There’s perhaps no better evidence that, over the past few years, Elon Musk has branched out from the insular worlds of Tesla and AI and into the greater public eye than the fact that this week he made mainstream media headlines for allegedly stealing an image of a flatulent unicorn from a pottery-making Coloradan. Moving on from his two breakups with Amber Heard to date the musician Grimes has brought the billionaire investor, engineer, and Tesla cofounder even more attention. And now, adding to the intrigue, we learn that for the past four years Musk has also been keeping company with the secret group Ad Astra, the members of which are, on average, 10 years old.
Thanks to Ars Technica, which dove deep into the mystery and published a recap of its findings on Monday, we know that these aren’t just any old 7- to 14-year-olds—they’re Musk’s personal picks for his ultraselective, grade-less, nonprofit laboratory school, which, apparently, is more like a “venture capital incubator.” Its student body is made up of fewer than 40 students, which is, in fact, quite an increase from when Musk’s five sons made up nearly two thirds of the student body. (That meant that when the Musk family jetted off to Sydney with Heard, for example, they left only three or so students behind in the school’s secret headquarters, inside Musk’s SpaceX complex in Hawthorne, California.)
Despite keeping it under wraps, four years in, Musk’s effort to revolutionize education in the way that Tesla disrupted transportation is apparently starting to explode with popularity; last year, hundreds of families attempted—and failed—to land their kids in one of the school’s dozen available slots. Still, Ad Astra’s online presence is, as The Washington Post put it, spartan. Its website sports only a logo and an e-mail address—the gmail account “todaremightythings”—though its LinkedIn page does include a bit more information, like how Ad Astra is “dedicated to pushing each student to the frontier of his or her human potential.” (Never mind that those still aged in the single digits are a ways away from reaching any type of limit.)
Oddly enough, some of this was already out in the open; Musk spoke to a Chinese TV station about it in 2015, and while it’s unlisted and still has fewer than 7,000 views, a video posted to YouTube last year features the school’s cofounder and head, Joshua Dahn, recalling how they “started with eight kids in a really small conference room with transparent walls,” and have since expanded to teaching a larger student body coding, math, and chemistry—along with how to battle robots using tools like flamethrowers, which, in addition to dodgeball games during lunch, does somewhat make up for the fact that there’s no gym class.
Still, it’s taken a few days for Ars Technica’s recap to make its way out of the science-tech sphere and into less industry-specific outlets, which so far haven’t bothered to mask any of their shock; The Washington Post, for example, cut right to the chase with the headline, “Elon Musk Created a Secretive ‘Laboratory School’ for Brilliant Kids Who Love Flamethrowers.” (To be fair, there’s a lot more to the school than that—beyond coding and the other subjects mentioned above, students also partake in activities like creating weather balloons and, as Dahn put it, “blowing s–t up.”)
Musk foots the bill for a good portion of Ad Astra, including the students’ tuition, Apple laptops, and apparently even a fleet of after-school food trucks. He has not, however, made any moves to invest in gym, music, or language classes, purposefully abstaining from the latter because, according to Dahn, he believes that we’ll all soon have access to real-time, computer-aided translation.
There is the possibility, though, that we’ll all have a lot more to do with Ad Astra soon enough; in addition to space exploration, one of the students’ current projects has been to turn their attention toward North Korea. Given that Donald Trump’s focus when addressing the issue has extended to include looking “thin and perfect,” that news is rather reassuring—at least, assuming that Musk’s child army is on the anticatastrophe side. Here’s hoping it was a 7-year-old’s mistake instead of an older student’s intention that, in a simulation, led the world to what Dahn described as a “nuclear holocaust.”