Space oddity: Elon Musk and his mission to Mars

Next week the billionaire SA expat Elon Musk will make space flight history by docking his own orbiter, Dragon, with the International Space Station.

It was bad South African TV that gave Elon Musk part of his mysterious edge. As a 10-year-old he read whole volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica after emptying the family bookshelvesanything to avoid another episode of ChiPs or Die Man van Intersek.

Now, 29 years later, Musk is still playing video games alone into the late hours of the night.

These days it is in a basement man cave in a leased mansion in Bel Air, California, where Musk, who sold his online payment system PayPal for R11-billion in 2002, is plotting the future of the human race.

Sixteen months ago, the South African expat accomplished something only ever achieved by the governments of the United States, Russia and China. He sent a spacecraft into orbit and then recovered it.

Changing space flight Next Monday he plans to change space flight forever, becoming the first entrepreneur to dock his own orbiter, Dragon, with the International Space Station.

And it literally is his spacecraft. Beyond founding his private SpaceX company in 2002, Musk likes to remind people that he is also the self-taught chief designer of the Falcon launch rockets and their Dragon capsules.

Shortly after the symbolic end of the space-shuttle era and the transport of the shuttle Enterprise to its new home at a New York museum, Americans are struggling to digest how an African-born 39-year-old with no background in rocketry represents their future access to spacea guy so apparently whacky he once travelled to Russia to haggle with God knows who for an intercontinental ballistic missile, which he hoped to use to land a greenhouse on Mars.

It is tough for a lot of people to swallow, said Rand Simberg, a leading space industry analyst. But he is a visionary guy and I take him at his word. Barring disasters, he will be ferrying astronauts to space and he is quite serious when he said he wants to retire on Mars.

From the terse and stoic reassurances of Nasa administrators, Americans are now having to deal with this kind of rhetoric from their new doorman to the heavens: An asteroid or a super-volcano could certainly destroy us and we face risks the dinosaurs never saw: an engineered virus, inadvertent creation of a micro black hole, catastrophic global warming or some as-yet-unknown technology could spell the end of us, he wrote in an essay for Esquire in 2008. And that is when he is making sense.

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Space oddity: Elon Musk and his mission to Mars

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