How Elon Musk took SpaceX from an idea to the cusp of making history – USA TODAY

Posted: June 1, 2020 at 3:06 am

Under NASA's Commercial Crew Program, the Demo-2 mission is a milestone aimed at proving SpaceX can send humans safely to space. USA TODAY

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. On Wednesday, SpaceX, Elon Musk'snearly 20-year-old company, is slated to fulfill its most important mission to date.

Two astronauts are scheduled to board a Crew Dragon capsule and launch from Florida on a trajectory toward the International Space Station. Itll mark the first time the company has launched humans, as well as the first time in nearly a decade that astronauts take flight from American soil on American rockets.

To succeed, everything launch, orbit, docking, then departure and splashdown will have to be perfect. Astronauts Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley depend on it.

That Musk built this kind of high-risk, high-reward scenario isnt by chance. For decades, the 48-year-old entrepreneur has used his business acumen to break into entrenched industries ranging from finance to launch services to transportation. Its no secret that he knows the hustle and embraces it.

His hard-work-pays-off attitude has elevated him and his employees to run business worth billions. SpaceX, traded privately, passed a $30 billion valuation, and Tesla became the most valuable American carmaker this year, eclipsing veterans such as Ford and General Motors.

Musk's hard-charging ways have sometimes landed him in hot water. Hestepped down as Tesla's chairman over government concerns sparked by tweets he made about taking the company private.

How did Musk, worth about $35 billion, get to the point of putting humans on pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center? And what does he want in the long run?

To understand, well need to start about 8,000 miles away in South Africa.

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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, left, speaks with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and astronauts Victor Glover, Doug Hurley, Robert Behnken and Mike Hopkins. The group met at pad 39A's crew access arm March 1, 2019, as it was connected to Crew Dragon.(Photo: NASA / Joel Kowsky))

Born to a model mother and engineer father in Pretoria, South Africa, Musk grew up with a voracious appetite for reading, technology, and computers. Those interests became particularly important when he was bullied in school, he has said during interviews, and they helped form the basis for his technicaldisposition.

Before his teenage years, he had started writing computer software.

Hes a guy with unlimited ambition, his brother, Kimbal Musk, said during a "60 Minutes" interview in 2014. Its not a typical type of ambition. His mind just needs to be constantly fulfilled, and the problems that he takes on therefore need to be more and more complex over time in order to keep him interested.

He found more complex problems to solve in North America, where he had ties through his Canada-born mother and American grandparents. Degrees in physics and economics from the University of Pennsylvaniapaved the way for him to pursue graduate school at Stanford, but he left before earning a degree. Business ideas dominated his mind.

It seemed like the vast majority of such things came from the United States, Musk told "60 Minutes,"speaking on the topic ofSilicon Valley-produced software. I also read a lot of comic books, and they all seemed to be set in the United States.So its like, Well, Im going to go to this place.

His first major business venture was Zip2, a kind of online directory founded in 1995 that included maps a major feature considering digital directions wouldnt become ubiquitous until smartphones came along more than a decade later. The company developed online city guides for The New York Times, which reported in 1999 thatZip2 was sold to Compaq Computer for $300 million.

In 1999, Musk co-founded, one of the first online financial services companies. After a series of mergers and transitions, it was renamed to something more familiar to todays users: PayPal.

When the company was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002, Musk made about $160 million from the deal, setting him up to personally invest inhis long-forming dream of starting Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX.


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To get his spaceflight ambitions primarilytaking payloads and humans to Mars off the ground, Musk attempted to buy refurbished Russian ballistic missiles. That proved to be too expensive, and working with Russian officials was difficult.

After my second or third trip back from Russia, I was like, Whoa, theres got to be a better way to solve this rocket problem, Musk said at the 2018 South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. So we embarked on that journey to create SpaceX in 2002.

Musk knew he was entering an entrenched, high-risk industry: In the beginning, I actually wouldnt even let my friends invest because everyone would lose their money. I thought Id rather lose my own money.

Musk was convinced he could bring down the cost of access to space. Enter Falcon 1.

Over the years, Musk has been clear:NASA saved SpaceX. After Falcon 1 failed to reach orbit three times but succeeded on the fourth try, his upstart company was strapped for cash and turning the page to its final chapter. Two days before Christmas 2008, NASA announced SpaceX had been awarded a $1.6 billion contract to fly supplies to the International Space Station, a program now known as Commercial Resupply Services.

Since 2012, SpaceX has flown Dragon to the ISS 20 times on newer Falcon 9 rockets. Its Crew Dragon capsule has flownto the station once and is slated for a second trip withBehnken and Hurley.

Along the way, his company staged coup after coup. In 2007, it acquiredthe rights to lease Cape Canaveral Air Force Stations Launch Complex 40, which hosted Titan rockets.

He was most impressive in cobbling together what was needed for a successful launch site with scraps and whatever was available, said Dale Ketcham, Space Florida vice president of government and external relations. Some of his most impressive achievements were based on his ability to make stuff happen by using what was available and using simple physics to get done what needed to get done.

That was contrary to how things had been done up until thatpoint, Ketcham said.

These 7 milestones were key leading up to the first SpaceX crewed launch as Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley prepare to fly to the ISS. Florida Today

Aside from Mars, one of Musks primary goals is reusability. An airline doesnt discard a Boeing 747 after each flight; similarly, Musk wants rockets to be reused.

More than 50 SpaceX boosters have flown back to Earth either to Florida, Californiaor an offshore drone ship where somewere refurbished for future flights.

The launch provider's pricing supports Musk's belief that reusability will bringdown the cost of flying people and cargo to orbit. A typical Falcon 9 launch costs $50 million to $60 million, which is significantlycheaper than other orbital vehicles in its class.

With Starlink, the companys constellation of low-orbit satellites that beam internet connectivity to the ground, Musk is building the revenue streams necessary to fund his desire to build a vehicle capable of going to Mars. That vehicle, known as Starship, is a massive rocket in prototype form at SpaceX's remote facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

Garrett Reisman, a space shuttle astronaut and engineer who joined SpaceX in 2011 and consults for the company, said a portion of Musks success is driven by his fascination with engineering and technology.

I first met Elon for my job interview, Reisman told the USA TODAY Network's Florida Today. All he wanted to talk about were technical things. We talked a lot about different main propulsion system design architectures.

At the end of my interview, I said, Hey, are you sure you want to hire me? Youve already got an astronaut, so are you sure you need two around here? Reisman asked. He looked at me and said, Im not hiring you because youre an astronaut. Im hiring you because youre a good engineer.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has ambitions of sending flights to Mars.(Photo: NASA / Aubrey Gemignani)

Musks tech and engineering involvement doesnt stop at SpaceX.

Electric car and solarenergycompany Tesla fits into his overall vision of colonizing Mars while making Earth more habitable. Muskinvested in the fledglingcompany in 2004 and ascended to its leadership position, though he often works on the factory floor.

TheluxuryModel S sedan helped pave the way for newer, more affordable vehicles such as the Model 3 and Model Y. Tesla heavily markets energy options such as solar roof tiles and battery-supported grids that can help power entire communities.

Despite heavy fluctuations on Wall Street, the company routinely speeds past valuations in excess of $100 billion, fighting for top spots among the most valuable automakers in the world.

Managing SpaceX and Tesla, building out new businessesand maintaining relationships with his family makes Musk a busy billionaire.

Hes obviously skilled at all those different functions, but certainly what really drives him and where his passion really is, is his role as CTO, or chief technology officer, Reisman said. Basically his role as chief designer and chief engineer. Thats the part of the job that really plays to his strengths."

Having Musk's personality intertwined with his companies comes with drawbacks. He's no stranger to controversy.

In July 2018, he took to Twitter his most consistent means of communicating with the outside world and slammed a British diver who criticized Musk'sattempt at rescuing a Thai soccer team stuck in a cave. Musk calledthe diver a "pedo guy," which caused considerable backlash and a lawsuit, but Musk was cleared by a jury.

A few months later, the Securities and Exchange Commission set its sights on the billionaire, who had tweetedprivate funding was secured to buy all the company's outstanding shares and make it private. When the claim about financing didnt prove true, the SEC sued, claiming that his tweets misled investors and stockholders.

Musk settledwith the SEC. Aside from fines, he was forcedto step down as Tesla chairman but continued as CEO. He agreed to have his tweets monitored and cleared by higher-ups in the company.

More recently, hes found himself in the crosshairs of medical professionals and government officials around the world. His tweetclaiming that the coronavirus pandemic would involve close to zero new cases in the U.S. by the end of April proved to be false, and he reopened a Tesla factory in California before officials gave the go-ahead.

Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules, he tweetedMay 11. I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.

The controversies havent slowed SpaceX and Tesla.

Hes a guy thats brilliant, successfuland has more irons in the fire than almost any human on the planet, Ketcham said. Hes under a lot of pressure and is doing what he thinks is right. When he thinks hes on the right path, hes not afraid to tell people. But thats worked for him, and that will work for him until it doesnt.

Follow reporter Emre Kelly on Twitter:@EmreKelly

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How Elon Musk took SpaceX from an idea to the cusp of making history - USA TODAY

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