Elon Musk is a household name today for running both Tesla Motors and SpaceX. He’s an entrepreneur, inventor, engineer, and explorer, as well. Still in his 20s, he sold the first company he created for millions and has spent much of his time since pouring his time, money, and energy into following his vision for making the world a better place and advancing human civilization into the stars.
A native of Pretoria, South Africa, Elon Musk was born to a Canadian mother and South African father. He and his family – he has a brother and a sister, as well – spent his childhood in South Africa. From the start, young Elon was brilliant but introverted; he was more comfortable with computers and was into them well before he was a teenager. In fact, he taught himself to code, with which he built a game software program called Blastar, the first invention he ever sold.
Elon’s parents had divorced during his pre-teens years, so had no qualms about moving to Canada in 1989 so he didn’t have to serve his mandatory time in the South African military service. He wasn’t against the military itself, but that it suppressed blacks didn’t agree with his sensibilities. So he moved to Ontario and studied at Queen’s University.
In 1992, Musk moved again, this time to Philadelphia to study at the University of Pennsylvania, where he got undergraduate degrees in both economics and physics. After Penn, he decided to go to Stanford to get a Ph.D. in energy physics.
It was 1995 when Elon Musk started Stanford. At the exact same time, the Internet was just beginning to boom, so Musk did what any visionary would do – leave Stanford after two days of class to join the dot.com revolution.
Musk formed his first company within days. Zip2 Corporation was an online map service that highlighted the places to see and visit in a given city. Zip2 grew to become the content provider for such online places as the fledgling websites for both the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. The company grew like wildfire until 1999, when Compaq Computers purchased it for over $300 million in cash and stock options.
The same year, 1999, Elon Musk co-founded X.com, an online financial services and e-payment company. A year later, X.com made an acquisition that eventually led to the formation of what is now known as PayPal. The company’s growth skyrocketed and, in 2002, PayPal was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion in stock. At the time, Musk owned around 11% of PayPal’s stock, so he pocketed around $165 million.
Never one to take it easy – he’s been known to pace for hours while on the verge of solving a problem – Musk wanted to bring space exploration back into the public psyche, so in 2002, he founded Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, which you might know better as SpaceX.
The explicit intent of SpaceX is to build spacecraft for commercial space travel – to build a spacefaring civilization, as it were. In an effort to bring his vision of a “Mars Oasis” to life, he traveled to Russia to purchase old ICBMs that SpaceX could turn into rockets. However, the Russians, thinking he was a disillusioned dreamer, dismissed his goals.
Finally, it dawned on Musk that SpaceX could build the rockets he wanted – and at a much cheaper price than what he’d wanted to buy in Russia. In 2006, after building credibility through several serious concepts and designs, NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to continue developing spacecraft; two years later, NASA assigned SpaceX a contract to transport cargo to the International Space Station, replacing NASA’s own shuttle missions with an eye on a future contract of transporting astronauts, as well.
Musk’s current goal is twofold – space exploration, which has boundless potential, and the preservation of the human race, both of which he believes are interconnected. Accordingly, he formed the Musk Foundation, which is committed to exploring space and discovering renewal energy sources.
Musk Builds a Car
Tesla Motors actually was formed in 2003 by two engineers; Elon Musk didn’t become involved until the following year when he invested in the company to mass-produce affordable electric cars. He was instrumental in the designing and building of the initial car, the Roadster, which was first sold in 2008. It was an electric sports car that could do 0-60 mph in under 4 seconds and travel 250 miles on one charge of its lithium ion battery. It was a success, and Musk used the revenue to help launch, to rave reviews in 2013, the Model S, Tesla’s first electric sedan.
Musk isn’t in just selling electric cars, however. With him, there’s more than meets the eye. He’s not afraid to use one product to finance a more robust idea. To wit, at the time of the release of the Model S, there was a distinct lack of a network of electric car charging stations in America, which in part explains the limited number of such cars on the road today. Tesla Motors has invested a lot of money in creating more charging stations.
Musk also announced that his car company would share its technology patents to stimulate and encourage the worldwide development of electric cars. Not many manufacturers in any industry are willing to take this daring, unusual step of sharing secrets.
Toward the Stars
In 2012, Elon Musk and much of the world watched with anticipation as SpaceX launched into space its own rocket, an iteration of its flagship Falcon spacecraft; it soared to the International Space Station with a half-ton of supplies for the astronauts stationed there long-term. It marked the first time that a private spacecraft had been sent to ISS. Three years later, another Falcon was launched with the DSCOVR satellite, the purpose of which is to observe how solar flares and other emissions affect communications systems on Earth.
Hyperloop and SolarCity
Elon Musk made public his innovative idea for a new form of transportation in 2013, the Hyperloop. Powered by renewable energy and designed to be unfazed by weather, it would reduce the travel times between major cities. In traveling from Los Angeles to New York City in under an hour, for example, riders would travel in pods at 700+ mph through low-pressure tubes that are part of a large national network.
In the summer of 2016, Musk purchased SolarCity Corp. and merged it with Tesla Motors. Musk’s intent is to combine storage (Tesla) and solar (SolarCity) so there is full integration among residential, commercial, and grid products. The hope is that it will improve the way our civilization produces, consumes, and stores energy.
Not even 50 yet, Musk has already forged a lasting legacy, yet he’s not slowing down. Stay tuned for what Musk’s vision produces next.