The Day My Dad Met Elon Musk
Q: What do you get a rocket scientist for Father’s Day?
A: Another rocket scientist!
The idea started, festered really, over several years. Every time I read an article about something created by some guy named Elon Musk.
Festering is the mother of invention. It’s the unconscious mind, collecting data, making sense of it, and then seeding an idea into the conscious mind until it takes hold. The trick is to be able to become aware of that idea – that magic “aha!” moment – and to make it real.
They had to meet.
On Rocket Science
My dad, Norm Ingold, is a genuine rocket scientist. Not just any old rocket scientist either. He has nearly 50 years’ practical experience. He even worked on Apollo 13 for NASA – increasing the accuracy of the guidance systems of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) from 200 miles to 3 miles – an action that helped save the astronaut’s lives.
That’s his speciality. Testing and improving accuracy using a method he helped pioneer – the sled test – at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. A rocket is placed on a sled and sent down a track at beyond the speed of sound. Its progress along the track is measured in minute detail to check for anomalies. Dad then extended the program to come up with the reverse velocity sled test.
I was very lucky as a child to witness some of the tests. He’d say, “Watch closely now, it’s about to start.” And we’d watch it take off, incredibly fast, racing along the track across the backdrop of the White Sands desert and the jagged volcanic dykes that formed the Organ Mountains. It would come to a dramatic halt as a water brake sent up a gigantic plume into the sky. Then the sonic boom would hit. The kind of sound that travels through you – and makes windows rattle in their frames. It was magical.
My dad eventually retired as Chief Scientist a few years before the millennium. But his work didn’t end there. In 2009 the military invited him to a special dinner to honour the old scientists. They asked him what he remembered. He remembered everything. Out to the 21st decimal point. He’d even solved some of the problems they’d had decades before. Most importantly, he remembered ways of thinking and solving problems that they’d lost as the world shifted from a mix of analogue and digital to purely computer-based solutions. So thirteen years after he retired, they hired him back as a consultant.
My favourite story is how, after he returned, he increased the accuracy of a specific rocket component by 1000% using a printout, a ruler and a calculator. Back in ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Dad and his colleagues would print out the data as a graph on that old-style computer paper that had green and white lines on one side, sprocket holes along the edges and perforations between the pages, so you could print out a lot of code or a lot of graph data. They’d lay it out along the long corridors and “walk the graph” – looking for anomalies. As the human brain is an image processing beast, it’s very good at looking at the whole picture and identifying regions that don’t seem to fit. When they found an anomaly they zoomed in and looked more closely at the data. So Dad had them print out the data as a graph, which he then measured for distance with a ruler, and ran the matrix calculations by hand with a calculator. He ran the matrix calculations by hand because cumulative floating point calculations run on a computer can introduce a degree of error depending on the precision.
As Elon puts it, Dad applies “First Principles” thinking – i.e. going back to basics and core fundamentals – to solve problems to come up with better (in this case, more accurate) solutions.
But the similarity with Elon didn’t end at rocket science.
Dad now has 17 cars, including a selection of antiques he intends to restore. My favourite, and the most restored, is a 1930 V16 Cadillac. At nineteen feet long, it’s the second one ever made, and sports a chrome goddess hood ornament on top a dual-tone green body with two banks of straight eight engines which can be run independently or together.
Dad also used to race cars. He always said he liked to hire engineers who were race car drivers because they understood how to take risks.
While Elon’s cars don’t even have an engine to restore as they’re fully electric, there is a shared love of the beauty and the speed – Tesla’s P85D model has a Ludicrous Speed option that makes it a sedan that’s faster than a Ferrari and “faster than falling” as Elon says.
I grew up in a cabin Dad built by hand on our 100 acres of land in the mountains of New Mexico. He designed it with a love of science – the bookshelves use the golden ratio, the steps pitter-patter at half heights to the second story – and he built it using a combination of physics, trigonometry and sheer strength. He mixed about 57,000 pounds of cement in a half-cut 50-gallon drum – by hand, with a shovel, and poured it onto bedrock.
The view from the deck of mountains 122 miles distant is amazing. As is the stripe of the Milky Way on a new moon when you lean back and look up at the night sky. And the sound of a New Mexico rainstorm on the tin roof is one of the most peaceful ways to spend a lazy afternoon.
He built the cabin off-grid. Back when solar was hippy. Not hip. And of course he also built a barn, by hand, to host all the solar panels (and keep the cars dry). He stores the solar power in a bank of golf cart batteries which he runs through an inverter to convert into house current.
On Lateral Innovation
Dad’s second grade teacher said he’d never amount to anything, because he took longer than all the other students to do anything. He took longer because he was thinking. Thinking about what he was doing, rather than just “doing” because a teacher told him so.
He’s been able to do all these things because he was interested in thinking about so many things. He studied geology, anthropology, physics (including both quantum mechanics and relativity), mathematics, linguistics and chemistry. He could do solar because he understood electricity. And he’s used everything in rocket science.
He also studied seven languages, six of which he still speaks fluently. To solve problems he often flips between languages as that engages his brain differently. Language is a window through which we interpret the world. The words available to us say “how” we interpret. Different words and sentence structures bring different ways of understanding a problem to come up with a solution.
Dad always says, “Learn everything about everything.” Regardless of whether it’s in your field or not. His insight is that people who impose limits on you are working off their own limits, self-imposed or otherwise. So, don’t limit. Be curious. Learn everything. And discover the true range of your potential by innovating laterally across everything that you learn.
On Making the Impossible Happen
Just before Father’s Day, 2015, a friend posted an article on Tesla Powerwall on Facebook. Powerwall is a very slim line way of storing solar power in a battery. Much more efficient space-wise than Dad’s 28 golf-cart batteries, although several would need to be ganged together and hung on the walls. Elon had made a series of battery storage advancements because of his work on Tesla electric cars and Solar City and a desire to make their factories powered by solar, and completely off-grid. I had to admit it was pretty cool. And there was that name again. Elon Musk.
That unconscious nudge turned into a fairly sharp knock. Within 24 hours I’d published Father’s Day for Rocket Scientists – A Letter to Elon Musk, saying it would be marvellous if they met. Within another 24 hours I had a yes from Elon.
The date was set for Monday the 24th of August, 2015 at 6:15pm. We’d meet Elon at SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, near LAX airport and get a VIP tour. It would’ve been easy for me to fly from London to Los Angeles. But Dad wanted to drive his pickup truck from New Mexico to Los Angeles, a distance of nearly 900 miles. So I flew out to join him.
We packed up the pickup with luggage and lots of water and headed out, past Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range and turned onto I-10 which would take us straight to LA.
Dad may be 81 now, but he’s still the same person inside. He did the driving. I did the navigating. Just like our road trip to the Grand Canyon when I graduated high school. Except now I used my air miles to book us into a beautifully rustic ranch in the saguaro covered hills of Tanque Verde in Tucson. After all the driving, Dad was thrilled to discover they had a bar on site. We took refuge there, sipping Prickly Pear margaritas, when the summer thunderstorms hit and my phone notified me about local flood warnings.
After a wander through the saguaros in the morning, we loaded up the pick-up and headed through Tucson back to I-10. We drove past The University of Arizona on our way out. I discovered that’s where Dad had been working on his Physics PhD, when he got the job offer at Holloman. Dad had already completed his Master’s degree on the first non-surgical ear thermometer. So if you’ve ever used one, you can thank Dad for expanding on Benzinger’s research so that you don’t have to have thermocouples surgically implanted into your eardrums first!
After crossing miles of empty desert we arrived at sunset into the chaos of LA.
We met that night with “the person who does not wish to be named”. The one who, when I asked for help, asked Elon, and helped me make it happen. I am grateful for my courage to ask for the impossible. And I am forever thankful to those with the courage to respond.
Meeting Mr Musk
After months of waiting, a multitude of emails and phone calls and thousands of miles, it was finally the day. The day Dad would meet Elon Musk.
Dad worried if he should have a tie and a jacket. When he was assured it wasn’t necessary, and that his khaki trousers and button down shirt were fine, he visibly relaxed. He could be himself – he always felt neckties cut off blood to the brain.
We drove to SpaceX. On arrival a security guard admitted us, slightly embarrassed that they hadn’t quite prepared the parking space for us. We paused to take a few photos outside. I could see Dad’s inner kid peeking through the adult rocket scientist demeanour, gleefully excited.
At reception we were given VIP passes. Before long our guide arrived and took us in through the doors. There was a rocket engine in the entrance hallway. We paused beside it and our guide began to explain how it worked. I mentioned that Dad had worked on Apollo 13. He laughed, and said Dad could probably tell him then! Dad asked if they had solved the issue of the broken strut on the SpaceX Falcon rocket in July. Dad had some theories, based on some of the things he’d seen. They’d gotten all of the things Dad had seen go wrong before, right. It was down to a single faulty bolt from an outsourced factory that did not have their same rigour of quality control.
As we spoke, Elon emerged from the doors leading to the interior lab area of SpaceX. He was dressed in dark blue jeans and a black button down shirt with no tie. Dad was pleased to discover he had indeed dressed correctly.
I introduced Dad and explained again about Father’s Day for Rocket Scientists and why I was so inspired for them to meet. Then I left them to it. Elon graciously waited for questions. He and Dad spoke about the accident and quality control. It was a mixing of the generations of rocket scientists. The old learnings, the new learnings and the shared experiences. I think they would have had a great many more things to discuss, but like most busy executives, Elon had to move onwards. Elon walked out the doors behind us, and we walked into the bowels of SpaceX.
If my dad had been a little star-struck by Elon, he was galaxy-struck by SpaceX. On the right as you walk in are racks of servers behind glass, emblazoned with the name Skynet. On the left lurk two Terminators, red eyes glowing. The hall then opens up in every direction.
Our guide took us around, showing how they built a rocket in a day. Of course, they take a lot longer testing it. We were shown how they laid the carbon fibre covering by hand and where they 3D printed titanium parts. With 3D printing they are now able to print an incredibly strong mesh, so they could reduce the weight without sacrificing structural integrity. They mixed technological advances with old-fashioned human skill.
One of the staff passed us wearing an “Occupy Mars” t-shirt. “I want one of those,” Dad whispered.
We made our way back out to the lobby. Dad stopped and said, “I’ve been asked to see a lot of facilities in my time. This one’s the best I’ve ever seen.” That’s not said lightly. That’s said by a rocket scientist with 50 years of experience. That’s damn high praise indeed.
Elon reappeared from a side door in the lobby, smiling again. We waved goodbye as he crossed outside to get to his car. I wish he’d had a chance to hear what Dad said, but I’m glad I gave Dad an experience that allowed him to say that.
There’s always things to learn from the minds of people who have done so much, and there is a reason why Elon’s mind reminds me of Dad’s. These are the minds of those who innovate laterally not just vertically.
Our guide disappeared, returning with two bags of swag. While he didn’t get the t-shirt Dad did end up with a baseball cap that said “Occupy Mars” and a huge black SpaceX coffee mug.
Our little group of “those who make the impossible happen”, walked out of SpaceX and back to the pickup truck, where they’d finally placed a VIP parking sign that said: SpaceX Ingold.
To Infinity and Beyond
SpaceX and Elon weren’t the end of our trip. In a way, it was only the beginning.
I’d only planned to get us this far. The rest of the trip was left to spontaneity. Although Dad had spent a few years growing up in LA, he was restless to get back to the wilds.
We went to Joshua Tree, which he’d last been to 70 years earlier. We saw Skull Rock, which he’d loved as a kid. And we got caught in a flood. There’s nothing as challenging to a man with a 4-wheel drive pickup as a flood, so Dad locked the hubs and we tore through it, gleefully splashing water in all directions.
Of course, now that I’m living in London, we had to see London Bridge as it’s now in Arizona.
We then made our way across the old Route 66 to Flagstaff where we went to Lowell Observatory where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. I discovered Dad had known Tombaugh. Dad and a retired colonel used to run symposia, alternating between Alamogordo and Las Cruces, where Tombaugh worked. He remembers Tombaugh saying at a symposium, “Be careful what you bring back from Mars – it might contain a life form you don’t want to spread here.”
Next up was Meteor Crater, which again Dad had last seen 70 years earlier, back when there was real debate as to whether it was a meteor or a volcano.
For our last stop, we drove down the old Route 666 as I was determined to get us to the Very Large Array (VLA). The VLA is a big open plain of 27 massive radio telescopes that paint a picture of space using different resolutions of radio waves.
Without planning, our 2000-mile round trip had become about not just space, but exploration, curiosity, invention, innovation and making the impossible happen. On Earth. In the distant reaches of our galaxy. At the edge of the known universe. And deeper into the unknown.
On that last stretch home, as we drove past the Trinity Site, where they’d exploded the world’s first atom bomb in 1945, Dad looked over and said, “This has been the most perfect visit ever.” And I realised that this trip wasn’t just about Elon Musk and space. It was about togetherness. And family. And precious father-daughter time. And fun.
Early in my life, that fun-filled father-daughter time inspired my passion for science and lateral innovation. Dad never treated me differently because I was a girl – he just shared what he loved about the scientific universe. If I’m recognised as a global leader in video on demand and emerging tech today, it’s thanks to his initial inspiration.
I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to follow up for Father’s Day in 2016. But so far I have a standing invitation from Bloodhound, who intend to set the 1000MPH land speed record, and Professor Brian Cox, CERN particle physicist and science show presenter, would love to talk about Apollo 13.
Dad once had a boss who ordered him not to solve a problem because it was impossible to solve. Of course, Dad solved it anyway. It took 1 ½ years. He delivered a symposium paper on the topic, citing his boss as his incentive. The boss said, “I’m ordering you not to solve these other problems on the basis you will, and cite me as your incentive, and we’ll both look great.”
In creating the impossible I’ve discovered there’s a process to making the impossible happen. Firstly, know that festering is the mother of invention and become aware of the idea that your unconscious is bringing to you. Secondly, learn everything about everything so you can innovate vertically and laterally across all the possible ways you have to achieve that idea, going back to first principles if needed. Thirdly, have the courage to ask for it. Finally, have the courage to take it.
And then, find more impossible things to make happen.