Jun 12, 2015

written by Ashlee Vance

photograph by Platon

Any study of Elon Musk must begin at the headquarters of SpaceX, in Hawthorne, California, a few miles from Los Angeles International Airport. It’s there that visitors will find two giant posters of Mars hanging side by side on the wall leading up to Musk’s cubicle. The poster to the left depicts Mars as it is today—a cold, barren red orb. The poster on the right shows a Mars with a humongous green landmass surrounded by oceans. The planet has been heated up and transformed to suit humans. Musk fully intends to try to make this happen. Turning humans into space colonizers is his stated life’s purpose.

“I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future,” says Musk, working on a bowl of ice cream his assistant just handed him. “If we can solve sustainable energy and be well on our way to becoming a multiplanetary species with a self-sustaining civilization on another planet—to cope with a worst-case scenario happening and extinguishing human consciousness—then,” and here he pauses for a moment, “I think that would be really good.”

Musk’s ready willingness to tackle impossible things has turned him into a deity in Silicon Valley, where fellow CEOs like Google’s Larry Page speak of him in reverential awe, and budding entrepreneurs strive “to be like Elon” just as they strived in years past to mimic Steve Jobs. Silicon Valley, though, operates within a warped version of reality, and outside the confines of its shared fantasy, Musk often comes off as a much more polarizing figure.

He’s the guy with the electric cars, solar panels, and rockets peddling false hope, a sci-fi version of P. T. Barnum, who has gotten extraordinarily rich by preying on people’s fear and self-hatred. Buy a Tesla. Forget about the mess you’ve made of the planet for a while.

I’d long been a subscriber to this latter camp. Musk had always struck me as a well-intentioned dreamer—a card-carrying member of Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian club. This group tends to be a mix of Ayn Rand devotees and engineer absolutists who see their hyperlogical worldviews as the Answer for everyone. If we’d just get out of their way, they’d fix all our problems. When I’d caught Musk at Silicon Valley events, his highfalutin talk often sounded straight out of the techno-utopian playbook. And, most annoyingly, his world-saving companies didn’t even seem to be doing all that well.

The SpaceX Dragon capsule just after its maiden voyage to the International Space Station, Cape Canaveral, Florida, 2012
photograph by ERIC OGDEN

Yet by the early part of 2012, cynics like me had to take notice of what Musk was actually accomplishing. His once-beleaguered companies were succeeding at unprecedented things. SpaceX flew a supply capsule to the International Space Station and brought it safely back to Earth. Tesla Motors delivered the Model S, a beautiful, all-electric sedan that took the automotive industry’s breath away and slapped Detroit sober. These two feats elevated Musk to the rarest heights among business titans. Yet Musk was not done. He was also the chairman and largest shareholder of SolarCity, a booming solar energy company poised to file for an initial public offering. Musk had somehow delivered the biggest advances the space, automotive, and energy industries had seen in decades in what felt like one fell swoop.

To anyone who walks through the doors of the 550,000-square-foot SpaceX building, the grandness of his plan is unmistakable. Musk has built an honest-to-God rocket factory in the middle of Los Angeles. And this factory is not making one rocket at a time. It is making many rockets—from scratch.

On one visit, there were technicians in white coats making motherboards and radios while others inside a special, airtight glass chamber were building the capsules that rockets take to the Space Station. Tattooed men in bandanas were blasting Van Halen and threading wires around rocket engines. Completed rockets were lined up one after the other, ready to be placed on trucks, and even more were awaiting coats of white paint.

And this is just building number one. SpaceX has acquired several more that used to be part of a Boeing factory, one of which houses Tesla’s design studio. As Musk walked the floor inspecting prototype parts, it struck me that he’s a confident guy who doesn’t always do a good job of displaying it. At times, he can come off as shy and borderline awkward, and the charm of his fading South African accent isn’t always enough to offset the halting nature of his speech pattern. Like many engineers, Musk will pause while fishing around for exact phrasing, and he isn’t inclined toward simplified explanations. He’ll toss out plenty of jokes, but he expects everyone to keep up, and there’s a sense of purpose and pressure hanging over any conversation with him. When employees unload information on him at each station, Musk listens intently, processes, and nods when satisfied.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that just before his improbable path to wealth began in 1995, this was a man who was studying for a PhD in applied physics at Stanford. He quit to found a company called Zip2—a primitive Google Maps meets Yelp. That first venture ended up a big, quick hit when Compaq bought it for $307 million in 1999. Musk made $22 million from the deal and poured almost all of it into his next venture, a start-up that would morph into PayPal. As the largest shareholder in PayPal, Musk became fantastically well to do when eBay acquired the company for $1.5 billion in 2002.

The conventional wisdom of the time said to take a deep breath and wait for the next big thing to arrive in due course. Musk rejected that logic by throwing $100 million into SpaceX, $70 million into Tesla, and $10 million into SolarCity. Short of building an actual money-crushing machine, Musk couldn’t have picked a faster way to destroy his fortune. He became a one-man, high-risk venture capital shop and doubled down on manufacturing super-complex physical goods in two of the most expensive places in the world. Whenever possible, Musk’s companies would make things from scratch and try to rethink much of what the aerospace, automotive, and solar industries had accepted as convention. Now the Musk Co. empire has those incumbents on the run and has turned Musk into one of the richest men in the world, with a net worth around $10 billion.

With SpaceX, he is battling the giants of the US military-industrial complex, including Lockheed Martin and Boeing. He’s also battling nations—most notably Russia and China. If the company can perfect its technology, it will almost certainly push these mainstays of the rocket industry aside, establishing Uncle Sam as the world leader for taking cargo and humans into space. It’s a threat that Musk figures has earned him plenty of fierce enemies.

“The list of people that would not mind if I was gone is growing,” he says, ominously. “My family fears that the Russians will assassinate me.”

Adapted from Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, recently published by HarperCollins.

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