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How Elon Musk took SpaceX from an idea to the cusp of making history

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk (NASA / Aubrey Gemignani/TNS)

Elon Musk takes all his businesses seriously, but it’s long been said that when he wakes up in the morning, he sees just one in the mirror: SpaceX.

On Wednesday, his nearly 20-year-old company is slated to fulfill its most important mission to date when two astronauts board a Crew Dragon capsule and launch from Florida on a trajectory toward the International Space Station. It’ll mark the first time the company has ever launched humans, as well as the first time in nearly a decade that astronauts take flight from American soil on American rockets.

To succeed, everything – launch, orbit, docking, then departure and splashdown – will have to be perfect. Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley depend on it.

That Musk built this kind of high-risk, high-reward scenario isn’t by chance. For decades, the 48-year-old entrepreneur has used his business acumen to break into entrenched industries ranging from finance to launch services to transportation. It’s no secret that he knows the hustle – and embraces it.

His hard-work-pays-off attitude has elevated him and his employees to run business worth billions. SpaceX, traded privately, recently passed a $30 billion valuation while Tesla earlier this year became the most valuable American car maker ever, eclipsing veterans like Ford and General Motors.

His hard-charging ways, though, have sometimes landed him in hot water, including stepping down as Tesla’s chairman over government concerns sparked by tweets he made about taking the company private.

How did Musk, now worth about $35 billion, get to the point of putting humans on pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center? And what does he want in the long run?

To understand, we’ll need to start some 8,000 miles away in South Africa.

Early life and move into business

Born to a model mother and engineer father in Pretoria, Musk grew up with a voracious appetite for reading, technology, and computers. Those interests became particularly important when he was bullied in school, he has said during interviews, and they helped form the basis for his current technical disposition.

Before his teenage years, he had already started writing computer software.

“He’s a guy with unlimited ambition,” his brother, Kimbal Musk, said during a 60 Minutes interview in 2014. “It’s not a typical type of ambition. His mind just needs to be constantly fulfilled and the problems that he takes on therefore need to be more and more complex over time in order to keep him interested.”

He would eventually find more complex problems to solve in North America, where he already had ties through his Canada-born mother and American grandparents. Degrees in physics and economics from the University of Pennsylvania paved the way for him to pursue graduate school at Stanford, but he left before earning a degree. Business ideas were dominating his mind.

“It seemed like the vast majority of such things came from the United States,” Musk told 60 Minutes on the topic of Silicon Valley-produced software. “I also read a lot of comic books and they all seemed to be set in the United States. So it’s like, ‘Well, I’m going to go to this place.'”

His first major business venture was Zip2, a kind of online directory founded in 1995 that included maps – a major feature considering digital directions wouldn’t become ubiquitous until devices like smartphones came along more than a decade later. The company found itself developing online city guides for newspapers like The New York Times, which in a 1999 report confirmed Zip2 had been sold to Compaq Computer Corporation for $300 million.

In 1999, Musk co-founded, one of the first online financial services companies. After a series of mergers and transitions, it was renamed to something more familiar to today’s users: PayPal.

His eventual departure from PayPal is well-known in spaceflight circles. When the company was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion 2002, Musk made about $160 million from the deal, setting him up to personally invest in his long-forming dream of starting Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX.


To get his spaceflight ambitions – primarily taking payloads and humans to Mars – off the ground, Musk has often told the story of his attempts at buying refurbished Russian ballistic missiles. But that proved to be too expensive and working with Russian officials was difficult.

“After my second or third trip back from Russia, I was like, ‘Whoa, there’s got to be a better way to solve this rocket problem,'” Musk said at the 2018 South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. “So we embarked on that journey to create SpaceX in 2002.”

Musk knew he was entering an entrenched, high-risk industry: “In the beginning, I actually wouldn’t even let my friends invest because everyone would lose their money. I thought I’d rather lose my own money.”

Using tightly controlled costs and manufacturing processes, Musk was convinced he could bring down the cost of access to space, which was the biggest hurdle in realizing his ambitions. Enter Falcon 1.

Over the years, Musk has been clear: NASA saved SpaceX. After Falcon 1 failed to reach orbit three times but succeeded on the fourth try, his upstart company was strapped for cash and turning the page to its final chapter. Then two days before Christmas 2008, NASA announced SpaceX had been awarded a $1.6 billion contract to fly supplies to the International Space Station, a program now well-known as Commercial Resupply Services.

Since 2012, SpaceX has successfully flown Dragon to the ISS 20 times on newer Falcon 9 rockets. Its Crew Dragon capsule has flown to the station once and is slated for a second trip with Behnken and Hurley.

Along the way, his company staged coup after coup. In 2007, it acquired the rights to lease significant infrastructure like Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 40, which once hosted Titan rockets.

“He was most impressive in cobbling together what was needed for a successful launch site with scraps and whatever was available,” said Dale Ketcham, Space Florida vice president of government and external relations. “Some of his most impressive achievements were based on his ability to make stuff happen by using what was available and using simple physics to get done what needed to get done.”

“That was contrary to how things had been done up until that point,” Ketcham said.

Then in 2014 came the deal to lease KSC’s pad 39A, an announcement that pushed SpaceX even further into serious spaceflight territory. This was, after all, the pad that hosted Apollo 11’s vault to the moon and dozens of space shuttle missions after that. Today, after years of refurbishments and modifications to host Falcon 9 rockets, that’s where Crew Dragon stands ready for Behnken and Hurley.

Aside from Mars, one of Musk’s primary goals today is doing for spaceflight what already exists in aviation: reusability. Much like an airline doesn’t discard a Boeing 747 after each flight, which would make ticket prices impossibly expensive, Musk says rocket reusability is the future.

To do that, SpaceX has done what seemed all but impossible a few years ago. More than 50 of the company’s boosters have successfully flown back to Earth – either to Florida, California, or an offshore drone ship – where some were refurbished for future flights.

So far, the launch provider’s pricing supports Musk’s belief that reusability is the key to bringing down the cost of flying people and cargo to orbit. A typical Falcon 9 launch costs around $50 to $60 million, which is significantly cheaper than other orbital vehicles in its class.

And with Starlink, the company’s constellation of low-orbit satellites that beam internet connectivity to the ground, Musk is building the revenue streams necessary to fund his desire to build a vehicle capable of going to Mars. That vehicle, known as Starship, is a massive rocket that exists in prototype form at SpaceX’s remote facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

Garrett Reisman, a space shuttle astronaut and engineer who joined SpaceX in 2011 and continues to consult for the company, said a significant portion of Musk’s success is driven by his fascination with engineering and technology.

“I first met Elon for my job interview,” Reisman told FLORIDA TODAY. “All he wanted to talk about were technical things. We talked a lot about different main propulsion system design architectures.”

“At the end of my interview, I said, ‘Hey, are you sure you want to hire me? You’ve already got an astronaut, so are you sure you need two around here?'” Reisman asked. “He looked at me and said, ‘I’m not hiring you because you’re an astronaut. I’m hiring you because you’re a good engineer.'”


Musk’s tech and engineering involvement doesn’t stop at SpaceX.

Electric car and solar energy company Tesla fits into his overall vision of colonizing Mars while making Earth more habitable, a consistently mentioned belief that positions the company in a different light than its rivals. Musk invested in the fledgling company in 2004 and eventually ascended to its leadership position, though he often works on the factory floor.

Since then, the luxury Model S sedan helped pave the way for newer, more affordable vehicles like the Model 3 and newer Model Y. Today, Tesla also heavily markets energy options like solar roof tiles and even battery-supported grids that can help power entire communities.

Despite heavy fluctuations on Wall Street, the company routinely speeds past valuations in excess of $100 billion, fighting for top spots among the most valuable automakers in the world.

Managing SpaceX and Tesla, building out new businesses, and maintaining relationships with his family makes Musk a busy billionaire – perhaps one of the busiest. According to people who know him, it’s the fascination in his work that pushes him forward.

“He’s obviously skilled at all those different functions, but certainly what really drives him and where his passion really is, is his role as CTO,” or chief technology officer, Reisman said. “Basically his role as chief designer and chief engineer. That’s the part of the job that really plays to his strengths.”


Having Musk’s personality intertwined with his companies, however, comes with drawbacks. He’s no stranger to controversy.

In July 2018, he took to Twitter – his most consistent means of communicating with the outside world – and slammed a British diver who criticized Musk’s attempt at rescuing a Thai soccer team stuck in a cave. Musk calling the diver a “pedo guy” caused considerable backlash and a lawsuit, but Musk was ultimately cleared by a jury.

A few months later, the Securities and Exchange Commission set its sights on the billionaire, who had tweeted private funding was “secured” to buy all the company’s outstanding shares and make it private. When the claim about financing didn’t prove true, the SEC sued, claiming that his tweets had misled investors and stockholders.

Musk ended up settling with the SEC. Aside from fines, he was forced to step down as Tesla chairman but was able to continue as CEO. He also agreed to have his tweets monitored and cleared by higher-ups in the company.

More recently, he’s found himself in the crosshairs of medical professionals and government officials around the world. His tweet claiming that the coronavirus pandemic would involve “close to zero new cases in the U.S.” by the end of April proved to be false, and he opted to reopen a Tesla factory in California before officials had given the go-ahead.

“Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules,” he tweeted on May 11. “I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.”

The controversies, however, haven’t slowed the overall inertia of SpaceX and Tesla.

“He’s a guy that’s brilliant, successful, and has more irons in the fire than almost any human on the planet,” Ketcham said. “He’s under a lot of pressure and is doing what he thinks is right. When he thinks he’s on the right path, he’s not afraid to tell people. But that’s worked for him, and that will work for him until it doesn’t.”


© 2020 The Florida Times-Union