Elon Musk whipped into work this morn-ing in a cherry-red sports car and now he’s lounging in his cubicle in a blue T-shirt and jeans talking about protecting humanity by colonizing Mars and making us a multiplanetary species.
He sounds ridiculous.
The entrance to his office building is sleek white minimalist—”Iron Man” come to life. But walk through the huge glass doors and you enter a place where a boy’s comic-book dreams meet reality. It’s one thing to imagine a spaceship, another to see, a few steps away from Musk’s desk, the Dragon capsule scorched from its fiery descent from space. His company, SpaceX, built the Dragon and it blasted off on its first try in December 2010, orbited the earth and plopped down into the Pacific Ocean, and now here it is.
Around the Dragon, in this cavernous former Boeing 747 factory in Hawthorne, California, 1,500 young engineers and techs are building four more Falcon 9s. Musk has contracts for over 30 more launches worth $3 billion—including $1.6 billion from NASA. If all goes according to plan, in late December his third F9 launch will dock with the International Space Station. This 40-year-old is dreaming the stuff of nations.
And that sports car? It’s a Tesla and he’s the company’s CEO and co-founder. It’s electric, goes from zero to 60 mph in a neck-snapping 3.7 seconds, travels 245 miles on a single charge and there are now 1,850 of them silently cruising the streets. Next summer his new version, an all-electric sedan that seats seven, should hit showrooms. For extra credit, Musk is also the largest investor and chairman of SolarCity, a solar-panel provider.
Elon Musk doesn’t do anything small. In explaining the goals of his companies, he says, “Tesla and SolarCity are about trying to solve the world’s most important terrestrial problem, which is sustainable energy, and SpaceX is solving the problem of the millennium, which is making life multiplanetary.”
A native of South Africa, Musk graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with degrees in business and physics and then enrolled in a doctorate program at Stanford in applied materials science. Two days later he dropped out and, with his brother, created a software company called Zip2, which was later sold to Compaq, a $300 million transaction that made him rich. Instead of sunning on a yacht off the south of France for the rest of his life, however, he decided to try to save the world.
When he heard that NASA had no plans to send astronauts to Mars, it boggled his mind. The financial problem seemed straightforward, if not simple: Existing rockets employed old technology, used once. “Imagine,” he says, “if you built a new 747 for every flight.”
Musk launched SpaceX in 2002 and built and designed his own engines from scratch. “I’m head engineer and chief designer as well as CEO, so I don’t have to cave to some money guy,” he says. He launched his rocket with a team of eight in the control room, instead of dozens. The result: He’s offering to send a 10,000-pound payload to geosynchronous orbit for $60 million (compared to an industry standard many tens of millions higher). And if he can figure out how to recover the first stage of his F9, he’ll have done what no one has ever done before—created a fully reusable rocket which costs only $200,000 per flight for propellant. “Humanity will be confined to Earth unless someone invents a reusable rocket,” he says. “That is the pivotal innovation to make life multiplanetary. I’ve been pacing around the house at 3 a.m. trying to figure out how to make the F9 reusable,” he adds, pacing around his cube. “And I think I have.”
Musk isn’t the only rich guy gazing at the stars. There’s also Richard Branson—but his vehicle travels a mere 62 miles high and doesn’t go orbital. There’s Amazon’s Jeff Bezos—but his secretive company’s first small prototype blew up in early September. And there’s a slew of others, including United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin—but they use updated versions of Atlas and Delta rockets, old-tech workhorses that aren’t going to change anything. Of all the new companies trying to develop rockets, Musk alone has lofted a wholly new one into orbit.
As for electric cars, the biggest auto companies in the world remain miles behind Tesla’s performance: The Chevrolet Volt travels all of 35 miles by battery power before a gasoline-fueled generator kicks in. Tesla’s forthcoming sedan, with no internal combustion engine, will get you 160 to 300 miles, depending on the battery pack you buy. Last year Toyota invested $50 million in Tesla, which purchased an old Toyota-GM plant in Fremont, California, to begin manufacturing its next model.
To put it simply, Musk is dreaming bigger and further into the future than anyone else out there, and he’s putting his money where his mouth is. Just three years ago his first three rockets had failed and Tesla was nearly bankrupt. Instead of retrenching, he fired Tesla’s CEO, took on the role himself and poured his remaining cash—some $75 million in all—into the company. Today SpaceX is profitable, and SolarCity, he says, is “cash positive.” (He says Tesla will be too, once the new model is out.)
Musk’s grandest dream is to make a trip to Mars cost “about as much as a middle-class house in California.” Then, he says excitedly, we can begin terraforming Mars. “It would be the most difficult thing humanity has ever done, but also the most interesting and inspiring. Do you want a future where you’re confined or reaching toward the stars? I can’t wait to go.”