By the time Elon Musk founded the company that would become PayPal, in 1999, he had already built and sold one internet business. But this time he hit the jackpot. Already wealthier than most of us will ever dream of being, he netted close to $180 million from PayPal’s sale to eBay, enough to retire at the age of 32, or to set up a venture capital fund and invest in hungry young entrepreneurs such as he once was – the conventional path for made men in California’s Silicon Valley.
But this is not what Musk did. Since the birth of the public internet in the mid-1990s, there have been complaints that, with the best minds of a generation focused either on finding new ways to play the stock market or on tinkering with software, the big picture was being lost. With so much novelty in the world, who has time to look up and dream of building moon bases or cathedrals?
The answer seems to be Elon Musk. In 2002 he launched SpaceX, a private company focused on shaking up the moribund space industry. Then a year later came Tesla Motors, a start-up car manufacturer that aimed to produce all-electric production cars, something mainstream manufacturers had tried to do and failed miserably. By any rational assessment, both projects were preposterous and doomed to fail, and when their originator voiced an ambition to colonise Mars, even admirers began to mention the word ‘hubris’ – destroyer of many a rich young net mogul. When Musk’s companies hit trouble, he was widely assumed to be through.
No. By the time we meet in late 2013, Elon Musk sits atop two billion-dollar corporations and appears to stand on the brink of changing the world in significant ways. Tesla’s first all-electric family car, the Model S saloon, hit US streets with the highest ratings ever conferred by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the influential Consumer Reports organisation, and went on to win several significant awards, while SpaceX has been contracted by Nasa to ferry cargo and ultimately people to the International Space Station, effectively replacing the Space Shuttle. What’s more, Musk has reduced the cost of reaching the ISS by a staggering 90 per cent, from $1 billion per mission to a mere $60 million, with more savings to follow.
As if this weren’t enough, he is chairman of the board and largest shareholder at the solar energy developers SolarCity, and recently made world news by publishing design studies for a solar-powered ‘Hyperloop’ rapid transit system, capable of reaching Birmingham from London in eight minutes. He has just been named business person of the year by Fortune magazine, and in August, the day after Tesla officially moved into profit, Bloomberg estimated his personal wealth at $7.7 billion, making him the 162nd richest person in the world at the age of 42. Everything about him is mind boggling.
So if Hollywood gossip claims Musk as the model for Tony Stark, the genius engineer played by Robert Downey Jr in the Iron Man movies, it is easy to see why. If he succeeds with even half his plans, he will have made a more profound impact on the world than any living politician: if he doesn’t, such high-visibility failures could set his chosen causes back decades. Married to the British actress Talulah Riley, and with five young sons from his first marriage, Musk leads a life as colourful as the comic books he might have sprung from. So who is this boyish-looking half-man, half-screenwriter’s fantasy – and where on earth did he come from?
Needless to say, getting an audience with Elon Musk is akin to rocket science these days. In addition to flying his own jet between the Tesla plant near San Francisco and the LA headquarters of SpaceX, where he oversees a rapidly expanding launch schedule as CEO and chief designer, he appears to make a real effort to father his sons. I had been sceptical of the ‘Musk is Iron Man’ story until I met the film’s director-producer, Jon Favreau, in the SpaceX reception.
That ‘Iron Man’ story is PR fakery, right?
‘No,’ Favreau told me affably. ‘It was the idea of this guy who could make anything happen. Which is Elon, you know? So we came to see him. He likes to say engineering is the closest thing to magic, and he really believes that.’
Favreau further reveals that parts of Iron Man 2 were shot inside and outside SpaceX (‘Watch it again and you’ll see’), and that he is here to see Musk demonstrate a system for designing machinery by waving one’s hands in the air, like in the film.
So I am a little chastened as I step into the main SpaceX building, at which point the months of waiting, the delays and last-minute schedule changes simply fall away. How to describe the quirkiness of this place? The complex was once used for assembling jumbo jets and feels more like a film set than any film set I have ever visited.
The first thing you see on being ushered in and warned off photography is the enormous leg of an experimental vertical-take-off-and-landing ‘grasshopper’ rocket and, suspended above the shop floor, the seven-seater Dragon spaceship, which made history as the first commercial craft to dock with the International Space Station in May 2012. Beyond these, a large glass box houses the SpaceX mission control centre, in which a dozen or so young people stare at screens and projected images of a gargantuan, 27-engined Falcon Heavy rocket on its launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base. If the Heavy succeeds in reaching space, it will be earth’s most powerful rocket by a factor of two.
But the big surprise is not the rocket, it is the people in the control room. These are not the clean-shaven, white-shirted technicians of aerospace convention: they are bearded men in camouflage shorts and Pixies T-shirts; willowy young women in Indian skirts and sandals. Look around and you will see others riding trikes across the shop floor or discussing engineering problems over free frozen yogurt from an ice cream bar by the open-plan canteen. This is a rocket factory straight out of Silicon Valley, where hierarchy is worn lightly and so long as the work gets done, no one cares what you wear. Aerospace is notoriously shy of women, but Musk’s right-hand man, Gwynne Shotwell, is a woman. More radically still, in an outsource-happy industry, SpaceX claims that 70 to 80 per cent of its product is made here, under one roof, by its local US workforce.
Musk occupies a corner workstation near the front entrance. Twice I am given a time to meet him and twice ‘urgent business’ intervenes. When eventually I am led over, I find him in a white checked shirt, jeans and trainers staring intently at a computer screen. On his desk are scale models of a SpaceX Falcon and a Saturn V moon rocket, as well as a samurai sword with a stingray-leather handle, presented for services to space.
I have been warned that Musk’s manner can tend to be brusque, but my first impression is of time seeming to accelerate alarmingly the moment he turns and starts to speak, with conversation racing into the distance then abruptly pulling up, indicating that whatever might be said on a particular topic has been said and you’d better launch another into the space between you, fast, before something else rushes into the void.
He is taller and broader than expected from his boyish good looks and geek-god propensities, with the surprise build of a rugby player. I inadvertently make mention of his computer mouse and get a three-minute meditation on the evolution of the mouse as a tool. Still reeling from what I’ve seen in my first rocket factory, I wonder almost involuntarily whether the scale of what he has done ever scares him, and am surprised to see him relax at the ingenuousness of the question.
‘Yes. Yes,’ he smiles. ‘We started with just me at SpaceX and now it’s 3,000 people… It is kind of crazy.’