Elon Musk reigns over an entrepreneurial landscape of epic proportions: With Tesla Motors, the CEO wants to wean us off fossil fuels with electric cars. With SolarCity, he envisions panels blooming on a million rooftops. And as the fortunes of these two firms soar, Musk is laying the groundwork for the world’s biggest battery factory.
Yet this 42-year-old planet-saving, big-dreaming engineer has his sights on a celestial prize: Mars.
With SpaceX, the rocket company he founded in 2002, Musk hopes to employ recyclable rockets to save humanity, blasting earthlings into space to one day build settlements on the Red Planet.
“Mars is what drives him,” says Louis Friedman, an astronautics engineer who has known Musk for a decade. “From a psychological point of view, if you’re stuck on Earth, humankind has limits — and Elon isn’t the kind of guy who likes to live with limits.”
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His vision springs from a childhood in South Africa, where he devoured comics and science fiction and flew with his swashbuckling dad in a small plane over the African bush. Now, thanks to the fortune he amassed co-founding PayPal and the risk he took on rockets, Musk has a shot at opening up the universe.
While he declined to comment for this story, Musk has described Mars as a “fixer-upper” planet that over time could sustain human life. Mercury is too close to the sun; Venus is too hot.
Musk showed an early interest in computers, owning in sequence a Commodore Vic 20, a Spectravideo and an IBM.
He briefly studied at the University of Pretoria in early 1989 then moved to Canada, where he studied at Queen’s School of Business in Kingston, Ontario.
Dominic Thompson, who met Musk at Queen’s, was struck by his breadth of knowledge. “It’s rare to have the mix of business knowledge with the understanding of physics and science, along with raw intelligence, and focus,” Thompson said. “He’s always known what he wanted to do.”
After business school and selling his first Internet startup, Musk launched the company that became PayPal.
The pay dirt from selling PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002 enabled a now wealthy Musk to embrace his true love — space travel.
He left Silicon Valley for Los Angeles, long an epicenter of the aerospace industry, and started SpaceX, where he is both CEO and chief technology officer.
And he hasn’t hesitated to make waves in Washington, D.C., on SpaceX’s behalf, picking fights with competitors, suing the Air Force, and jumping into a U.S.-Russia dispute that may risk international space cooperation.
With SpaceX seeking to break into a roughly $70 billion Pentagon satellite-launch market, Musk has operated outside the traditional ways of seeking influence and building relationships in the nation’s capital.
While Musk might be in danger of alienating federal contractors and agencies, the young billionaire’s efforts to spur competition and cut government costs have won support among lawmakers and an advocacy group.
“A lot of people would look at that and say, ‘You’re biting the hand that feeds you,’ ” said Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, a D.C.-based nonprofit group. “But he’s been shut out of the launch business. I applaud them for thinking out of the box and taking any advantage possible to break into the government’s launch business.”
In March, Musk told members of Congress that military-satellite launches may be at risk because a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the top two federal contractors, relies on Russian rocket engines.
Musk criticized both the venture, United Launch Alliance, and the Air Force.
“In light of international events, this seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin,” he told reporters April 25 at the National Press Club.
At the same time, he announced that SpaceX would sue the Air Force.
The lawsuit, filed three days later, accused the service of creating an illegal monopoly.