Planet Musk by Steffi Kammerer | 3rd June, 2016 | Personalities
From bullied student to Silicon Valley superstar. A mover and shaker, high-flyer, revered and controversial. Elon Musk keeps reaching for the stars. Where others give up at the first at-tempt, he only just gets started. Driven, obsessive, a workaholic. No one saw him coming. With his groundbreaking ideas, he revolutionized car manufacturing with Tesla and space travel with SpaceX. He wants to retire on Mars, but until that day still has lots of work to do on Earth.
He enjoys telling the story of how, as a boy, he was afraid of the dark. At least until he realized that in fact, darkness is only the absence of photons. An abstract concept such as that would hardly have comforted most children, but for Elon Musk it worked. At least it made him less afraid of the dark.
These days he is not completely without fear, quite the contrary, as he confessed to a Swiss business magazine last year. But: “If there’s enough at stake, you can overcome anything, despite being afraid. I believe that you can meet almost any challenge. You just have to decide what to tackle.” His chosen challenges are finding sustainable sources of energy and exploring space. “These are the crucial problems facing humanity.” If the challenges around finding sustainable sources of energy are not solved by the end of the century, he says, the world’s economy will collapse. “One day Earth won’t be enough anymore. Humanity needs new habitats.”
So, off to Mars we go. Musk wants to colonize the planet as an alternative habitat. Not at some point in the distant future, but within the next 20 years at the latest. When he first went public with this plan, most people thought that he was crazy. A megalomaniac. Today, no one ridicules him anymore. After all, the thing about his predictions is that they come true more often than not.
Musk looks boyish. On the Internet, there are video clips of some of the interviews he has given over the last few years. It is striking how softly spoken and serious he is – hesitant, almost shy. He used to get bullied at school. In fact, his tormentors once beat him up so badly that he had to go to the hospital. So he became withdrawn and spent half his youth with comic book heroes who saved the world. Nothing seemed impossible for them.
“If there’s enough at stake, you can overcome anything, despite the fear.” Elon Musk
Elon Musk grew up in apartheid South Africa, the oldest of three siblings. He left the country at the age of 17 to avoid military service. Musk first went to Canada, and then to the United States to study physics at the University of Pennsylvania. After ending up at Stanford to do a doctorate, he only stayed two days. Instead, he founded his first company with his brother, which they sold in 1999 for the incredible sum of $307 million. Musk immediately invested his part of the money in his next adventure: the online payment service PayPal. When that company was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002, Elon Musk was only 32 years old.
He could easily have retired at that point but instead, he invested his fortune in two highly risky ventures: in 2002 he founded SpaceX, a start-up that promised significantly cheaper spaceflights, simply by reusing its rockets. One year later he founded Tesla, making electric cars cool and sexy – unlike any that had come before them.
Elon Musk is not only one of the world’s richest men. Forbes magazine ranked him as the 38th most powerful. And he is clearly one of the youngest on that list. More than 3.5 million people follow him on Twitter. They all want to be the first to find out what drives this pioneer. This is because Musk is always at the very vanguard of things. To many he is a guru, a prophet for whom they would walk over hot coals. But not everyone who wants to work for him lasts the distance. As the former “Head of Talent Acquisition” at SpaceX wrote on the Quora Internet forum, “the challenge is that he is a machine and the rest of us aren’t. So if you work for Elon you have to accept the discomfort. But,” she goes on to reassure her readers, “in that discomfort is the kind of growth you can’t get anywhere else. [It is] worth every ounce of blood and sweat.” Business journalist Ashlee Vance has written a much-noted biography of Musk (Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future). In it, Vance describes how he once interviewed the entrepreneur on a Saturday. He mentioned how impressed he was that the company parking lot was full. But Musk saw things completely differently. He was just about to send out a company-wide email because so few people had come in to the office: “We have become so f****** slack.” Vance’s bestseller is full of such stories.
The visionary does not take kindly to criticism. In early 2016, a well-known venture capitalist went public in a blog about the fact that his Model X order was cancelled after he had complained about Musk being late for a presentation. Tesla – that seemed to be the message – can pick and choose its clients. The cars have long been an unrivaled status symbol in Silicon Valley. Those who drive one demonstrate their purchasing power, as well as their innovative, green thinking. Tesla’s new Model 3 is designed to appeal to the mass market. Due to be launched in 2017, it will cost a mere $35,000. When it was unveiled this past March, the Model 3 received an unbelievable 180,000 pre-orders within 24 hours.
For a while in 2008 it looked like the party was almost over. Musk himself has described it as the worst year of his life. The first three SpaceX rocket launches had failed spectacularly, and a further failure would have meant the end of the business. Musk had used up all of his financial reserves. Tesla, too, was close to bankruptcy. Add to all that a very public divorce from his first wife.
But then, in the fall, came the triumph: the rocket launched perfectly. Shortly after that, NASA signed a billion-dollar contract with SpaceX for supply flights to the International Space Station. That was his breakthrough. According to the ambitious plan, from 2017 the start-up will even transport NASA astronauts into space. Six months ago, just before Christmas, Musk finally made history. SpaceX managed to successfully land a launch rocket back on Earth after a flight – a first in space aviation.
Elon Musk sums up his motivation in a simple phrase: “I’m trying to do good things.” As if his two multi-billion-dollar companies weren’t enough of a challenge, he is also chairman of SolarCity, a company founded by his cousins. It is the largest supplier of solar-powered electricity in the United States and also runs a network of charging stations for electric cars.
On top of that, Musk is a father of five sons. He has a set of triplets and twins from his first marriage. For them, and a dozen other children, he founded – why is this no surprise – his own school in Los Angeles, because he had not liked any of the alternatives. The school is called Ad Astra, which means “to the stars.” There are no grades and the children are not separated into age groups. Instead, there is a focus on problem solving. That’s just about all that anyone really knows about the school.
There are also a surprising number of twists and turns in Musk’s private life. In 2010 he married his second wife, the British actress Talulah Riley. In 2012, the couple divorced and later remarried. Musk then filed for divorce a second time, but withdrew the legal action in 2015. In the spring of 2016 it was Riley’s turn to file for divorce in Los Angeles.