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

Elon Musk is a man of all trades when it comes to technology. (Ethan Hill / Composite Image: NASA)
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“Five, four, three...” At T-minus three seconds white flames explode from the 22-story rocket. “Two, one. Liftoff.” The night sky erupts with light and fire and clouds of smoke, as nine engines generating 1,320,000 pounds of thrust push the vehicle skyward at NASA’s storied Cape Canaveral launchpad. The road to orbit is short but marked with a series of technical miracles, and the rocket hits them all: 17,000 miles per hour to break from Earth’s atmosphere. First and second stage separation. Second stage ignition. In minutes it’s over: The capsule carrying 1,000 pounds of cargo is in orbit, racing toward a docking with the International Space Station, itself traveling so fast it circles the Earth 15 times a day, the second such flight of the Falcon 9 and its Dragon capsule since May. “It proves that we didn’t just get lucky the first time around,” says the rocket’s chief designer, Elon Musk. “Next year we expect four to five launches, the year after that eight to ten, and the launch rate will increase by 100 percent every year for the next four to five years.” At that rate Musk, a self-taught engineer and Internet whiz kid, will be launching more rockets than even China or Russia.

There are few things more difficult than putting something into orbit. Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the space shuttle—we think of rockets and we think of the oldest, most staid monoliths: the U.S. government. NASA. Lockheed. Boeing. Space, a frontier so dangerous, so daunting, so complex and impossible, that it belongs not to the realm of lone adventurers and daring entrepreneurs, but to the combined might of the most powerful military industrial complex in the world. Except this rocket wasn’t built or launched by the U.S. government, or even Lockheed or Boeing, but by guys in surfer shorts and T-shirts, overseen by an Internet millionaire. Its flight was historic: the first privately designed, built and launched cargo resupply mission to the ISS. Or, put another way, since the retirement of the space shuttle, a small start-up company’s rocket and space capsule, which cost roughly one-tenth of a space shuttle launch to launch, has become the United States’ sole means of reaching the $100 billion space station. “Our first order of business,” says Musk, sitting in his cubicle in Hawthorne, California, “is to defeat the incumbent, old school rocket companies. Lockheed. Boeing. Russia. China. If this is a chess game, they don’t have much of a chance.”

Musk wants to fundamentally alter the way we travel, the energy we consume and our legacy as earthbound human beings. Listening to the self-confident and boyish 41-year-old wearing blue jeans and a black and white checked shirt rocking back and forth in his Aeron chair, he sounds ridiculous: He talks about nuclear fusion and colonizing Mars and airplanes that take off vertically. You want to slap him, put him in his place, or just laugh and dismiss him, which is what the aerospace industry did when he first announced plans to disrupt an industry so technically difficult and capital intensive that it has belonged to the world’s richest governments.

But Musk looked skyward and said he could build a rocket that would put cargo and humans into orbit cheaper and more reliably than any nation or corporation had ever done before, and that he could do it faster than any other private company. Today he is CEO and chief designer at Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, whose Dragon space capsule first docked with the International Space Station in May in a test flight, a feat achieved by only three nations and the European Space Agency—and, for now, the United States’ sole means of reaching the ISS without foreign help. SpaceX has sent five rockets into orbit, has $1.6 billion in contracts from NASA, 45 launches on order and employs 2,000 people designing and building more rocket engines than any other company on earth.

When he’s not launching rockets, Musk is disrupting the notoriously obdurate automobile industry (see National Treasure, p. 42). While industry giants like Chevrolet and Nissan and Toyota were dithering with electric-gasoline hybrids, this upstart kid said he would design and manufacture an all-electric car that would travel hundreds of miles on a single charge. The Tesla Roadster hit the streets in 2008 with a range of 200 miles, and the far more functional Model S, starting at $57,000, was introduced in June. It’s the world’s first all-electric car that does everything my old gasoline version does, only better. The high-end model travels 300 miles on a single charge, leaps from zero to 60 in 5.5 seconds, slows from 60 to a dead stop in 105 feet, can seat up to five, has room for mulch bags and golf clubs, handles like a race car and its battery comes with an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty. If you charged it via solar panels, it would run off the sun. One hundred a week are being produced in a former Toyota factory in Fremont, California, and nearly 13,000 people have put deposits on them.

As if the space and cars weren’t enough to tackle, Musk is simultaneously trying to revolutionize the energy industry as well. He is the biggest investor and chairman of the board of Solar City, one of the largest suppliers of solar energy technology and a key piece of his aim to change not just energy consumption, but energy production.

Musk’s rocket docking with the space station on only its second flight required a “sequence of miracles that was a phenomenal achievement,” says Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former Navy test pilot, a veteran of four NASA space shuttle missions and president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

“Musk said here’s what I’m going to do and he did it,” says Gen. Jack Dailey, director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “He’s the real thing and that’s pretty clear now.”

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Complex pieces of technology are tools, and tools are best thought of as extensions of human hands, which are themselves just extensions of the human mind. And the mind behind Tesla and SpaceX is a self-taught engineer and pioneer of shopping on the Internet. A few steps away from Musk’s cube in a cavernous building where Boeing 747s used to be made are huge extruded aluminum tubes that will soon be rocket bodies, and clean rooms filled with snaking stainless steel that is the heart of rocket motors. This is no Internet dream, no plan, no raw idea, but a place where hundreds of smart, young engineers have been unleashed by Musk, a guy who dropped out of a graduate program in applied physics at Stanford in 1995 to create a company, Zip2, with his brother, Kimbal, which they sold to Compaq Computer for $300 million. His next company, X.com, became PayPal and he was the largest shareholder when it was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion.

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.

***

The difference between Musk and everyone else is that passion and ambition. When Tesla nearly went bankrupt, he fired its CEO, took over the role himself and risked his personal fortune, pouring $75 million into the company. As production delays have eaten into Tesla’s cash, some analysts have doubted the company’s viability. But Musk renegotiated the terms of a government loan, sold shares in the company and seems to have fixed its production delays. “The factory is state of the art,” says Elaine Kwei, an auto industry analyst with Jefferies & Company, “and the delays were little things from other suppliers, like door handles. The car is awesome and demand doesn’t seem to be an issue; if they can sell 13,000 cars next year, they’ll break even. Tesla has the potential to dominate the EV category, similar to the Toyota Prius’ dominance of the hybrid electric segment.”

Making a lot of money on an electric car or resupplying the ISS or even launching satellites cheaper than anyone else isn’t his goal. Musk wants a revolution. To change the way the world is powered, to rid it of the internal combustion engine and to create a new age of interplanetary exploration.

In Musk’s world, we’ve broken our dependence on fossil fuels and imprisonment on Earth itself. “The question,” he says, “isn’t ‘Can you prove that we’re making the planet warmer?’ but ‘Can you prove we’re not?’ And you can’t. Think of that famous experiment about children and gratification. The kid who can delay his gratification for the cupcake for five minutes will be the more successful kid. That’s us, but we’re the unsuccessful kid. We will run out of oil and we’re engaged in this dangerous experiment of pushing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s crazy.” For Musk, the Tesla Model S and the Falcon 9 are simply the first steps toward ending that “experiment.”

Although the highest-priced Model S has a range of 300 miles, it still takes nine hours to recharge on a standard 240-volt electrical hookup, making your classic long family drive impractical, and the single largest barrier to widespread electric vehicle use. But in late October, Tesla planned to open in California the first six of a planned network of 100 electrical filling stations around the U.S., dubbed “superchargers,” which pump electricity at 90 kilowatts, adding 250 miles to the highest-priced Model S’s battery (the lowest-cost model doesn’t yet have this capability) in one hour. Where the filling stations can be solar powered, that means zero fossil fuels and zero emissions. Drive in, grab lunch, and in 30 minutes you’re cruising with another 120-odd miles of range. With an electric vehicle that has a reasonable range and rapid filling stations available, the barriers to electric cars fall; as more people get them, the laws of mass production dramatically reduce their price. Bingo; why would anyone have a car that costs 70 bucks to fill up and pollutes the planet?

Ditto with rockets. Their design and successful launch is, in fact, rocket science, and sending 10,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit, docking with the ISS and returning to Earth are incredibly difficult, hence Lopez-Alegria’s use of the word “miracle.” Yet it has been done many times before over the past 50 years. “It’s a major accomplishment,” says curator Launius, “but it’s technically insignificant. Elon himself has made a big fact that he’s not pioneering technology but leveraging what is already known.” Again, it comes down to scale. The more rockets he can build and launch, the cheaper they’ll be. These first flights to the ISS are just the means, the U.S. subsidizing the development of low-cost space technology so we can burst out into the cosmos.

“If our objective is to plant colonies on Mars and be an interplanetary species,” says Launius, “well, there are folks at NASA who believe you can’t say that with a straight face, that it rises to a giggle factor you can’t defend,” even if they dream about it. For NASA, commercial rocket companies like SpaceX are simply a cheaper, more reliable way to ensure access to the ISS for the next decade. And even that hasn’t come without an internal struggle, as old-line space apostles have argued that access to space must be a fundamental national priority and that only the U.S. government can be trusted to send humans, which Musk plans to do in the next three years. “There are people who are reluctant to look at commercial space, especially from the Apollo era,” says Lopez-Alegria, “and they say guys like Musk don’t know what they don’t know, and I want to agree—my whole life was spent in the government. But SpaceX and other companies are proving that hypothesis wrong.”

For Musk, the NASA flights are the beginning of a crazy, colossal dream that he can build and launch so many rockets that they’ll become cheap, and as reliable as an airplane flight. “We need to launch multiple rockets a day and get the cost of going to Mars to about what a middle-class house in California costs now,” he says.

Will that ever happen? Will Tesla ever rival General Motors and will Musk’s Falcon 9 pave the way to Mars and beyond? There’s no way to know, of course. Musk has to make and sell a lot of cars to a lot of fickle consumers. And even if he can send humans to space and launch a lot of rockets, that may not get us anywhere. “The fundamental challenge,” says Launius, “is to get to and from low-Earth orbit with some relative ease and with safe, reliable and less expensive methods. The more people who work on that problem the more likely we’ll solve it.”

In the end, though, the biggest issue with making us interplanetary, Launius believes, isn’t even rocket technology but the biomedical issues of long-term living in a place with low gravity and high radiation. Even space missions of ten days have radical effects on the human body, including changes in muscle mass and bone density, “and figuring out how to solve that problem is profound,” says Launius. “What happens when you carry a child to term in one-sixth or one-third of the Earth’s gravity? We don’t even know the questions to ask.”

Musk acknowledges those issues, but fiercely believes everything is solvable. “The goal of SpaceX has been to advance technology to create a self-sustaining colony on Mars. We have a long way to go and this is really hard work. It’s 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? To me, the former is really depressing and I can’t wait to go. If I live 20 years, I think it’ll happen.”

Musk gives a little nod, a trademark head bob that says that’s the way it is, and swivels back to his computer. It’s eight o’clock at night and up there, somewhere, his Dragon capsule is orbiting overhead. It’s time to tune out and return to Elon’s world.

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