Sorry Mr Musk, we were too busy...

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

During the 14th and 15th Century, the Minister of Science and Technology was known as the Pope. To speak out against the Pope was heresy (as Galileo discovered to his detriment) and so everything the pope pronounced was amplified by the then equivalent of the media. And one of the things that the Pope was pretty firm about was that the earth is the centre of the universe, after all, the bible says so in at least three or four different places.

It's a mindset that's pretty much shared by our current Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, who has spent much of her tenure in her current job wringing her hands around delays in deciding which country — South Africa or Australia — would host the Square Kilometre Array; a project to build the world's largest radio telescope.

That hand-wringing came to an end this week after the committee responsible for deciding who would host the project decided with the wisdom of Solomon to cut the baby in two giving two-thirds of the project to South Africa and the rest to the Antipodeans.

I scrolled through the minister's 25 May pronouncements on the subject: "The decision by the SKA Organisation to build the majority of the SKA in Africa coincides with our celebrations for Africa Day today. It also fits in well with the African agenda as we celebrate the 49th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity and the 10th anniversary of the African Union. The SKA has been endorsed by the African Union, both in 2010 and earlier this year."

Meanwhile, across the world on that very same day, our very own Galileo was making history.

I'm speaking of Elon Musk.

If you have not heard the name, I don't blame you. I blame my colleagues in the media who are so obsessed with the president's penis that they would not recognise greatness even if it jumped up and bit them in the crotch.

Briefly, Musk was born in Pretoria in 1971 to a South African father and a Canadian-American mother and completed matric at Pretoria Boys High School. He left South Africa at age 17 in 1988 partly to avoid military service. "I don't have an issue with serving in the military per se, but serving in the South African army suppressing black people just didn't seem like a really good way to spend time, " he is quoted as saying.

A full scholarship to Ivy League school University of Pennsylvania saw him earning two bachelor's degrees. He began a graduate programme at Stanford but dropped out to start an online content publishing software company for news organisations in 1995 with his brother Kimbal. They sold that company for $307 million cash in 1999.

He then founded, an online financial services and email payment company, merged that with the company that owned the name "PayPal", and in 2002 sold that company to eBay for $1,5 billion.

In June of that year, he founded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). In 2008, SpaceX was awarded a $1,6 billion NASA contract for 12 flights of their Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, replacing the Space Shuttle programme which ended this year.

Musk is also the co-founder and head designer at Tesla Motors which produces the Tesla Roadster — the world's first electric sports car. Tesla also manufactures the electric powertrain for the Mercedes-Benz A class and for the Toyota RAV4.

He is also founder and chairman of Solar City which is the largest provider of solar power systems in the US.

On Friday, 25 May 2012, SpaceX's Dragon successfully docked with the International Space Station.

Think about it: prior to Friday, there were only three players which have successfully put a craft into space and brought it back – first Russia, then the United States, then China. Those three did so with unlimited funding from taxpayers. Elon Musk is the fourth, and he put together the entire programme including rocket design, testing, and launch operations for less than the cost of the entire SKA project. And he did not need a minister's lobbying to do so.

Were I president of this country, I would have fêted Musk with a ticker tape parade, plastered his face on every available billboard, and launched a campaign in every high school to show our kids what one person can accomplish with determination.

But we live in a society which lionises the collective and damns the individual — hence our celebration of our acquisition of the SKA project which simply rents out our real estate to scientists around the world when we could have funded it ourselves and profited from exclusivity on the research.

Musk said afterward: "The President just called to say congrats. Caller ID was blocked, so at first I thought it was a telemarketer."

FNB CEO Michael Jordaan noted that Musk meant Obama, not Zuma.