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For that initial round of discussions, Musk held firm to his idea of getting to Mars. He named the venture “Life to Mars” and started holding seminars, some even including filmmaker James Cameron, of Terminator and Titanic fame.

“People would come up with crazy ideas, like sending mice to Mars or not actually bringing any crops because they might pollute the Mars atmosphere,” recalls Ressi. Then it all dissipated. The Russians they had talked to jacked up the price of launch vehicles and few other people seemed serious about it as a business.

“Elon just got fed up and started SpaceX instead,” says Ressi. “He is not a guy you want to alienate by sounding too silly. He wants results. He was that way when we had the parties at Penn, and he is that way with his businesses now. Money has definitely not changed him.”

Ah, yes, money. Musk and Ressi say they did not have a dime at Penn before they started doing their parties. Now Musk could be worth $300 million or so. He admits that his first taste of wealth with his initial Silicon Valley-boom companies was addictive. He got himself a $1 million McLaren F1 sports car, the fastest production car available, and a couple of small aircraft, which he pilots himself. He bought a house in the posh LA neighborhood of Bel Air. He adds, though, that when his kids were born—Musk and his wife Justine, a writer, have five young sons, including triplets—he knew he had to buy into a better future world for them.

“It really went all the way back to when I decided to do something with the Internet,” says Musk. “I really believed the Internet was going to change humanity—give humanity a new nervous system. It was going to give that nervous system access to any piece of information in the world, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

SpaceX has three different versions of its Falcon rocket, designed for different-sized payloads, in various stages of trials. The company made several attempts to launch its Falcon 1 model—a 90-feet-long, two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket designed to carry satellites—before succeeding on its fourth try on September 28. Carrying a dummy payload weighing 364 pounds, the rocket lifted off from the company’s test site on the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific at 4:15 p.m. (PDT) and reached orbit about nine-and-a-half minutes after launch.

Previous launches had died on the pad or in early flight. The third one lost two NASA satellites with it, along with the ashes of 208 people, including Star Trek actor James “Scotty” Doohan and astronaut Gordon Cooper, who wanted part of their final legacy in space.

But even after that failed third launch, Musk kept up his vaunted optimism. He sent an email to SpaceX employees to prove it.  “The most important message I’d like to send right now is that SpaceX will not skip a beat in execution going forward … There should be absolutely zero question that SpaceX will prevail in reaching orbit and demonstrating reliable space transport. For my part, I will never give up and I mean never. Thanks for your hard work.”

To the extent that Musk had doubters, it is less about technology—after all, there have been thousands of space flights since the first Sputniks of the 1950s—but about whether it will be a money-making proposition.

SpaceX’s Vice President of Marketing, Diane W. Murphy, says Musk’s enthusiasm is not unwarranted, that SpaceX is already making money and that some malfunctions in test flight were to be expected. The successful fourth flight, despite not having any commercial payloads, is another positive step.  She says clients can pay SpaceX as much as $9.1 million, depending on weight, and that SpaceX has a waiting list for future flights.

The company has a contract with NASA to deliver its products through 2015, the next time NASA plans a moon expedition. If it all works out, SpaceX could make a billion dollars from that contract. Murphy says that the money from NASA comes from SpaceX reaching 22 different milestones, of which the company has made 12.

“The ultimate goal of the NASA program is to have commercial companies deliver cargo to the International Space Station and we are on target to do that,” she says. “NASA is looking to us, and possible competitor commercial companies, to be smaller and reliable, sort of like the Toyota to a sports car.  It is how space flight will be in the future and Elon inspires us to be that future.”

“Elon is really shrewd,” says Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s vice president of business development. “I have been in the aerospace business for 20 years, and I have never seen someone who started from nowhere become so versed in the subject. He interviews everyone and asks the right questions.

“I know it sounds clichéd to say good things about the top guy, but Elon is like that,” she adds. “He doesn’t know everything, but he is technically savvy and loves doing business. I guess that is what it is, a person who is driven doesn’t look back and say, ‘I already did this,’ but looks forward and says, ‘I’ve got to do that.’”


The Next, Next Thing By Robert Strauss

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