On a clear afternoon on September 28, 2008, Elon Musk was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Years earlier he had sunk most of his internet fortune into a commercial space company – SpaceX – and was now vying for a lucrative deal with NASA to resupply the International Space Station.
There was only one problem: the last three attempts to send a rocket into space resulted in ‘rapid, unscheduled disassembly’ – which is scientist lingo for ‘explosion’. Now, Musk was almost out of money. And at over US$60 million a pop, SpaceX was out of rockets. Another disaster on lift-off would not only put SpaceX out of business but render Tesla – the electric car company Musk also owns – bankrupt.
On that day SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket roared upwards and just kept going. It was a flawless ascent into orbit, and the mood at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California was jubilant, to say the least – Musk reportedly yelled, “That was freaking awesome” as it cleared the atmosphere.
It was the realisation of his dream to build low-cost, reusable rockets to launch satellites, deliver space cargo and ultimately carry humans into space. “There were a lot of people who thought we couldn’t do it. A lot, actually,” he told his SpaceX engineers, “but as the saying goes, the fourth time’s the charm, right?”
Today, Elon Musk appears to have everything under control. Tesla is on the verge of an enormous breakthrough, with the introduction of the Model 3 – a US$35,000 electric sedan that now has a two-year waiting list. It is the result of a ten-year ‘secret master plan’ that Musk astonishingly posted on the internet in 2006.
The general idea was to build an expensive sports car to make electric vehicles attractive – nigh, sexy – to the public at large. Then it would invest the money it made to fund development of a cheap family sedan (the Tesla Model S is the best-reviewed car in history), followed an SUV and its affordable Model 3. “It’s a four-part trilogy,” joked Musk, at the car’s introduction in April.
Elsewhere, in Reno, Nevada, Tesla’s Gigfactory is almost ready. It will single-handedly double the world’s manufacturing capacity of lithium-ion batteries, at the same time increasing their efficiency and lowering cost.
The Gigafactory will not just produce battery packs to power Tesla motors, but provide in-home energy storage solutions that make going green more affordable, and more practical, than ever before. “It’s about a fundamental transformation of how the world works, about how energy is delivered across the earth,” he said at the introduction of the Tesla Powerwall last year.
In October, SolarCity – a renewable energy provider that Musk co-owns – revealed solar roof tiles. According to Musk, “how do we have a solar roof that is better than a normal roof, looks better and lasts longer? You want to pull your neighbours over and say, ‘check out this sweet roof.'” Musk declined to patent any of his green technology, putting its development online for free in the hope that other companies will use his research to build and advance clean energy ever further.
SpaceX is also going from strength to strength. It won the US$1.6 billion contract by NASA after that first successful launch, and put the money into developing a rocket that could go to space and come back again, in one piece, autonomously.
In April, the reusable Falcon 9 rocket did just that – it managed to take off, and land, on a floating ocean drone ship in the Pacific Ocean. “It’s another step toward the stars,” Musk quipped, after the landing.
You’d think revolutionising the worlds of space flight and energy would be enough for some, but Musk has recently turned his attention to another outlandish project: the Hyperloop.
Born out of frustration with California’s costly and slow proposal for high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the concept makes use of a podlike vehicle that floats in a frictionless tube that can propel passengers and cargo at 1,200-kilometres-per-hour. The capsule hovers over magnetic accelerators strung along the length of the tube and uses solar powered motors for propulsion.
Understandably, Musk has said he is too busy to run yet another startup and set his idea free for others to develop. One such firm, Hyperloop One, has plans to build a track between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
The key to Musk’s brilliance may lie in his upbringing. Raised in Pretoria, South Africa, Musk was the youngest son of a distant engineer father and an entrepreneurial mother who was both a fashion model and nutritionist.
In a country that champions the outdoors, Elon Musk had zero athleticism, and so devoted his time to reading every book he could get his hands on. Regarded as an ‘oddball genius’ by his mother, Musk reportedly overcame his fear of the dark by doing math, “Dark just means the absence of photons in the visible wavelengths – 440 to 700 nanometres,” he told Bloomberg, “it’s really silly to be afraid of a lack of photons.”
As a child, he would design backyard rockets and explosives, but at the age of ten he received his first Commodore computer and began coding. By the age of 12 he wrote the software for a computer game called Blastar, and sold it for US$500 – “I didn’t think they realised I was 12 at the time” Musk said.
At the age of 17, Musk left his brother Kimbal (who would later become a business partner) and sister Tosca, for Canada where his mother was born. He worked odd jobs while living with relatives for a few years before the rest of his family came over and made Toronto their home.
Elon went to Queen’s University, before moving to the University of Pennsylvania, and earned a somewhat odd combination of degrees, in both physics and economics. In pursuit of a PhD in applied physics, Musk enrolled at Stanford University. He famously dropped out after just two days, having decided that universities delivered knowledge too slowly. Besides, he was keen to put an idea of his into practice.
In 1995 the internet was in its infancy, but Musk realised that a shift from print to digital was soon to come. With help from his brother, Musk started Zip2 – a company that sold adverting space on the early websites of local newspapers.
An unheard of concept at the time, the pair struggled to get by peddling an idea no one had ever heard of. But eventually, print media companies began to change, which was enough to interest Compaq. In 1999, it bought the company for US$300 million.
Musk’s next venture was in banking. “Money is low bandwidth. You don’t need some sort of big infrastructure improvement to do things with it,” he told a Stanford audience in 2003. He began X.com with the idea of transforming banking with a peer-to-peer payment system.
There was only one other firm in the game – a company named Confinity, founded by several ex-eBay coders – and both launched person-to-person payments toward the end of 1999. After becoming fierce rivals, the two companies eventually merged in 2000, the result of which was PayPal.
Under the new business, Musk joined the ranks of the so-called ‘PayPal Mafia’ along with the likes of Max Levchin, Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman – all of which now have empires nearly as audacious as his own.
Unlike them, who continued down the road of internet start-ups and venture capital, Musk wanted to get out of Silicon Valley. He wanted to create physical products, tied to space, energy and transport, and help ‘save’ mankind. Musk moved to LA in 2002 and began pursuing space exploration and green energy.
At the age of 44, Elon Musk has had more than a few careers over the years. He’s a physicist, an economist by training, a jet pilot, a self-taught rocket scientist, an automotive designer, and an electrical engineer.
Indeed, it looks as if Elon Musk is singlehandedly trying to right the wrongs of our carbon-based society. In his own words, “The goal of Tesla and SolarCity is to minimise the existential threat of a delayed transition to a sustainable-energy economy.”
But if SolarCity is meant to address the problem of green energy production, and Tesla aims to tackle power consumption, then perhaps SpaceX is Musk’s planetary insurance policy. “If life as we know it is multi-planetary, then the probable length of existence of human civilisation is much greater,” he said after the Falcon 9 rocket launch.
Musk was serious. In October, SpaceX announced that it would be sending its Dragon spaceship to Mars, with a landing schedule as soon as 2018. At the International Astronautical Conference in Mexico this year, Musk unveiled his plan for Martian colonisation.
“I think this is going to sound pretty crazy,” he began, “so it should be at least entertaining”. It involves a slew of new technology not even in existence, including gigantic rockets, carbon fibre fuel tanks and ultra-powerful engines. Plus spaceships capable of carrying a hundred or more passengers to the Red Planet, landing, and then returning to Earth to pick up more.
It seems Musk doesn’t just want to go to Mars: he intends to build a civilisation there.