Dragon’s breath: The rise of Elon Musk

“Elon is a paragon of enthusiasm, good humour and curiosity – a Renaissance man in an era that needs them.” The words could not have come from a stranger source, but that is how Hollywood director John Favreau described science and technology entrepreneur Elon Musk.

SA-born innovator and inventor Elon Musk. (Image: Flickr/jdlasica)

There is actually a valid connection between Favreau and Musk.  While Favreau served as director for the film adaptations of Iron Man, in which the main character billionaire Tony Stark fights crime as his alter-ego, Favreau said that Musk was the inspiration for the development of Stark.

“When I was trying to bring the character of genius billionaire Tony Stark to the big screen in Iron Man, I had no idea how to make him seem real. Robert Downey Jr. said, ‘We need to sit down with Elon Musk’. He was right,” Favreau wrote in an opinion piece about Musk for Time magazine in 2010.

It is actually no surprise that Musk ended up where he did. From a young age his inquisitive mind took him to far-away places and he often dreamed of space travel. In his later years, the South African-born Pretoria Boys High School scholar identified areas that were “important problems that would most affect the future of humanity”.

In the Michael Belfiore book Rocketeers, Musk explained that he faced a choice of three professions: “One was the Internet, one was clean energy, and one was space”.  Musk settled on doing all three and created successful ventures on each front.

“One was the Internet”

His dabbling with Internet companies started as early as 1995, when the internet was still largely considered a luxury in his home country. Musk lasted only two day at Stanford University’s program for applied physics and materials science, after which he founded Zip2 with his brother Kimbal Musk.

The start-up provided online content publishing software for news organizations, and was eventually acquired by Compaq’s AltaVista division in 1999 for $307 million in cash and US$34 million in stock options. At that stage, Musk was only 28 years old and walked away with $22-million.

But the biggest feather in his cap was yet to come, as merely a month later he co-founded X.com. The online financial services and e-mail payment company would be virtually unrecognisable today, but through a series of acquisitions and mergers, X.com legally changed its name to PayPal in 2001.

Musk’s X.com merged with auction payment service Confinity, making the change possible, but he was actually taking a huge gamble. The basis for the merger was riding on Musk’s growing belief in P2P (Peer-to-peer) technology – which was still in its infancy in 2000.

While the Internet was still stretching its legs, Musk knew the power it could wield, and created an elaborate viral campaign to promote PayPay lnc. and drive publicity. It worked, as a year later in 2002, PayPayl Inc. was bought by online auction website eBay for a cool $1.5-billion in stock, of which Musk owned 11.7% of PayPal’s shares before the sale.

“One was clean energy”

Musk’s two days at Stanford University might seem like an incredible waste, but it was here where he became inspired with the desire to create ultracapacitors – a source of enough energy to power electric cars – as part of his PhD in Applied Physics and Materials Science.

A year after eBay’s acquisition of PayPal, Musk provided most of the capital to co-found the environmentally-friendly car manufacturer Tesla Motors. The name pays homage to Nikola Tesla, from whom he drew inspiration in his early years.

The company produced their first electric car, the Tesla Roadster, in 2008, and has since shipped       2 200 vehicles to 31 different countries. While being electrically-driven, The Roadster has a 248 hp (185 kW) motor and can reach 0 – 100km/h in 3.9 seconds. The car also boasts a top speed of 200km/h – which is very impressive for an electric vehicle.

Tesla has two more models that will be released to the market in the coming months. The Tesla Model S sedan will roll off the production line June, while the SUV/minivan Model X is scheduled for production in late 2013.

Moving away from vehicles, Musk was instrumental in the establishing of solar-power provider SolarCity. While the company was started by brothers Peter and Lyndon Rive in 2006, Musk provided the initial idea, and holds the position of chairman of the board and the largest shareholder. To date, SolarCity employs over 1600 workers and is one of the biggest suppliers of solar energy to businesses in the US state of California. The company also provides charging stations for electric vehicles, which falls back to Tesla Motors.

“…And one was space”

With a net worth of over $2-billion, it would seem as if Musk had achieved everything he wanted to do – but his biggest and most prolific venture was waiting around the next bend.

In the summer months of 2002, Musk set out to create his third company. Being a private individual, it was incredibly difficult for a non-NASA entity to come close to space, but Musk nevertheless conceptualised and stated Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX).

Space Exploration Technologies was created to develop and manufactures space launch vehicles (rockets), while also focussing on the advancement of rocket technology. “The odds of me coming into the rocket business, not knowing anything about rockets, not having ever built anything, I mean, I would have to be insane if I thought the odds were in my favour,” Musk told CBS News earlier this month.

But the odds were actually in his favour,  reflected by the fact that his Falcon-1 rocket successfully launched on 26 March 2006. The two-stage-to-orbit rocket was the first successfully liquid-propelled orbital launch vehicle developed with private funding. The world started to pay attention when the rocket achieved orbit on its fourth attempt.

While Falcon-1 is retired, Musk’s most successful rocket was yet to launch. On 4 June 2010, the Falcon-9 ignited its maiden flight from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and proceeded to achieve orbit on its first launch.

Having a delivery system for space transportation is one thing, but creating a capsule for the rockets to deliver is something all together different.

But in December 2010, the problem was solved with the unmanned maiden flight of the reusable spacecraft Dragon. During the maiden flight, the Dragon also became the first commercially-built and operated spacecraft to be recovered successfully from orbit.

The endeavour was such a success, that the financially-troubled NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services signed a contract with SpaceX to deliver cargo and other materials to the International Space Station (ISS).

It was the potentially successful combination of the Falcon-9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft that initially piqued the interest of NASA way back in 2008, and that same year SpaceX was awarded a $1.6-billion NASA contract. Under the agreement, SpaceX would provide the transport of only cargo to the ISS, but has adapted the Dragon to be able to carry astronauts as well.

A test mission was launched earlier this month to the ISS, with the Dragon expected to successfully dock with the ISS, after which the current crew will offload the necessary cargo and send materials back to earth. If all goes according to script, the Dragon would make a splash-down in the Pacific Ocean on 30 May 2012.

Elon Musk has truly fulfilled his dream and vision of creating a better world in the three areas he chose to make a difference in. Not only is he an entrepreneur with an incredible gift of making something from nothing, he is also an active philanthropist.

He created the Musk Foundation, which aims to promote science education, paediatric health and clean energy, he is a trustee of the X Prize Foundation, sits on the boards of The Space Foundation, The National Academies Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, The Planetary Society, Stanford Engineering Advisory Board, and is also a member of the board of trustees of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

“Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough,” Musk said during a recent interview.

Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor


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