Heroes of Space: Elon Musk

How this entrepreneur is almost single-handedly ushering in a new era of private space exploration through his company SpaceX.

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Elon Musk was born on 28 June 1971 in Pretoria, South Africa. His father was an engineer and his mother an author and model, although Musk has said that his father was against technology and thought computers would never amount to anything. So, at the age of ten Musk bought his first computer and taught himself how to program, and when he turned 17 he left home without the support of his parents to pursue his dreams.

He travelled to Canada where he studied at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario until 1992, when he took up business and physics at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. By the time he was on his way to Silicon Valley in California in his mid-twenties, he had two degrees in physics and one in business under his belt. It was at this point that he decided on three areas that he wanted to get into: the Internet, clean energy and space.

“Sooner or later, we must expand life beyond this green and blue ball – or go extinct.” – Elon Musk

In 1995, after spending just two days on a graduate programme in applied physics and materials science at Stanford University, California, he founded the online publishing software company Zip2 with his brother, Kimbal Musk. In 1999 they sold Zip2 for over $300m, and Musk went on to found X.com, an online payment company that would later become the wildly successful PayPal. In October 2012, eBay acquired PayPal for $1.5bn in stock.

With his first goal complete, Musk moved on to clean energy. He founded the company Tesla Motors in 2003, inspired by one of Musk’s role models and inventor Nikola Tesla. The company specialises in electric cars, with Musk’s goal being to create affordable mass-market electric vehicles. In 2006 he unveilied the Tesla Roadster, an all-electric sports car. In June 2012 the Tesla Model S was launched, a full-sized electric four-door sedan, with the greatest range of any electric car on the market on a single charge (260 kilometres/160 miles).

"We can’t wait too long (to go to Mars) because I don’t want to be so old that I can’t go.” - Elon Musk

Arguably Musk’s greatest achievement, however, has been SpaceX. As early as 2001 Musk had plans for a ‘Mars Oasis’ project that would land an experimental greenhouse on Mars. But when he realised rocket technology needed to be advanced for such a goal to be achieved, he founded SpaceX (where he is now CEO) in June 2002, pumping $100m of his own money into the company over the next four years. The ultimate goal of SpaceX is to drastically reduce the cost of going to space and to take humans to new frontiers, specifically landing people on Mars in the next ten to twenty years.

In a sense Musk has been fortunate that, around the time SpaceX was founded, NASA shifted their focus to the commercialisation of space exploration. SpaceX has received contracts from NASA totalling several billion dollars, and also hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from elsewhere. After the Dragon capsule was successfully docked with the ISS in May 2012, SpaceX was valued at $2.4bn. Tying in with Musk’s clean energy objective, one of SpaceX’s goals is to build and operate a fully reusable rocket that can lift-off and return to its launch pad fully intact, bringing the price of taking cargo to orbit down to $500 per pound ($1,100 per kilogram). Instrumental to SpaceX’s success will be the continued involvement and vision of Musk himself.

In 2010 Time Magazine listed Musk as one of the most important people who had affected the world while Jon Favreau, director of the Iron Man movies, cited Musk as the inspiration for lead character Tony Stark. He has received numerous awards including the FAI Gold Space Medal and the National Space Society’s Von Braun Trophy, and in a Space Foundation survey in 2010 Musk was ranked as the tenth most popular space hero, a testament to his influence on the space industry. He will continue to revolutionise the private space market, often in the face of criticism of his ambitions, for many years to come.

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @Astro_Jonny

Images courtesy of SpaceX

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