Rocket Man: The otherworldly ambitions of engineer, entrepreneur and philanthropist Elon Musk

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Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2014 12:00 am

Elon Musk reigns over an entrepreneurial landscape of epic proportions: With Tesla Motors, the cherub-faced CEO wants to wean us off fossil fuels with electric cars for the masses. With SolarCity, he envisions panels blooming on a million rooftops. And even as the fortunes of these two firms soared on the SV150, the San Jose Mercury News' latest index of Silicon Valley's top public tech companies, Musk was laying the groundwork for the world's biggest battery factory.

Yet this 42-year-old planet-saving, big-dreaming engineer has his sights on a celestial prize:


With SpaceX, the rocket company he founded in 2002, Musk hopes to employ recyclable rockets to save humanity, blasting earthlings into space to one day build settlements on the Red Planet.

“Mars is what drives him,” says Louis Friedman, an astronautics engineer who has known Musk for a decade. “From a psychological point of view, if you're stuck on Earth, humankind has limits — and Elon isn't the kind of guy who likes to live with limits.”

Don't bet against him. Silicon Valley's most intrepid CEO has already employed his potent combination of vision, determination and attention to detail to accomplish two tasks widely thought impossible: Creating a viable new American car company with Palo Alto-based Tesla, and a successful private space venture with Hawthorne-based SpaceX. His vision springs from a childhood in South Africa, where he devoured comics and science fiction and flew with his swashbuckling dad in a small plane over the African bush. Now, thanks to the fortune he amassed co-founding PayPal and the risk he took on rockets, Musk has a shot at opening up the universe.

“The moment he was out of PayPal and could do something else, it was 'Let's see if we can launch a rocket,' ” said Errol Musk, Elon's 68-year-old father. “The cars and solar power are side issues really — though big ones! I have no doubt that he will get man to Mars in his lifetime.”

Alexandra Musk, Elon's 20-year-old half-sister, says he sees Mars as humanity's only viable refuge.

“With all the environmental problems on Earth, the next step is to move to a planet that we can live on,” she said. “He wants to go up into space himself, but with his own kids being so young he can't really do that. He'd be gone for a quite a while.”

Musk has described Mars as a “fixer-upper” planet that over time could sustain human life. Mercury is too close to the sun; Venus is too hot.

But even to Friedman, Musk's initial proposal to launch his own rocket seemed ludicrous. “I said 'Are you crazy? Everybody who tries to get into the rocket business quickly learns that it costs a lot more money than they thought.' He said to me, 'I know, but I can do it.' ”

Now Musk has proved that he can. Next month, the National Space Society, a nonprofit dedicated to creating a spacefaring civilization, will present Musk with its prestigious Robert A. Heinlein Memorial Award. It is honoring Musk for “doing the very hard task which no one else in the world has been willing and able to tackle: working to create a family of commercially successful and reusable rocket boosters and reusable spacecraft.”

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, carrying its Dragon cargo spacecraft, was scheduled to launch Friday from Cape Canaveral for a fourth trip to the International Space Station.

Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa, to Maye and Errol Musk in June 1971, the oldest of three children.

Wanderlust ran on both sides of the family. On holidays, Errol and his kids would travel, he said: to Europe, Hong Kong, throughout the United States. Or they'd take the plane to Lake Tanganyika, where Errol had a stake in an emerald mine. Elon would later get his own pilot's license but no longer has time to fly.

By the late 1980s, South Africa was in political turmoil over its apartheid system of racial segregation, and many of the nation's whites were fleeing from the country for opportunities in Australia, England and North America. Musk briefly studied at the University of Pretoria in early 1989 then moved to Canada, where he studied at Queen's School of Business in Kingston, Ontario. His brother Kimbal soon followed.

Dominic Thompson, who met the Musk brothers at Queen's, was struck by Musk's breadth of knowledge.

“It's rare to have the mix of business knowledge with the understanding of physics and science, along with raw intelligence, and focus,” Thompson said. “He's always known what he wanted to do.”

Musk transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied finance and entrepreneurial management at the Wharton School as well as physics before heading to Silicon Valley in 1995. He had a summer internship at Pinnacle Research, a Los Gatos energy storage startup. He planned to pursue graduate work in applied physics at Stanford University but instead joined the Internet boom.

Entrepreneurial successes soon followed. Musk cofounded Zip2, which was sold to Compaq in 1999, then launched financial-services startup, which morphed into PayPal.

The pay dirt from selling PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002 enabled a now wealthy Musk to embrace his true love — space travel. He left Silicon Valley for Los Angeles, long an epicenter of the aerospace industry, and started SpaceX, where he is both CEO and chief technology officer. He now shuttles back and forth between SpaceX and Tesla.

Aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, president of Pioneer Astronautics, has watched Musk's passion for Mars grow since first meeting him in 2001 during a Mars Society fundraiser. Zubrin said one of Musk's most striking qualities is his uncanny ability to master arcane and complex subjects that accomplished aeronautical engineers have required decades to learn.

As an early investor in Tesla Motors, which last year saw a 387 percent increase in sales, Musk risked his newly acquired fortune to keep the company afloat. As CEO and product architect, Musk oversees more than 6,000 employees.

As Musk's success has grown, so has his philanthropy. He joined Warren Buffett and other billionaires in signing “The Giving Pledge,” a commitment to give away most of their wealth. And even before he was rich, he promised an uncle that he would pay for the educational costs of the man's three children.

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