Elon Musk: Private Space Entrepreneur

Was Falcon 9\'s launch really proof of Obama\'s space policy? Does SPACEX have the cash to continue? Why are some US senators attacking the company? Miles O\'Brien\'s deep conversation with Elon Musk,

Elon Musk is an entrepreneur best known in space circles for SpaceX, which became the first private company to ship cargo to the International Space Station in 2012. Since then, SpaceX has developed a large rocket (Falcon Heavy) and continues work on a crew capsule for NASA that will fly humans in the near future.

A long-time advocate of Mars exploration, Musk has publicly talked about ventures such as building a greenhouse on the Red Planet and more ambitiously, establishing a Mars colony. He also is rethinking transportation concepts through ideas such as the Hyperloop, a proposed high-speed system that would run between major cities.

The South African-born businessman describes himself as "an engineer and entrepreneur who builds and operates companies to solve environmental, social and economic challenges."

Musk is also the founder of electric car company Tesla Motors. In recent years, Musk has been criticized for periodic negative comments on social media, such as some personal comments he made about rescue personnel after his offer to help Thai children trapped in a watery cave in 2018. The children were rescued, but without Musk's help.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden (left) congratulates SpaceX CEO and chief designer Elon Musk on June 13, 2012. Behind them is the Dragon capsule that on May 25 became the first private vehicle ever to dock with the International Space Station.
(Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Early years

Musk grew up in South Africa and earned degrees in physics and business from the University of Pennsylvania. His first venture after school was Zip2 Corp., an Internet company that provided software and services for businesses.

"Things were pretty tough in the early going. I didn't have any money — in fact I had negative money [because] I had huge student debts," Musk recalled in a 2003 Stanford lecture.

He showered at a local YMCA and lived in his office, managing to keep expenses very low despite his low revenue stream. "So when we went to VCs [venture capitalists], we could say we had positive cash flow," he said.

After Compaq bought Zip2 for more than $300 million in 1999, Musk turned his attention to online bill payments. That company, later known as PayPal, was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002.

Musk now had a small fortune in hand, and at the tender age of 30 was looking to put his energies into something new. He began SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) in 2002 with ambitious plans to launch a viable, privately funded space company. In the face of naysayers, he doubled down and worked on a business plan.

'Ridiculously recalcitrant problem'

Musk has repeatedly said that humans must be an interplanetary species to combat the threat of asteroids, and potential human catastrophes such as nuclear war or engineered viruses.

What is blocking us from doing that, Musk wrote in a 2008 Esquire piece, is "the ridiculously recalcitrant problem of big, reusable reliable rockets."

"Somehow we have to ... reduce the cost of human spaceflight by a factor of 100," he added. "That's why I started SpaceX. By no means did I think victory was certain. On the contrary, I thought the chances of success were tiny, but that the goal was important enough to try anyway."

This problem has been one of the themes of Musk's work since starting SpaceX. The first successful rocket the company flew, the Falcon 1, took four tries to get off the ground before a successful test flight in September 2008. 

Musk funded SpaceX through his own money at first, and then gained enough experience to attract millions of dollars for NASA to develop his rockets and spacecraft, and to bring cargo to the ISS. He has also received launch contracts from entities such as the U.S. Air Force. [Infographic: How SpaceX's Dragon Space Capsule Works]

The company's track record was a factor in NASA awarding it money to develop the Dragon spacecraft for cargo runs to the International Space Station. Dragon won multiple rounds of funding under NASA's Commercial Crew program and made a world-first docking with the International Space Station in 2012. It is now sending regular shipments of cargo to the station.

SpaceX is now developing a human-rated version of Dragon that is expected to take astronauts to the orbiting complex around 2019 or 2020. Like its cargo counterpart, the Crew Dragon spacecraft received money from NASA for development and is now one of two spacecraft types (along with Boeing's CST-100 Starliner) in the final stages of funding for human certification. SpaceX unveiled the spacesuits for the Crew Dragon spacecraft in September 2017. Astronauts were announced for the first Dragon flights in August 2018.

Dragon is hefted using a rocket called the Falcon 9. Since 2014, SpaceX has attempted to re-use the first stage of the rocket by landing it in various situations. To date, SpaceX has successfully achieved ocean, land-based and barge landings of the Falcon 9's first stage.

In March 2018, SpaceX successfully flew a heavier rocket, the Falcon Heavy, on its maiden flight, carrying a Tesla car and an astronaut mannequin named "Starman." The rocket blasted its cargo to low Earth orbit, and then an upper stage fired to carry the car somewhere toward Mars and the asteroid belt. Musk had said in the months beforehand that there was no guarantee of success.

"I hope it [Falcon Heavy] makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest," Musk told NASA in July 2017. The Falcon Heavy succeeded in sending its cargo to space. However, although its two side boosters landed successfully on twin pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, its center rocket core crashed and burned.

Musk is a frequent user of social media, sometimes posting ideas that are early design thoughts or jokes — and sometimes making cutting comments about others. In April 2018, Musk tweeted that his company plans to land a rocket with a "giant party balloon."

During a chat with Twitter users, Musk vowed to delete SpaceX's Facebook account in March 2018 amid concerns about the social media giant's privacy policies, a vow that was carried through within hours. That same year, Musk also said he would create a company rating journalists and made critical comments about a rescuer trying to help Thai boys trapped in a cave; he later apologized for those comments amid worldwide criticism.

Dreams of Mars

Musk has often said that around 2002, he looked up the schedule for when NASA was supposed to send astronauts there, and was shocked to see there was no timeline. (Today, NASA says it hopes to land astronauts there in the 2030s). That's when, he told Wired, he came up with an idea to do a simple Mars mission "to spur the national will."

"The idea was to send a small greenhouse to the surface of Mars, packed with dehydrated nutrient gel that could be hydrated on landing. You'd wind up with this great photograph of green plants and red background — the first life on Mars, as far as we know, and the farthest that life's ever traveled," he said.

"It would be a great money shot, plus you'd get a lot of engineering data about what it takes to maintain a little greenhouse and keep plants alive on Mars."

He eventually turned aside from the idea due to financial concerns, but in 2012 he sketched out plans to establish a Mars colony, along with other entities, with 80,000 people living on the Red Planet. (Musk later tweeted he meant to say 80,000 making the journey per year.)

Musk has discussed and revised his plans several times over the years. He first unveiled an Interplanetary Transport System in 2016 that is intended to take humans to Mars with SpaceX technology. At the time, the ITS booster (a huge rocket not yet built) was expected to loft up to 100 people at a time to low Earth orbit and send people to Mars in as little as 80 days, as long as Earth and Mars remain close to each other, Musk said in 2016. He also warned that some of the first Mars settlers would likely die during the journey.

In 2017, Musk unveiled an ambitious timeline of sending the first robotic missions to Mars in 2022, and the first humans just two years later — in 2024. He subsequently revised the ITS concept to say that the colonists would use a rocket called the BFR — also known as the Big Falcon Rocket. This rocket is expected to replace the entire Falcon line sometime in the 2020s, revising previous Musk plans where he said Falcon Heavy would carry people.

While Musk is focused on Mars, he has said that he would also willingly participate in a moon base; he even unveiled conceptual designs of a "Moon Base Alpha" (along with a Mars base, of course). His remarks in 2017 were prescient because later that year, the Trump administration tasked NASA to head to the moon before going to Mars. Musk used to advise Trump, but said in 2017 he would stop because the administration withdrew from a Paris climate pact.

Editor's note: This article was edited on August 9 to correct a few errors.

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