Elon Musk: The Eccentric Genius Who Put America Back on the Space Map

Child Prodigy Shows Early Promise

Elon Reeve Musk was born on June 28, 1971 in Pretoria, South Africa. His mother, Maye Musk (nee Haldeman) is a dietician and a model who still does photo shoots to this day. His father Errol Musk is an electromechanical engineer. From a young age, Elon showed a deep curiosity for the world around him and he would quench that thirst for knowledge by reading anything he would get his hands on, from science books and encyclopaedias to comic books and science fiction novels. It is reported that Musk had a photographic memory growing up and could therefore remember everything he ever read. At the age of ten, Elon got a Commodore VIC-20 computer and from there his love for programming was born. Elon would go on to learn the BASIC programming language in three days, which for most novice users takes six months to learn. Two years later, at the age of 12, he made his first entrpreneurial venture when he programmed a video game called Blaster which he sold to a tech magazine for 500 US dollars. His niche interests did not make him the most popular kid at school and he was bullied throughout his school years. This never broke his spirit, however, and he remained adament about his hobbies and interests.

Expanding His Horizons During the Early Years of the Internet

Unlike many renowned tech entrepreneurs who have dropped out of university, Musk pursued and completed a bachelor’s degree. His university years weren’t a straightforward journey, as he transferred out of South Africa’s University of Pretoria and Canada’s Queen’s University before finally settling at the US’s University of Pennslyvania where he graduated with a degree in physics, and economics, respectively. Musk would then join a number of internships at Silicon Valley in 1994. One year later, he started a PhD course at Stanford University, but he would drop out days later to chase a dream within the dot com boom of the 1990s.

Early Success and Paypal

Shortly after his educational pursuits, Musk founded Zip2 with his brother Kimbal. Zip2 was an online city guide which was intended for the newspaper industry, the database contained information such as city maps and yellow pages. The business venture proved successful, as major American newspapers like the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune signed contracts with Zip2 to obtain the database’s service. Computer company Compaq bought Zip2 in 1999, and Musk reportedly acquired 22 million dollars in cash
from the purchase.

Musk would use the money obtained from Zip2’s sale to found X.com, an online payment and money transfer service. At the time, another tech venture, Confinity, was providing the same service. Instead of competing with Confinity, Musk decided to merge with it, and the new merger was called PayPal, which was the name of Confinity’s money transferring service. Musk became PayPal’s CEO, however internal disputes led to his removal from his executive position, but he still remained in the company’s board as he was the majority shareholder. In 2002, eBay bought PayPal and the purchase left Musk with 165 million dollars.

Tesla: Revolutionizing the Auto Industry

In 2003, Marc Tarpenning and Martin Eberhard, two Silicon Valley engineers, founded Tesla, an automobile company that aimed to produce only electric vehicles. Elon Musk was one of the early investors for the company, and he was one of the prime financers the company’s Series A round. Right off the bat, Tesla faced an uphill battle to make electric vehicles appealing to the masses, as most consumers viewed them as too costly and not as efficient as their petrol counterparts. As such, the company planned to use lithium ion batteries to power its vehicles with the idea being that such technology would become cheaper over time. Secondly, the company would take the risky decision of producing a high-end sports car before a more affordable vehicle, in order to prove that electric cars can perform just as well as petrol cars. In 2008, Tesla unveiled its first car, the Roadster sports car. The Roadster was one of the fastest sports cars in the market, and proved that electric vehicles could perform just as well as traditional gas powered cars.

However this early victory came at a massive cost. As the company produced 93 per cent of the Roadster’s parts, the venture proved expensive and the company was on verge of collapse. The founders, Tarpenning and Eberhard, left Tesla but Musk remained as he took over as CEO. Musk managed to salvage the company through cutting its workforce, borrowing funds from the government and forming a strategic partnership with Mercedes. Afterwards, Tesla produced two new cars the Model S and the Model X and although they weren’t as expensive as the Roadster, they still weren’t the affordable automobiles that would help the company compete in the market. In 2017, Tesla introduced the Model 3, or the car for the masses. At a retail price of around 54,000 dollars the Model 3 proved to be much more affordable than the company’s Roadster which retails at around 200,000 dollars. The Model 3 proved to be a massive success as it accounts for 80 per cent of Tesla’s sales. This also helped the company become an emerging player in the market as sales data shows that the Tesla delivered 368,000 vehicles by the end of 2019. To further cut production costs, Musk unveiled a plan for a “gigafactory” in 2013, this massive factory would mass produce the parts needed (lithium batteries in particular) for electric vehicles. The Giga Nevada began operations in 2016, and expansions to the factory are still made to this day.

SpaceX and Humanity’s Transition to Become an Interplanetary Species

Elon Musk has always been fascinated with space exploration. However, his passion goes beyond making space discoveries, in an article he wrote in 2017 Musk explained that he believes humanity is destined for two separate paths. The first path is to remain on Earth, however he believes that this option would expose us to extinction since he believes that a doomsday event will happen eventually. Consequently, humans can choose a second path, namely to establish a space colony on the planet Mars. In his paper, he indicated that Mars is the best-suited planet for human colonisation and although it is colder than Earth, he believes that scientists could artificially warm the planet. It is this belief that humans could and should become an interplanetary species, which is the main driving force behind his space exploits.

In 2002, Musk used the money he earned from PayPal’s sale to found Space Exploration Technologies, more commonly known as SpaceX. One of the goals of SpaceX is to massively decrease the cost of space exploration; Musk figured that one of the biggest costs of sending out space shuttles was the fact that costly launch rockets could only be used once. As such, Musk wanted to create launch rockets that could safely land back to Earth intact, thereby preventing the need to keep producing new launch rockets for every mission. Since SpaceX is a privately owned space company, most people thought that it would never be able to carry out space exploration missions. However, one of Musk’s admirable traits is his drive to achieve the seemingly “impossible”. During the company’s initial years, SpaceX started working on the Falcon 1 and the Falcon 9 rockets. In 2006, SpaceX attempted to do its first ever-successful launch as the Falcon 1 was slated to take flight on March 26 of that year. However, this maiden flight ended in failure due to a fuel line rupture. Two more unsuccessful flights were attempted in 2007, but SpaceX would have to wait a few more months for its first breakthrough. On September 28, 2008, the Falcon 1 was successfully launched into orbit, this was a pivotal moment in space exploration history as it marked the first time a privately owned company launched a rocket into space. SpaceX’s success would continue throughout the years as it made 88 successful rocket launches and 35 reused flights. Moreover, the company produced the Dragon spacecraft, which has been flown 25 times on top of a Falcon 9 rocket.

Putting America Back on the Space Map

Ever since the mid 20th century, two major global powers have dominated the space exploration field, the United States and Russia. In 2011, NASA conducted the last manned mission using American made vehicles as it retired its Space Shuttle program. Although NASA never stopped manned missions, it has been using Russian produced spacecraft ever since 2011. Undoubtedly, this caused the US space industry to decline in prestige, as the premier space agency was no longer producing rockets or space vehicles. Nevertheless, a partnership set up the previous year between SpaceX and NASA ensured that the US would once again have its moment under the sun.

This partnership paid off as by 2020, SpaceX was prepared to use its vehicles to launch NASA astronauts into space. Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were set to make history on May 27, but bad weather conditions forced NASA and SpaceX to delay the mission to three days later on Saturday May 30. Thankfully, the May 30 launch went as planned as the Falcon 9 successfully sent the Dragon spacecraft into space. Moreover, the Falcon 9’s launcher successfully landed ensuring its reuse value, while the Dragon made its way to the International Space Station. This occasion was an important historical milestone for SpaceX as it successfully launched humans into space for the first time and it also became the first privately owned company to send NASA astronauts to space. Meanwhile, NASA was ecstatic to once again use American produced vehicles for its missions.

Elon Musk’s space ambitions are now just beginning. He is still adamant on his vision for a space colony on Mars. On his Twitter page, Musk has stated that he intends to send one million people to the red planet by the year 2050, where they will settle and establish a brand new civilisation.