South African entrepreneur Elon Musk is known for founding Tesla Motors and SpaceX, which launched a landmark commercial spacecraft in 2012.
Who Is Elon Musk?
Elon Musk is a South African-born American entrepreneur and businessman who founded X.com in 1999 (which later became PayPal), SpaceX in 2002 and Tesla Motors in 2003. Musk became a multimillionaire in his late 20s when he sold his start-up company, Zip2, to a division of Compaq Computers.
Musk made headlines in May 2012, when SpaceX launched a rocket that would send the first commercial vehicle to the International Space Station. He bolstered his portfolio with the purchase of SolarCity in 2016 and cemented his standing as a leader of industry by taking on an advisory role in the early days of President Donald Trump’s administration.
In January 2021, Musk reportedly surpassed Jeff Bezos as the wealthiest man in the world.
Musk was born on June 28, 1971, in Pretoria, South Africa. As a child, Musk was so lost in his daydreams about inventions that his parents and doctors ordered a test to check his hearing.
At about the time of his parents’ divorce, when he was 10, Musk developed an interest in computers. He taught himself how to program, and when he was 12 he sold his first software: a game he created called Blastar.
In grade school, Musk was short, introverted and bookish. He was bullied until he was 15 and went through a growth spurt and learned how to defend himself with karate and wrestling.
Musk’s mother, Maye Musk, is a Canadian model and the oldest woman to star in a Covergirl campaign. When Musk was growing up, she worked five jobs at one point to support her family.
Musk’s father, Errol Musk, is a wealthy South African engineer.
Musk spent his early childhood with his brother Kimbal and sister Tosca in South Africa. His parents divorced when he was 10.
At age 17, in 1989, Musk moved to Canada to attend Queen’s University and avoid mandatory service in the South African military. Musk obtained his Canadian citizenship that year, in part because he felt it would be easier to obtain American citizenship via that path.
In 1992, Musk left Canada to study business and physics at the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated with an undergraduate degree in economics and stayed for a second bachelor’s degree in physics.
After leaving Penn, Musk headed to Stanford University in California to pursue a PhD in energy physics. However, his move was timed perfectly with the Internet boom, and he dropped out of Stanford after just two days to become a part of it, launching his first company, Zip2 Corporation in 1995. Musk became a U.S. citizen in 2002.
Musk launched his first company, Zip2 Corporation, in 1995 with his brother, Kimbal Musk. An online city guide, Zip2 was soon providing content for the new websites of both The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. In 1999, a division of Compaq Computer Corporation bought Zip2 for $307 million in cash and $34 million in stock options.
In 1999, Elon and Kimbal Musk used the money from their sale of Zip2 to found X.com, an online financial services/payments company. An X.com acquisition the following year led to the creation of PayPal as it is known today.
In October 2002, Musk earned his first billion when PayPal was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion in stock. Before the sale, Musk owned 11 percent of PayPal stock.
Musk founded his third company, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, in 2002 with the intention of building spacecraft for commercial space travel. By 2008, SpaceX was well established, and NASA awarded the company the contract to handle cargo transport for the International Space Station—with plans for astronaut transport in the future—in a move to replace NASA’s own space shuttle missions.
On May 22, 2012, Musk and SpaceX made history when the company launched its Falcon 9 rocket into space with an unmanned capsule. The vehicle was sent to the International Space Station with 1,000 pounds of supplies for the astronauts stationed there, marking the first time a private company had sent a spacecraft to the International Space Station. Of the launch, Musk was quoted as saying, “I feel very lucky. … For us, it’s like winning the Super Bowl.”
In December 2013, a Falcon 9 successfully carried a satellite to geosynchronous transfer orbit, a distance at which the satellite would lock into an orbital path that matched the Earth’s rotation. In February 2015, SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 fitted with the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite, aiming to observe the extreme emissions from the sun that affect power grids and communications systems on Earth.
In March 2017, SpaceX saw the successful test flight and landing of a Falcon 9 rocket made from reusable parts, a development that opened the door for more affordable space travel.
A setback came in November 2017, when an explosion occurred during a test of the company’s new Block 5 Merlin engine. SpaceX reported that no one was hurt, and that the issue would not hamper its planned rollout of a future generation of Falcon 9 rockets.
The company enjoyed another milestone moment in February 2018 with the successful test launch of the powerful Falcon Heavy rocket. Armed with additional Falcon 9 boosters, the Falcon Heavy was designed to carry immense payloads into orbit and potentially serve as a vessel for deep space missions. For the test launch, the Falcon Heavy was given a payload of Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster, equipped with cameras to “provide some epic views” for the vehicle’s planned orbit around the sun.
In July 2018, Space X enjoyed the successful landing of a new Block 5 Falcon rocket, which touched down on a drone ship less than 9 minutes after liftoff.
BFR Mission to Mars
In September 2017, Musk presented an updated design plan for his BFR (an acronym for either “Big F—ing Rocket” or “Big Falcon Rocket”), a 31-engine behemoth topped by a spaceship capable of carrying at least 100 people. He revealed that SpaceX was aiming to launch the first cargo missions to Mars with the vehicle in 2022, as part of his overarching goal of colonizing the Red Planet.
In March 2018, the entrepreneur told an audience at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, that he hoped to have the BFR ready for short flights early the following year, while delivering a knowing nod at his previous problems with meeting deadlines.
The following month, it was announced that SpaceX would construct a facility at the Port of Los Angeles to build and house the BFR. The port property presented an ideal location for SpaceX, as its mammoth rocket will only be movable by barge or ship when completed.
Starlink Internet Satellites
In late March 2018, SpaceX received permission from the U.S. government to launch a fleet of satellites into low orbit for the purpose of providing Internet service. The satellite network, named Starlink, would ideally make broadband service more accessible in rural areas, while also boosting competition in heavily populated markets that are typically dominated by one or two providers.
SpaceX launched the first batch of 60 satellites in May 2019, and followed with another payload of 60 satellites that November. While this represented significant progress for the Starlink venture, the appearance of these bright orbiters in the night sky, with the potential of thousands more to come, worried astronomers who felt that a proliferation of satellites would increase the difficulty of studying distant objects in space.
Musk is the co-founder, CEO and product architect at Tesla Motors, a company formed in 2003 that is dedicated to producing affordable, mass-market electric cars as well as battery products and solar roofs. Musk oversees all product development, engineering and design of the company’s products.
Five years after its formation, in March 2008, Tesla unveiled the Roadster, a sports car capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, as well as traveling nearly 250 miles between charges of its lithium ion battery.
With a stake in the company taken by Daimler and a strategic partnership with Toyota, Tesla Motors launched its initial public offering in June 2010, raising $226 million.
In August 2008, Tesla announced plans for its Model S, the company’s first electric sedan that was reportedly meant to take on the BMW 5 series. In 2012, the Model S finally entered production at a starting price of $58,570. Capable of covering 265 miles between charges, it was honored as the 2013 Car of the Year by Motor Trend magazine.
In April 2017, Tesla announced that it surpassed General Motors to become the most valuable U.S. car maker. The news was an obvious boon to Tesla, which was looking to ramp up production and release its Model 3 sedan later that year.
In September 2019, using what Musk described as a “Plaid powertrain,” a Model S set a speed record for four-door sedan at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey County, California.
The Model 3 was officially launched in early 2019 following extensive production delays. The car was initially priced at $35,000, a much more accessible price point than the $69,500 and up for its Model S and X electric sedans.
After initially aiming to produce 5,000 new Model 3 cars per week by December 2017, Musk pushed that goal back to March 2018, and then to June with the start of the new year. The announced delay didn’t surprise industry experts, who were well aware of the company’s production problems, though some questioned how long investors would remain patient with the process. It also didn’t prevent Musk from garnering a radical new compensation package as CEO, in which he would be paid after reaching milestones of growing valuation based on $50 billion increments.
By April 2018, with Tesla expected to fall short of first-quarter production forecasts, news surfaced that Musk had pushed aside the head of engineering to personally oversee efforts in that division. In a Twitter exchange with a reporter, Musk said it was important to “divide and conquer” to meet production goals and was “back to sleeping at factory.”
After signaling that the company would reorganize its management structure, Musk in June announced that Tesla was laying off 9 percent of its workforce, though its production department would remain intact. In an email to employees, Musk explained his decision to eliminate some “duplication of roles” to cut costs, admitting it was time to take serious steps toward turning a profit.