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Elon Musk is a man of all trades when it comes to technology. (Ethan Hill / Composite Image: NASA)

Elon Musk, the Rocket Man With a Sweet Ride

The winner of the Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for technology hopes to launch a revolution with his spaceship and electric car

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Musk walked away with some $180 million and could have taken his newfound wealth and played bocce on the deck of a yacht or tried for the next big thing on the Internet. Except that Musk, put simply, is a little bit weird and always has been. What appears brash self-confidence is simply precocious intelligence and a strangely literal mind mixed with a deep urge to change the world. “Most people, when they make a lot of money don’t want to risk it,” he says. “For me it was never about money, but solving problems for the future of humanity.” He does not laugh or crack a smile when he says this. There is no hint of irony.

As a child growing up in Pretoria, South Africa, his mother thought he might have hearing problems. “We called Elon ‘genius boy,’” says his mother, Maye. “His brain was just ahead of everyone else’s and we thought he was deaf, so we took him to the doctor. But he was just in his own world.” Musk shrugs when I tell him that story. “They took my adenoids out, but it didn’t change anything. It’s just when I’m concentrating on something I tune everything else out.” He was bullied by other kids. He hated going to school. He was obsessed with facts and reading. “If someone said the Moon is, like, a million miles away,” says Maye, “he’d say, ‘No, it’s 238,855 miles from the Earth, depending on when you view it.’ Kids would just go ‘Huh?’ He’s just curious about everything and never stops reading and remembers everything he reads. He’s not in la-la land; he just sees everything as a problem that can be fixed.”

Tesla was largely the brainchild of another man, JB Straubel, who created a way to link hundreds of lithium ion batteries—essentially the same ones powering your laptop—together for unprecedented battery life. Musk jumped in and became the primary investor in the company, on which he now spends half his time. “Elon drives this think-bigger mentality,” says Straubel, in a lofty design studio behind SpaceX. “As engineers we tend to want to keep things small, but Elon is always imagining something so large it’s terrifying, and he’s incredibly demanding and hard-driving.”

Musk picks up a model of the Falcon 9 Heavy Lift, which will have the largest payload of any rocket anywhere and which he hopes to launch next year. There’s not a part in his spacecraft with which he’s not intimately familiar. To him, the problem with space seemed straightforward: All existing rockets used technology developed by governments for maximum performance without regard to cost. Every rocket is made to order and used for a single flight and then thrown away. “Imagine,” he says, “if you built a new 747 for every flight.”

Musk started SpaceX in 2002 and oversaw the development of a vehicle from scratch. He had a basic idea of what he wanted, how it should be done, but he hired veterans from TRW, Boeing and NASA to work out the details. He sacrificed a small amount of performance for cost. He patented nothing because he didn’t want competitors—especially China—to see even hints of his technology. He built and designed his own engines and oversaw all the design and tech decisions.

“I’m head engineer and chief designer as well as CEO, so I don’t have to cave to some money guy,” he says. “I encounter CEOs who don’t know the details of their technology and that’s ridiculous to me.” He built a facility on the Texas plains where every piece of equipment SpaceX builds is tested before it’s integrated with the rocket.

When his first three attempts at launch failed, he lost millions of dollars; his personal fortune was at risk. But he saw opportunity instead of defeat—every failure just meant more data and more chances to identify the problems and fix them. And fix them he appears to have done. He launched his Falcon 1, a much smaller version than the one that sent up the Dragon in May, on his fourth try with a team of eight in the control room, instead of dozens. Since then he’s five for five with his Falcon 9. “Silicon Valley gave me both capital and a way of running companies that are efficient at innovation,” he tells me. “It’s Darwinian there—you innovate or die.”

“The culture that he fostered made it possible,” says Roger Launius, aeronautics curator at the National Air and Space Museum. “He intentionally took a very basic approach and stayed away from technical enhancements that would have cost more and caused delays.”

The result: He’s offering to send a 10,000-pound payload into geosynchronous orbit for $60 million, compared with a United Launch Alliance Delta flight cost of $300 million (a space shuttle flight cost upward of $1 billion). If he can get “full and rapid reusability”—if he can figure out how to recover not just the second stage Dragon capsule, but the first stage of his Falcon 9—he’ll have done what no one has ever done before: created a fully reusable rocket for which the fuel costs only $200,000 per flight. “Humanity will always be confined to Earth unless someone invents a reusable rocket,” he says. “That is the pivotal innovation to make life interplanetary, and I think we’re close—check out the designs we’ve put out on Twitter and the website, which we’re going to start testing soon,” he says, getting agitated.

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