If serial entrepreneur Elon Musk has his way, sending a payload—and eventually, people—into space will be handled commercially, more like UPS  than “the Right Stuff.” (At least if you leave out the part about settling Mars.) Oh, and the rest of us here on earth will be able to tap affordable solar power and drive fast, efficient, cool-looking electric cars. BY ROBERT STRAUSS



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The way Adeo Ressi C’94 tells it, “all this space stuff” started with a somewhat whispered-out-loud daydreaming session coming back to New York City after some time on the beach on Long Island.

“The wife and the girlfriend were sleeping when I blurted out, ‘Hey, let’s do space,’” Ressi recalls. “Elon and I immediately thought it was the stupidest idea we could think of. But then, somehow, it seemed just right. It really fits what he is—looking for the challenge that is just beyond what everyone else is thinking.”

Shortly before that driving trip Ressi and his one-time Penn housemate, Elon Musk W’95, took, Musk’s second Internet startup company—originally called X.com but by then merged with another company and known as PayPal—had been sold to eBay for $1.5 billion. This was after his first, Zip2.com, had sold for $305 million in 1999 [“From Zip to X,” Nov|Dec 1999]. Fabulously wealthy and barely into his 30s, Musk was actively in search of that fabled “next, next thing.”

“I had always been interested in space, from the time I was a kid looking at the stars in South Africa,” says Musk. “It wasn’t that much of a stretch, at least to me, that I would try something to get us there, cheaply and with a sense of environmental soundness.”

Not even your average thinking-out-of-the-box Silicon Valley entrepreneur would necessarily connect going to Mars or the moon with an environmental imperative, but that is how Musk’s mind operates, say his friends and business associates. It is not that he is exceptionally moral or righteous, but when he is gripped by an idea—obsession might be a better word—he makes it important and won’t back away from accomplishing it. In a December 2007 article naming him its “Entrepreneur of the Year,” Inc. magazine noted that Musk, in contrast to many entrepreneurs who build their companies on incremental improvements, “has distinguished himself by attempting things that most people who care about avoiding personal bankruptcy would not even consider.”

Space Exploration Technologies—the result of that seminal discussion with Ressi—certainly fills that bill. SpaceX, as the company is generally known, is in the business of developing launch vehicles—at a fraction of NASA’s costs, he hopes—to more easily send payloads, and eventually people, to the moon and beyond. Musk, who has invested a reported $100 million in the company since founding it in 2002, is both chief executive officer and chief technology officer. In late September, after a series of failed efforts that would have tested the resolve of many an entrepreneur (though apparently not Musk’s), the company successfully launched one of its rockets into orbit around the Earth—the first privately developed rocket to manage this feat.

Musk is also involved in two other initiatives with major environmental implications—as chairman of Tesla Motors, a company that has designed and will aggressively market an electric sports-car capable of traveling more than 200 miles on a single charge while going from 0 to 60 mph in under four seconds, and as a major investor in SolarCity, which has started bringing cheaper solar energy to homeowners and other individual customers in California.

It all started, Musk says, when he was just a kid who dreamed the American dream—albeit from Pretoria, South Africa, where he grew up middle-class, the son of an engineer and a dietician. Musk was a tinkerer as a kid, and even developed and sold a computer game, “Blast Star,” when he was 12. His biggest dreams, though, were about space and about coming to America.

“I have to admit I might have been a bit too fascinated about America, but it really did seem everything was possible there and, at the time, not so possible in South Africa,” where the system of apartheid was still in place, says Musk. “And I did have this thing about space. I still believe this: If we continue upon the Apollo program and get to Mars and beyond, that will seem far more important in historical context than anything else we do today. The day multiplanetary species come about, things like the Soviet Union will be forgotten or merely remembered by arcane historical scholars. Things like the invasion of Iraq won’t even be a footnote.”

After graduating from high school, Musk left South Africa—in part to avoid army service there—and came about as close as he could to the U.S., enrolling at Queen’s College in Kingston, Ontario (his mother was born in Canada). He completed the journey by applying to Penn as a transfer student, arriving on campus in his sophomore year to study economics and physics.

And also to have a bit of fun and make a little cash on the side with his buddy Ressi.

“We were both transfer students and they stuck us in these giant dorms and we just wanted to get out,” recalls Ressi, who transferred to Penn from Carnegie Mellon University. So they found each other and rented a house off-campus. “But then we weren’t connected to the fraternity scene, and we weren’t new students either. We had to meet people, so we decided to have parties, but since we also didn’t have money, we decided to make it a business.”

They hired bouncers and even cleaning crews, charged enough to always have a little left over to spend, and realized they had gotten the entrepreneurial bug.

“They do that sort of thing all the time now, but back when we did it, everyone thought it was clever and business-like,” says Ressi, himself the veteran of several startups—most recently as the founding member of TheFunded.com, a website where entrepreneurs can bite the hands that feed them (or decline to) by rating and otherwise commenting on venture-capital firms. “I think Elon was careful to do everything right then, and has not wavered from that same sort of attention to detail now.”

The Next, Next Thing By Robert Strauss
Photograph by Ethan Pines

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©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette

“From Zip to X,” Nov|Dec 1999
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