when the Russians spat (literally) on Elon Musk who wanted to buy their old missiles to make rockets

Jim Cantrell has “worked with a lot of great people, but he (Elon Musk) is the brightest and hardest working of them all”. This aerospace engineer was part of the team that launched SpaceX with the extravagant American billionaire in 2002, after a rather unsuccessful trip to Russia. He confided in “Special Envoy”.

This is the most audacious bet of the American multi-billionaire: to send humanity to Mars. To tell the beginning of the new space odyssey according to Elon Musk, “Special Envoy” visited another unique personality. Unlike his former teammate, who refuses any contact with the media, Jim Cantrell warmly received journalist Pierre Monégier near Tucson, Arizona. This aerospace engineer, racing driver in his spare time, speaks a little French… and perfect Russian.

During his many parallel lives, he worked for NASA, was arrested in Moscow for espionage during the time of the USSR… but the episode which he considers to be the most significant of his career started with a phone call, in July 2001. At the end of the line, Elon Musk. His idea: buy cheap Soviet intercontinental missiles from the Cold War, which Russia no longer needed, and convert them into space rockets… to go to Mars.

“Something that only the great powers did”

“We went to Russia three times together, says Jim Cantrell, and the Russians laughed at him: they didn’t take him seriously. Elon was not yet 30 years old, he was rather badly dressed. It is very important for the Russians. They called him ‘the little boy’. And at one point, one of them leaned over, and he spat on Elon’s feet, then on my feet. Elon said to me, ‘He spat on us?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I guess they don’t respect us too much…’ From there, on the plane home, Elon decided he would build the rockets himself. And to understand how crazy the idea was at the time, you have to remember that it’s something that only the great powers did…”

On their return from Russia in May 2002, he founded SpaceX and relaunched the conquest of space. His goal: Mars. “Elon knows how to be charming and drag you into his plans, convince you to follow him. That’s the fun part, comments Jim Cantrell. The hardest part is keeping up. Honestly, I don’t know if he ever sleeps.” Often, Elon Musk calls him at 3 a.m. Jim will only keep this infernal pace for eighteen months. He abandons the race, the Elon rocket will take off without him.

Extract from “In the head of Elon Musk”, a report to see in “Special Envoy” on May 25, 2023.

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