folded his aerospace startup after pouring millions into the massive test facility. The SpaceX engineers really liked this spot and the three-story concrete test stand Beal had left there, and talked Musk into buying it.
Jeremy Hollman, a young engineer, soon found himself living in Texas. Hollman exemplified the kind of recruit Musk wanted: he’d earned an aerospace engineering degree from Iowa State University and a master’s in astronautical engineering from the University of Southern California. He’d spent a couple of years working as a test engineer at Boeing dealing with jets, rockets, and spacecraft. At 23, Hollman was young, single, and willing to give up any semblance of having a life in favor of working at SpaceX nonstop, and he became Mueller’s second in command.
Mueller had developed a pair of 3D computer models of the two engines he wanted to build. Merlin would be the engine for the first stage of the Falcon 1, which lifted it off the ground, and Kestrel would be the smaller engine used to power the upper, second stage of the rocket and guide it in space. Together, Hollman and Mueller figured out which parts SpaceX would build at the Los Angeles factory and which parts it would try to buy. For the purchased parts, Hollman had to head to various machine shops and get quotes and delivery dates for the hardware. Quite often, the machinists told Hollman that SpaceX’s timelines were nuts. Others were more accommodating, and would try to bend an existing product to SpaceX’s needs instead of building something from scratch. Hollman also found that ingenuity got him a long way. He discovered, for example, that changing the seals on some readily available carwash valves made them good enough to be used with rocket fuel.
In addition to building its own engines, rocket bodies, and capsules, SpaceX designed its own motherboards and circuits, sensors to detect vibrations, flight computers, and solar panels. On a radio, SpaceX’s engineers found that they could reduce the weight of the device by about twenty percent. And the cost savings were dramatic, dropping from the $50,000 to $100,000 for the industrial-grade equipment used by aerospace companies to $5,000 for SpaceX’s unit.
Even as they were trying to figure out Falcon 1, Musk was planning to build something he was calling the BFR, aka the Big Falcon Rocket or Big Fucking Rocket. It would have the biggest rocket engine in history. Musk’s bigger, faster mentality amused and impressed some of the suppliers that SpaceX occasionally turned to for help, like Barber-Nichols, a Colorado-based maker of rocket engine turbo pumps and other aerospace machinery. Bob Linden, a Barber-Nichols executive, remembers dealing with him. “Elon showed up with Tom Mueller and started telling us it was his destiny to launch things into space at lower costs and to help us become spacefaring people,” he said. “We thought the world of Tom, but weren’t quite sure whether to take Elon too seriously. They began asking us for the impossible. They wanted a turbo pump to be built in less than a year for under a million dollars. Boeing might do a project like that over five years for a hundred million. Tom told us to give it our best shot, and we built it in thirteen months. He was relentless.”
After SpaceX completed its first engine at the factory in California, Hollman loaded it along with mounds of other equipment into a U-Haul trailer, hitched it to the back of a white Hummer H2, and drove it down Interstate 10 from Los Angeles to the test site in Texas. Amid rattlesnakes, fire ants, isolation, and searing heat, the group fastened their prototype engine to the stand, filled it with liquid oxygen and kerosene, hid in a bunker behind a dirt berm, and fired it, for all of a tenth of a second. The bad news was it would need a lot of work. The good news was it didn’t blow up. (That would happen later, and the engineers had a term for that: “rapid unscheduled disassembly”.) After that first successful burn, the employees christened the site by drinking a twelve-hundred dollar bottle of Rémy Martin, left over from SpaceX’s inaugural party, out of paper cups.
Over the next years, the trek from California to the test site became known as the Texas Cattle Haul. SpaceX engineers would work for ten days straight in Texas, come back to California for a weekend, and then head back. To ease the burden of travel, Musk sometimes let them use his private jet. “It carried six people,” Mueller said. “Well, seven if someone sat in the toilet, which happened all the time.”
Musk, of course, wasn’t just building rockets. In 2003, about a year after he started SpaceX, Musk helped found Tesla Motors, which planned to sell an electric sports car. Musk had spent years pining after a good electric car, and though he had committed a hundred million to SpaceX, he would now put an additionalseventy million into Tesla and end up as the company’s CEO. It was a decision that would almost break both companies.
As he prepared to begin filming Iron Man in early 2007, director Jon Favreau rented out a complex in Los Angeles that once belonged to Hughes Aircraft, the aerospace and defense contractor started about eighty years earlier by Howard Hughes. The facility had a series of interlocking hangars and served as a production office for the movie. It also supplied Robert Downey Jr., who was to play Iron Man and his human creator, Tony Stark, with a splash of inspiration. Downey felt nostalgic looking at one of the larger hangars, which had fallen into a state of disrepair. Not too long ago, that building had played host to the big ideas of a big man who shook up industries and did things his own way. Downey had heard about a Howard Hughes-like figure who had constructed his own industrial complex about ten miles from the Iron Man set. Instead of visualizing how life might have been for Hughes, Downey could perhaps get a taste of the real thing. In March of 2007, he visited SpaceX’s headquarters in El Segundo and wound up receiving a personal tour from Musk. “My mind is not easily blown, but this place and this guy were amazing,” Downey said.
To Downey, the SpaceX facility looked like a giant, exotic hardware store. Enthusiastic employees were zipping about, fiddling with an assortment of machines. Young white-collar engineers interacted with blue-collar assembly line workers, and they all seemed to share a genuine excitement for what they were doing. “It felt like a radical startup company,” Downey said. After the initial tour, Downey came away pleased that the sets being hammered out at the former Hughes factory did have parallels to the SpaceX operations. “Things didn’t feel out of place,” he said.
The men walked, sat in Musk’s office, and had lunch. Downey appreciated that Musk was not a foul-smelling, fidgety, coder whack job. What Downey picked up on instead were Musk’s “accessible eccentricities” and the feeling that he was someone who could work alongside the people in the factory. When he returned to the Iron Man production office, Downey asked that Favreau be sure to place a Tesla Roadster in Tony Stark’s workshop. “After meeting Elon and making him real to me, I felt like having his presence in the workshop,” Downey said. “They became contemporaries. Elon was someone Tony probably hung out with and partied with, or more likely they went on some weird jungle trek together to drink concoctions with the shamans.” Musk later had a cameo in Iron Man 2.
Musk enjoyed his rising profile. He and Justine bought a house in Bel Air. Their neighbors were Quincy Jones and Joe Francis, the creator of the Girls Gone Wild videos. Musk and some former PayPal executives produced Thank You for Smoking and used Musk’s jet in the movie. While not a carouser, Musk took part in the Hollywood nightlife and its social scene. “We had a domestic staff of five; during the day our home transformed into a workplace,” Justine wrote in a magazine article for Marie Claire. “We went to black-tie fundraisers and got the best tables at elite Hollywood nightclubs, with Paris Hilton and Leonardo DiCaprio partying next to us. When Google co-founder Larry Page got married on Richard Branson’s private Caribbean island, we were there, hanging out in a villa with John Cusack and watching Bono pose with swarms of adoring women outside the reception tent.”
By this time, SpaceX was looking like a real aerospace company. It had built and tested its engines and completed a full rocket body. All Musk needed now was to fire the thing into the sky and see what happened.
Under normal circumstances, SpaceX might have launched its rockets from the nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base. The site has several launchpads to pick from, but none of the current tenants— Boeing, Lockheed, and the Air Force— were all that interested in helping an Internet executive get to space. Locked out locally, SpaceX decided to try Kwajalein Island— known as Kwaj— the largest island in an atoll between Guam and Hawai'i and part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The Army had used it for decades as a missile test site. Gwynne Shotwell, then SpaceX’s vice president for business development, looked up the name of a colonel at the test site and sent him an e-mail. Three weeks later she got a call back from the Army, saying they would love to have SpaceX fly from the islands.
To get to Kwaj, the SpaceX employees either flew on Musk’s jet or took commercial flights through Hawai'i. The main accommodations were two-bedroom affairs that looked more like dormitories than hotel rooms, with their military-issued dressers and desks. Over the course of several months a small team of people cleared brush on nearby Omelek Island to create a launch site and converted a double-wide trailer into offices. The work took place in soul-sapping humidity under a sun powerful enough to burn the skin through a t-shirt. The SpaceX team started at sunrise, around 7 am, and went until 7 pm. “One or two people would decide it was their night to cook, and they would make steak and potatoes and pasta,” Hollman said. “We had a bunch of movies and a DVD player, and some of us did a lot of fishing off the docks.” For many of the engineers, this was both a torturous and magical experience. “At Boeing you could be comfortable, but that wasn’t going to happen at SpaceX,” said Walter Sims, a SpaceX tech expert who found time to get certified to scuba dive while on Kwaj. “Every person on that island was a fcuking star, and they were always holding seminars on radios or the engine. It was such an invigorating place.”
Time and again, the rocket would get rolled out to the launchpad and tipped vertical for a couple of days, and then technical and safety checks would reveal a host of new problems. As soon as they could, the engineers returned it to the hangar to protect it from the salty air. Teams that had labored separately for months back at the SpaceX factory— propulsion, avionics, software— were thrown together on the island and forced to become an interdisciplinary whole. “It was like Gilligan’s Island, except with rockets,” Hollman said.
Finally, on 24 March 2006, the engineers had fixed enough bugs to launch. The Falcon 1 stood on its square launchpad and ignited. It soared into the sky and started to shrink against the vast blue expanse. In the island control room, Musk paced as he watched the action, wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a t-shirt. Then, about twenty-five seconds in, a fire broke out above the Merlin engine, and suddenly this machine that had been flying straight and true started to spin and then tumble back to earth. The Falcon 1 ended up falling directly onto the launch site. Most of the debris went into a reef two hundred feet from the launchpad, and the satellite cargo smashed through SpaceX’s machine shop roof and landed more or less intact on the floor. Some of the engineers put on their snorkeling and scuba gear and recovered the pieces, fitting all of the rocket’s remnants into two refrigerator-size crates.
After the crash, there was a lot of drinking at a bar on the main island. Musk wanted to launch again within six months, but putting together a new machine would require an immense amount of work. Musk had vowed publicly that he would build a working rocket, but people inside and outside the company were doing back-of-the-envelope math and could tell that SpaceX likely could afford only one more attempt. To the extent that the financial situation unnerved Musk, he rarely if ever let it show to employees. “Elon did a great job of not burdening people with those worries,” said Branden Spikes, head of IT for SpaceX. “He always communicated the importance of being lean and of success, but it was never, ‘If we fail, we’re done for.’ He was very optimistic.”
Meanwhile, SpaceX had put another group of engineers on a new project to develop the Falcon 9, a nine-engine rocket that would serve as a possible replacement for the retiring space shuttle. SpaceX had yet to prove it could get to space successfully, but Musk was already positioning the company to bid on big-ticket NASA contracts.
In mid-2008, SpaceX prepared its fourth rocket for launch. Typically, the body of the Falcon 1 traveled to Kwaj via barge. Maybe it was “go fever,” which is how rocket people describe the manic decision-making that can characterize a launch, but this time around Musk and the engineers were too excited and desperate to wait for the ocean journey. Musk rented a military cargo plane to fly the rocket body from Los Angeles to Hawai'i and then on to Kwaj. This would have been a fine idea, except the SpaceX engineers forgot to think about what the pressurized plane would do to the body of the rocket, which is less than an eighth of an inch thick. As the plane started its descent into Hawai'i, strange noises came from the cargo hold. “I looked back and could see the stage crumpling,” said Bulent Altan, the former head of avionics at SpaceX. “I told the pilot to go up, and he did.” The rocket was buckling from the increasing air pressure like an empty water bottle.
Altan saw that the SpaceX team on the plane had about thirty minutes to do something about the problem before they would need to land. They pulled out their pocketknives and cut away the shrink wrap that covered the rocket. They found a maintenance kit on the plane and used the wrenches to open up some nuts on the rocket that would allow its internal pressure to match that of the plane’s. When the plane landed, the engineers divvied up the duties of calling SpaceX’s top executives to tell them what happened. It was 3 am Los Angeles time, and one of the executives volunteered to deliver the news to Musk.
It looked like three months of work to fix the rocket. The body had caved in several places, and the baffles placed inside the fuel tank to stop the fuel from sloshing had broken. Musk ordered the team to continue on to Kwaj and sent in a reinforcement team with repair parts. Two weeks later, the rocket was fixed. “It was like being stuck in a foxhole together,” Altan said. “You weren’t going to quit and leave the person next to you behind.”
The fourth and possibly final launch for SpaceX took place on 28 September 2008. SpaceX employees had worked nonstop shifts for months to reach this moment. They had been separated from their families, in exile on their tiny, hot outpost— sometimes without much food— for days on end as they waited for launch windows to open and dealt with the aborts that followed.
In the late afternoon, the SpaceX team raised the Falcon 1 to its launch position. It stood tall, looking like a bizarre artifact from the future as palm trees swayed beside it and a smattering of clouds crossed through the spectacular blue sky. By this time, SpaceX had turned each launch into a major Web production, so there was a worldwide audience. The Falcon 1 was not carrying real cargo this time; neither the company nor the military nor NASA wanted to see something else blow up or get lost at sea, so the rocket held a four-hundred-pound dummy payload.
Musk, back in Los Angeles, tried to distract himself from the mounting pressure by going to Disneyland with his brother Kimbal and their children but, by 4 pm, he was back in SpaceX’s Los Angeles control room, watching the feed. As the rocket rumbled and then climbed higher, the employees inside SpaceX’s headquarters let out raucous cheers. Each milestone that followed— clearing the island, engine checks coming back good— was again met with whistles and shouts. After the first stage fell away, the second stage fired up about ninety seconds into the flight and the employees turned downright rapturous, filling the webcast with their ecstatic hollering. “Perfect,” said one of the talking heads. The Kestrel engine glowed red and started its six-minute burn. “When the second stage cleared, I could finally start breathing again and my knees stopped buckling,” said James McLaury, a machinist at SpaceX.
The fairing opened up around the three-minute mark and fell back toward earth. And, finally, around nine minutes into its journey, the Falcon 1 shut down just as planned. After six years— about four-and-a-half more than Musk had once planned— the first privately built, liquid-fueled rocket had reached orbit.
“Everyone burst into tears,” Kimbal said. “It was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had.” Musk left the control room and walked out to the factory floor, where he received a rock star’s welcome. “Well, that was freaking awesome,” he said. “As the saying goes, ‘The fourth time is the charm,’ right?”
The afterglow, however, soon faded. SpaceX, like Musk’s other company, Tesla, was facing a major cash shortage. SpaceX had the Falcon 9 efforts to support and had also green-lighted the construction of the Dragon capsule, which would take supplies and, one day, humans, to the International Space Station. Historically, either project would have cost more than a billion dollars to complete, but SpaceX would have to find a way to build both machines simultaneously for a fraction of the cost. The company had dramatically increased the rate at which it hired employees and moved into a much larger headquarters. SpaceX had a commercial flight booked to carry a satellite into orbit for the Malaysian government, but that launch and the payment for it would not arrive until the middle of 2009. In the meantime, SpaceX simply struggled to make its payroll. Just when it had figured out how to fly a rocket, SpaceX was going broke.
As bad as they were, the financial problems did not compare to the collapse of Musk’s personal life. Not long after moving to Los Angeles, Musk had lost his ten-week-old son, Nevada Alexander, to sudden infant death syndrome. “I’m not sure why I’d want to talk about extremely sad events,” Musk told me. “It does no good for the future. If you’ve got other kids and obligations, then wallowing in sadness does no good for anyone around you. I’m not sure what should be done in such situations.” Musk went on to have five more sons with Justine— twins and triplets— but their relationship broke apart in 2008, and Musk filed for divorce. Justine soon began documenting the divorce on a blog, and the press was all too happy to merge the personal details into stories of Musk’s financial woes.
Reporters seemed to take a special pleasure in attacking Tesla. The electric car maker had suffered through numerous product delays, management changes, and cost overruns. After five years and tens of millions of dollars, there was still no Tesla available to buy. A website called the Truth About Cars began a Tesla Death Watch in May of 2008 and followed up with dozens of entries throughout the year. The blog captured Tesla’s engineering issues and Musk’s feud with Tesla co-founder Martin Eberhard, who’d been forced out of the company.
“I was just getting pistol-whipped,” Musk said. “There was a lot of schadenfreude at the time, and it was bad on so many levels. Justine was torturing me in the press. ... It hurt really bad. You have these huge doubts that your life is not working, your car is not working, you’re going through a divorce and all of those things. I felt like a pile of shit. I didn’t think we would overcome it. I thought things were probably fucking doomed.”
When Musk looked at the numbers, it looked like only one company would survive. “I could either pick SpaceX or Tesla or split the money I had left between them,” Musk said. “That was a tough decision. If I split the money, maybe both of them would die. If I gave the money to just one company, the probability of it surviving was greater, but then it would mean certain death for the other company. I debated that over and over.” In the meantime, the economy was worsening, and spacecraft and sports cars seemed out of place in a time of near-record unemployment.
The brightest light in Musk’s life at the time was Talulah Riley, a 22-year-old British actress he had started dating and would later marry. She viewed Musk’s life as Shakespearean tragedy. Sometimes Musk would open up to her, and other times he retreated into himself. Riley spied on Musk while he read e-mail, and watched him grimace as bad news poured in. “You’d witness him having these conversations in his head,” she said. “It’s really hard to watch someone you love struggle like that.” Because of the long hours that he worked and his eating habits, bags formed under his eyes. “He looked like death itself,” Riley said. “I remember thinking this guy would have a heart attack and die. He seemed like a man on the brink.”
Burning through about four million dollars a month, Tesla needed to close another major round of funding to get through 2008 and stay alive. Musk had to lean on friends just to make payroll from week to week as he negotiated with investors. He sent impassioned pleas to anyone he could think of who might be able to spare some money. Bill Lee, a wealthy friend, invested two million dollars in Tesla, and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, invested a half million. Kimbal had lost most of his money during the recession, but sold what investments he had left and put it into Tesla as well. The company had set the prepayments that customers made for the Roadsters aside, but Musk now needed to use that money to keep the company going. Soon those funds were gone, too. These maneuvers worried Kimbal. “I’m sure Elon would have found a way to make things right, but he definitely took risks,” he said.
In December of 2008, Musk heard a rumor that NASA was on the verge of awarding a contract to resupply the space station. SpaceX’s fourth launch had put it in a position to receive some of this money, which was said to be in excess of a billion dollars. Musk reached out through back channels in Washington and found out that SpaceX might even be a front-runner for the deal.
As for Tesla, Musk made a last-ditch effort to raise all the personal funds he could. He took out a loan from SpaceX, which NASA approved— Musk did not want to mess up his chance for a contract— and earmarked the money for Tesla. He went to the secondary markets to try to sell some of his shares in SolarCity, a solar panel installer where he served as chairman. He lucked into about fifteen million dollars that came through when Dell acquired a data center software startup called Everdream, founded by Musk’s cousins, in which he had invested.
Musk finally put together about twenty million dollars and asked Tesla’s existing investors— since no new investors materialized— to match that figure. The investors agreed, and on 3 December 2008, they were in the process of finalizing the paperwork for the funding round when Musk noticed a problem. VantagePoint Capital Partners had signed all of the paperwork except for one crucial page. Musk phoned Alan Salzman, VantagePoint’s co-founder and managing partner, to ask about the situation. Salzman told Musk that the firm had a problem with the investment round because it undervalued Tesla. Salzman asked Musk to come in the following week at 7 am to present to VantagePoint’s top brass and explain the deal. Not having a week of time to work with, Musk demanded to come in the next day, and Salzman refused, forcing Musk to continue taking on loans. “The only reason he wanted the meeting at his office was for me to come on bended knee begging for money so he could say ‘No’, ” Musk theorized. “What a fcukhead.”
VantagePoint declined to speak about this period, but Musk believed that Salzman’s tactics were part of a mission to bankrupt Tesla. Musk feared that VantagePoint would oust him as CEO, recapitalize Tesla, and emerge as the major owner of the carmaker. It could then sell Tesla to a Detroit automaker or focus on selling electric drivetrains and battery packs instead of making cars.
In response, Musk took another huge risk. Tesla recharacterized the funding as a debt round, knowing that VantagePoint could not interfere with a debt deal. The tricky part of this strategy was that venture capital investors, such as Draper Fisher Jurvetson, are not structured to do debt deals. Persuading their backers to alter their rules of engagement for a company that could very well go bankrupt in a matter of days would be tough. So Musk bluffed. He told the investors that he would take another loan from SpaceX and fund the entire round— all forty million dollars— himself. The tactic worked: The investors handed over twenty million. “When you have scarcity, it naturally reinforces greed and leads to more interest,” Steve Jurvetson said. “It was also easier for us to go back to our firms and say, ‘Here is the deal. Go or no go?’ ”
In the meantime, at SpaceX, Musk and top executives had spent most of December in a state of fear, but on 23 December 2008, SpaceX received a wonderful shock. The company won a two billion dollar contract for twelve NASA resupply flights to the space station. Then the Tesla deal ended up closing successfully, on Christmas Eve, hours before Tesla would have gone bankrupt. Musk had just a few hundred thousand dollars left and could not have made payroll the next day.
Staying with Kimbal in Boulder, Colorado for the holidays, Musk broke down in tears as the SpaceX and Tesla transactions processed. “I hadn’t had an opportunity to buy a Christmas present for Talulah or anything,” he said. “I went running down the fucking street in Boulder, and the only place that was open sold these shitty trinkets, and they were about to close. The best thing I could find were these plastic monkeys with coconuts, those ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ monkeys.”
Antonio Gracias, a Tesla and SpaceX investor and one of Musk’s closest friends, had watched all of this transpire; 2008 told him everything he would ever need to know about Musk’s character. “He has the ability to work harder and endure more stress than anyone I’ve ever met,” Gracias said. “What he went through in 2008 would have broken anyone else. Most people who are under that sort of pressure fray. Their decisions go bad. Elon gets hyper-rational. He’s still able to make very clear, long-term decisions. The harder it gets, the better he gets.”
Today, the headquarters of SpaceX is on One Rocket Road in Hawthorne, California, a few miles from Los Angeles International Airport. It’s a half-million square feet and painted a blinding white. Near the back, enormous sheets of metal arrive and are transported to two-story-high welding machines, to be turned into rockets. Over to one side, technicians in white coats make motherboards, radios, and more electronics. Others are in a special, airtight glass chamber, building the capsules that dock with the International Space Station. Tattooed men in bandanas blast Van Halen and thread wires around rocket engines. There are fuselages lined up and ready to be placed on trucks; others await coats of white paint. Everywhere, there are bodies in motion around a variety of bizarre machines. It is difficult to take in the entire factory at once.
On the wall leading up to Musk’s cubicle on the first floor of the SpaceX headquarters are two posters of Mars. The one on the left is Mars as it is today— a cold, barren red orb. The poster on the right shows a Mars with a cheery green landmass surrounded by oceans. The planet has been heated up and transformed to suit humans.
For all his swagger, Musk can be surprisingly shy and awkward in person. Like a lot of engineers, he will pause while searching for exact phrasing, and he’ll often wander down a scientific rabbit hole without offering any lay translations along the way. He expects you to keep up; there’s no small talk. He can also be disarmingly sincere. “I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future,” he says, while chatting at his cubicle and making his way through a cup of cookies-and-cream ice cream with sprinkles on top, just passed to him by an assistant. “If we can solve sustainable energy and be well on our way to becoming a multi-planetary species with a self-sustaining civilization on another planet— to cope with a worst-case scenario happening and extinguishing human consciousness— then I think that would be really good.”
His once-failing companies are thriving. SpaceX flew a supply capsule to the International Space Station, brought it safely back to earth, and soon plans to begin flying humans and building reusable rockets. Tesla Motors delivered the Model S, a beautiful, all-electric sedan that took the automotive industry’s breath away. Musk is also the chairman and principal shareholder of SolarCity, which has become the largest installer of solar panels.
Most CEOs have handlers, but Musk usually moves about on his own, in his usual black t-shirt and designer jeans. During one interview in Los Angeles, Musk walks me out of the SpaceX facility, and we hop into his Model S sedan to zip over to the Tesla design studio, a couple of buildings away. We talk as he makes his way around the studio’s main floor, inspecting prototype parts and vehicles. At each station, employees rush up and give him updates. He listens intently, processes, nods, and moves on. Tesla’s design chief, Franz von Holzhausen, wants Musk’s take on some new tires and rims for the Model S and seats for the Model X. He seems unmoved. He tells him he’ll think about it and then walks toward the source of the loudest noise— a workshop deep in the design studio where Tesla engineers are building the scaffolding for the thirty-foot decorative towers that go outside the company’s charging stations. “That thing looks like it could survive a Category 5 hurricane,” Musk says. “Let’s thin it up a bit.”
Currently, SpaceX sends up about one rocket a month, carrying satellites for companies and nations. The company can undercut its competitors— Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital Sciences— on price by a wide margin. It also offers US customers a peace of mind that its rivals can’t. Where competitors rely on Russian and other foreign suppliers, SpaceX makes its machines from scratch in the US. Its sixty million dollars per launch cost is much less than what Europe and Japan charge, and trumps even the relative bargains offered by the Russians and Chinese, who have the added benefit of cheap labor and decades of government investment.
To date, SpaceX has flown satellites for Canadian, European, and Asian customers and completed about two dozen launches. Its launch manifest stretches out for a number of years, and SpaceX has more than fifty flights planned, which are all together worth more than five billion dollars. The company remains privately owned, with Musk as the largest shareholder. SpaceX is profitable and is estimated to be worth twelve billion dollars.
The Falcon 9 has gone from a fantasy to SpaceX’s workhorse. It’s just over two hundred feet tall, twelve feet across, and weighs a million pounds. It’s powered by nine engines arranged in an “octaweb” pattern, with a center engine surrounded by eight others. The engines power the first stage of the rocket, which bears the blue SpaceX insignia and an American flag. The shorter second stage is the one that does things in space. It can be outfitted with a rounded container for carrying satellites, or a capsule capable of transporting humans. There’s nothing particularly flashy-looking about the Falcon 9. It’s an elegant, purposeful machine.
These days, SpaceX sometimes uses Vandenberg Air Force Base to send up Falcon 9s. Were it not owned by the military, the base would be a resort. The Pacific Ocean runs for miles along its border, and its grounds are wide open shrubby fields amid green hills. Nestled into one hilly spot just at the ocean’s edge are a handful of launchpads. On launch days, the white Falcon 9 breaks up the blue and green landscape, pointing skyward and leaving no doubt about its intentions.
On 29 September 2013, about four hours before a launch, the Falcon 9’s fueling process begins by filling the tanks with some fifty thousand gallons of liquid oxygen and thirty thousand gallons of rocket-grade kerosene. Some of the liquid oxygen vents out of the rocket and is so cold that it boils off on contact with the metal and air, forming white plumes that stream down the rocket’s sides. This gives the impression of the Falcon 9 huffing and puffing as it limbers up before the journey. The engineers in SpaceX’s mission control chatter on headsets and cycle through their launch checklist as they move from one approval to the next. Ten minutes before launch, the machines take over. Everything goes quiet, and the tension builds until, out of nowhere, the Falcon 9 breaks the silence with a loud gasp.
A latticed support structure pulls away from the fuselage. The T-minus-ten-seconds countdown begins. At the count of three, the engines ignite, and the computers conduct a last health check. Four enormous metal clamps hold the rocket down, as computing systems ensure that the nine engines are producing sufficient downward force. At zero, the clamps release. The rocket goes to war with inertia and, with flames surrounding its base and snow-thick plumes of the liquid oxygen filling the air, it shoots up. Seeing something so large hold so straight and steady while suspended in midair is hard for the brain to process. It is foreign, inexplicable. About twenty seconds after liftoff, the spectators a few miles away hear and feel the Falcon 9’s full rumble. It’s a distinct sound, a sort of staccato crackling that makes pant legs vibrate. After about a minute, the rocket is a red spot in the sky, and then it’s gone.
Posted by Rico at 03:39