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Sci-Tech

Elon Musk sounds crazy, but his ideas might just work

He's got a knack for cooking up ideas that sound like they come from comic books.

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Elon Musk's ideas can sound like sci-fi. 

David Mcnew / AFP/Getty Images

Elon Musk sometimes sounds like he's crazy.

Like when he talks about setting off nuclear explosions on Mars to create a warmer environment, boring a tunnel beneath Los Angeles to alleviate congestion, or developing a new form of transportation that would move you hundreds of miles in mere minutes.

Musk — founder and CEO of headline-grabbing companies such as Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring Company — has launched more than a few projects that sound like he fell asleep while watching a sci-fi movie.

It's no wonder: The line between science and science fiction can be pretty fluid.

Turns out Musk's ideas have grounding in science, and might work — even if you picture him stroking a fluffy white cat when he talks.

A few years ago, for example, reusable rockets were crazy talk. Now, thanks to breakthroughs at SpaceX, they're becoming commonplace. Digging tunnels under cities? A 2-mile Boring Company test tunnel already sits underneath SpaceX's Hawthorne, California, headquarters.

Unfortunately, wacky ideas aren't the only thing Musk is known for. In the past year, Musk got into trouble with the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission for tweeting about taking Tesla private. He used the expression "pedo guy" to insult a diver involved in the rescue of a group of Thai boys, provoking a lawsuit. He took heat for the way his followers react to those who criticize or disagree with him.

We reached out to Musk to walk us through his sci-fi-esque ideas. He hasn't gotten back to us, but here are a few that we want to hear more about.

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Warming up to Mars

What does Mars have in common with a day-old burrito?

If you want to warm it up, you might have to nuke it.

In a 2015 appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Musk said that if we're going to live on Mars, we have to raise the planet's temperature. A fast way to do that could be dropping thermonuclear bombs on its poles in order to vaporize the ice and release greenhouses gases, like carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere to start the process of warming the Red Planet. (This is when Colbert responded that Musk sounds like a supervillain.)

It turns out, scientists have been talking about how to tinker with Mars' atmosphere for years. One idea is to use giant mirrors to aim sunlight at the planet. (That sounds suspiciously like the way your grandmother used to get a tan.) Another idea is to build factories that produce greenhouse gases. So much for LEED certifications.

Since Musk floated the idea, though, there have been more than a few articles and studies debating whether the concept would be feasible or effective, or even if there's enough carbon dioxide left on the planet to release at all.

As Michael Shara, curator of the astrophysics department at the American Museum of Natural History, told NBC News in 2015, "It's a clever idea in principle. Whether it would really work, I don't think anyone has worked up the physics in enough detail to say it would."

Going underground

In December 2016, Musk tweeted "Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging," a relatable musing that turned into something else entirely.

Admit it: You've wished your car could drive on the walls of a tunnel like Tommy Lee Jones' car in Men in Black.

That tweet was the beginning of the Boring Company, which is working to alleviate traffic congestion in Los Angeles by strapping cars to a network of sleds beneath the city and zooming them to their destination at 150 mph.

"There were doubts about putting a man on the moon," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told CBS This Morning in June 2018 when discussing the feasibility of a high-speed tunnel route to O'Hare airport that would be cheaper than a cab ride ($25, according to Quartz).

Again, it isn't as crazy as you might think. Underground transportation is nothing new. London's Metropolitan Railway dates back to 1863. Subways are part of the daily lives of millions of people around the world.

Now Musk's got that two-mile test tunnel running under SpaceX headquarters. It's slated to open for a special event on Dec. 18.

The Boring Company isn't just about zipping around quickly, though. As Quartz pointed out in August 2017, digging tunnels is particularly expensive in the US. Building the two-mile Second Avenue subway extension in Manhattan, which opened in January 2017, cost $2.73 billion.

"If someone could figure out how to dig a tunnel in the US at the same cost they can do it anywhere else in the world, they'd make a fortune, and win contracts for any tunnel project in the country," Quartz contributor Grant Burningham wrote.

Hyping hyperloop

One day a trip to some big city could involve getting into a capsule that sits inside a mostly airless tube, and traveling as fast as 750 miles per hour.

Musk's 2013 white paper on Hyperloop Alpha — a detailed explanation is part of being a good villain — touched off interest in building hyperloop tracks that could reduce traffic congestion in the face of population growth, get people where they're going faster, and connect more parts of the world.

While the Hyperloop sounds like a mad scientist's latest interest, once again the idea behind it isn't brand-spanking new. Japan got into high-speed trains back in 1964 that clocked more than 100 miles per hour. The trains not only connected Tokyo and Osaka, but made it easier for those who live farther out to make it into the big city. All that, and the average delay is only about 36 seconds, according to The Economist.  

"In the history of the transportation industry, there have been many milestones created from figments of mere imagination," said Faisal Ahmad, chief analyst for mobility at BIS Research.

A November report from BIS Research projected the global superfast transport market (what hyperloop falls into) will hit $55.7 billion by 2024.

We are all Starman

In February 2018, SpaceX launched a Falcon Heavy Rocket with what you might say was a statement-making payload.

Musk sent up his personal Tesla. It was piloted by a passenger: A dummy named Starman.

Starman, who couldn't be reached for comment, and the Tesla ended up sailing off toward Mars, with David Bowie playing into the void of space.

Bowie can make anything cool. But in this case, Starman didn't need much help.

It's the kind of marketing stunt that could have elicited eye rolls and groans. Who doesn't love some overt brand synergy? Nevertheless, people seemed to be quite taken with the dummy astronaut.

As Russ Klein, CEO of the American Marketing Association pointed out, Starman cruising in a red car with this elbow in the window communicated an ease and a coolness. Klein said he might as well have been driving down Route 66.

But what's more, the Starman stunt sent a message about this long-term journey to Mars.

"It serves Musk's purpose, which is to help people envision an epic future in which they are playing a starring role." he said. 

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