BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – On Wednesday, SpaceX, Elon Musk’s nearly 20-year-old company, is slated to fulfill its most important mission to date.
Two astronauts are scheduled to 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 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 Robert 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, passed a $30 billion valuation, and Tesla became the most valuable American carmaker this year, eclipsing veterans such as Ford and General Motors.
Musk’s hard-charging ways have sometimes landed him in hot water. He stepped down as Tesla’s chairman over government concerns sparked by tweets he made about taking the company private.
How did Musk, 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 about 8,000 miles away in South Africa.
Early life and move into business
Born to a model mother and engineer father in Pretoria, South Africa, 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 technical disposition.
Before his teenage years, he had 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 found more complex problems to solve in North America, where he 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 dominated his mind.
“It seemed like the vast majority of such things came from the United States,” Musk told “60 Minutes,” speaking 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 smartphones came along more than a decade later. The company developed online city guides for The New York Times, which reported in 1999 that Zip2 was sold to Compaq Computer for $300 million.
In 1999, Musk co-founded X.com, 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.
When the company was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion in 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.
How NASA saved SpaceX
To get his spaceflight ambitions – primarily taking payloads and humans to Mars – off the ground, Musk attempted to buy refurbished Russian ballistic missiles. 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.”
Musk was convinced he could bring down the cost of access to space. 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. 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 known as Commercial Resupply Services.
Since 2012, SpaceX has 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 Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 40, which 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.
Aside from Mars, one of Musk’s primary goals is reusability. An airline doesn’t discard a Boeing 747 after each flight; similarly, Musk wants rockets to be reused.
More than 50 SpaceX boosters have flown back to Earth – either to Florida, California or an offshore drone ship – where some were refurbished for future flights.
The launch provider’s pricing supports Musk’s belief that reusability will bring down the cost of flying people and cargo to orbit. A typical Falcon 9 launch costs $50 million to $60 million, which is significantly cheaper than other orbital vehicles in its class.
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 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 consults for the company, said a portion of Musk’s success is driven by his fascination with engineering and technology.
“I first met Elon for my job interview,” Reisman told the USA TODAY Network’s 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. Musk invested in the fledgling company in 2004 and ascended to its leadership position, though he often works on the factory floor.
The luxury Model S sedan helped pave the way for newer, more affordable vehicles such as the Model 3 and Model Y. Tesla heavily markets energy options such as solar roof tiles and 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.
“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.”