In 1981, at the age of ten, a young South African boy with a passion for computers was told by his father that they were “toys that will amount to nothing”. Undeterred, he bought his own computer, developed a video game, and sold it for $500.
Three decades later and that same boy is now a multi-billionaire, the CEO and founder of several wildly successful companies that have revolutionised everything from space travel to solar power to – of course – computers. Despite his humble beginnings, Elon Musk is now one of the most important thinkers and innovators of our time.
Many have watched Musk’s meteoric rise with awe, especially considering he is still just 44 years old. The journey began at the age of 17 when Musk left his home in Pretoria, South Africa and moved to Canada where he went on to study at Queen’s University in Ontario until 1992, followed by the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It was here that his highly ambitious nature began to manifest itself.
“When I was in college, I decided that the three areas I would like to work on were the internet, space exploration and clean energy,” Musk said in an interview with the Institute of Physics in 2007. And he delivered on his promise. The first, the internet, was his big breakthrough. He founded two companies, Zip2 and PayPal (originally known as X.com), the first an online publishing software and the second a well-known online payment service. Zip2 was sold for more than $300 million in 1999, and PayPal for $1.5 billion in 2002, earning Musk his early fortune in Silicon Valley.
From there, he set his targets on space. In 2002, he founded the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX, with the goal being to massively reduce the cost of getting to space and, eventually, land humans on Mars. They were certainly ambitious goals, and ones that were met with heavy scepticism at the start – especially considering how many other private space companies had tried and failed. But Musk was determined.
By 2008, SpaceX had launched its first rocket – the Falcon 1 – into orbit. In 2010, it became the firstprivatecompanytolaunchandreturna spacecraft – the Dragon – atop its new Falcon 9 launch vehicle. In 2012, Dragon became the first private capsule to dock with the International Space Station (ISS). And recently, on 22 December 2015, SpaceX became the first company – private or otherwise – to safely return the first stage of an orbital rocket to the ground. This reusability aspect will be a key goal in bringing down the cost of launching.
Musk has forever changed the playing field in space exploration. He is perhaps best known for SpaceX, but another of his companies, Tesla Motors, regularly makes the headlines, and was Musk’s first foray into the clean energy market.
He became part of this electric car company in 2004, and others sat up and took note when it launched the first fully electric sports car in 2008. Tesla has now almost single-handedly changed the automotive market with a series of electriccars–the RoadsterandModelS,Xand3 – and big things are expected of the company in the future.
With good reason, the world’s eyes have been trained on Musk these last few years. He has transformed the three areas that he set his sights on – and from a small South African boy with a passion for computers, Musk is now one of the most revered thinkers in the world. We will wait to see what he does next with bated breath.
The big idea
Making rockets reusable is one of Musk’s biggest goals The entrepreneur has often likened rocket travel to discarding an airplane after every flight, as up until now all rockets were discarded after launch. So his SpaceX company is developing reusable rocket technology that could return to the ground after launch. This is achieved using aerodynamic ‘fins’ and by reigniting the thruster on the rocket. Following a handful of failures, SpaceX achieved this on 22 December 2015, landing the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Five things to know about Elon Musk
1. Iron Man
Jon Favreau, the director of the Iron Man films, reportedly decided to use some of Musk’s characteristics in the character of Tony Stark, owing to the similarities between the real and fictional billionaires.
2. Work, work, work
Musk is a self-professed workaholic.Withsomany companies to run, he works up to 100 hours per week, which has caused some notable and high-profile marital disputes.
One of Musk’s more recent ideas is a transportation system that will be able to carry passengers in pods through vacuum tubes at speeds of up to 1,220km/h.
4. Life on Mars
In a recent biography written by journalist Ashlee Vance, Musk revealed that he hopes to have an 80,000-strong Martian colony up and running by 2040.
Musk has another somewhat lesser-known company, SolarCity, which is the largest solar power provider in America. It is run by his cousin, Lyndon Rive.
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