Nov|Dec 08 Contents
Gazette Home

 

After Penn, Musk went to Stanford in 1995, intending to earn a graduate degree in high-energy physics. Within a month, in the midst of the Silicon Valley startup frenzy, he decided his time would be better spent working on a software idea—one designed to help news organizations provide content online. So he dropped out and started what became Zip2, which was bought four years later by Compaq’s Alta Vista division.

At the same time, Musk was developing the software for his next venture, which he called X.com. With more and more people becoming comfortable on the Internet, Musk saw that they would want to pay their bills from their home computers, and companies would certainly welcome a good clearinghouse type of program.

The programmer in Musk is never alone, though. He is always being joined by the business guy. Musk was looking for synergies for his new system and found it in Confinity, a company primarily designed to beam money between Palm Pilots. Part of Confinity, though, was a product somewhat like Musk’s at X.com, and it was called PayPal. Confinity and X.com merged in 2000, and in 2002 the combined company, by then known as PayPal, Inc., was bought by eBay for $1.5 billion. Musk owned nearly 12 percent of the PayPal shares at the sale, so while he did not have, say, Bill Gates’ kind of money, he had clearly jumped from the ranks of the merely very wealthy into the I-can-do-whatever-I-always-wanted-to-do category.

And what Musk had always wanted to do was go interplanetary. In fact, several months before the sale of PayPal he had already started SpaceX. “I didn’t and still do not have an expertise in rockets, but I am determined to acquire it,” Musk says. “It is not like I ever worked for Boeing or Lockheed. But I do have an understanding of how things work in physics and engineering, and the people at SpaceX are arguably the best in the world at what they do.”

Originally, Musk thought his mission was going to be to settle Mars—or at least figure out how to grow things on the planet, since conditions there share at least some similarities with Earth.

“If you go from the context of what is the best place to establish a self-sustaining human presence, Mars is substantially superior [to the moon] because the resources on Mars are vastly greater,” Musk says. “On the moon, you are missing a bunch of elements. Mars has the minerals, and a tremendous amount of water in permafrost. If you could raise the temperature on Mars about 30 or 40 degrees Celsius, it would be under water. The basic point is, there is enough water in permafrost. On the moon, water is almost completely absent. Also gravity on Mars is closer to that on Earth.”

That business guy in Musk, though, always tempers the visionary. The people he found who were most interested in the Mars idea were a bit too dreamy, and he wanted something that could produce results. Eventually, that desire led to modifying the mission into SpaceX’s current goal of manufacturing space-launch vehicles with lower costs and higher reliability.

“If you wanted to separate SpaceX into what I think makes sense as far as human exploration of space, it is that SpaceX is a commercial company, with the objective of producing a reliable, low-cost, launch vehicle that will be used to put a satellite into orbit,” Musk says. “If we do it right, NASA will use it for human exploration of space, and that is the ultimate goal.”

Like anyone entering a new field, Musk looked into the fraternities, so to speak, of space exploration, the groups and individuals involved in thinking about the moon, Mars, and beyond.

“Elon is a true visionary,” says Louis Friedman, the executive director of the Planetary Society, which promotes all ideas about space travel and of which Musk is currently a trustee (as is Ressi). “When he wanted to change his career from the Internet to space exploration, he wanted to know not just what was fantastic, but where he could make a difference.

“He first came to talk to me about Mars, but in the end, he is building a rocket,” Friedman adds. “One could say he scaled back his ambition, but he has not scaled it back at all. He still wants to go to Mars, but unlike many, he has decided to make a business out of it.

“To the extent that he can spark an interest in other people, he is doing it. He has that old NASA we-can-do-it attitude. Whether he succeeds or fails on any given launch is irrelevant. It is the valiant attempt that makes Elon.”

Ressi was with his old roommate on many of Musk’s initial trips to build the company and drum up business. “We went everywhere: France, small private contractors in Russia, the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Lab, the people who have the X Prize,” says Ressi.

(Both Ressi and Musk are also trustees of the X Prize Foundation, which awards $10 million-plus prizes for being the first to achieve goals it determines—most famously in 2004 to the builders of SpaceShipOne, which managed to meet the challenge of carrying three people to 100 kilometers, or roughly 62 miles, above the Earth, two times within two weeks.)

“It ran the gamut from the seemingly crazy ideas to the large nationalistic space programs,” Ressi adds. “We were still pretty skeptical, but what was more clear was that no one was doing anything interesting in space—and certainly not efficiently.”

 

FEATURE:
The Next, Next Thing By Robert Strauss


On its fourth try, in September SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket successfully launched from the company’s test site in the South Pacific and reached Earth orbit after about nine-and-a-half minutes in flight.

  page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4    
  ©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/04/08