Updated: Jul 6, 2019
South African entrepreneur Elon Musk is known for founding Tesla Motors and SpaceX, which launched a landmark commercial spacecraft in 2012.
Born in South Africa in 1971, Elon Musk became a multimillionaire in his late 20s when he sold his start-up company, Zip2, to a division of Compaq Computers. He achieved more success by founding X.com in 1999, SpaceX in 2002 and Tesla Motors in 2003. Musk made headlines in May 2012, when SpaceX launched a rocket that would send the first commercial vehicle to the International Space Station. He bolstered his portfolio with the purchase of SolarCity in 2016, and cemented his standing as a leader of industry by taking on an advisory role in the early days of President Donald Trump's administration.
Son of a Canadian mother and a South African father, Elon Reeve Musk was born on June 28, 1971, in Pretoria, South Africa. He spent his early childhood with his brother Kimbal and sister Tosca in South Africa, and at 10, the introverted Elon developed an interest in computers. During this time, his parents divorced. He taught himself how to program, and when he was 12 he made his first software sale—of a game he created called Blastar. At age 17, in 1989, he moved to Canada to attend Queen’s University and avoid mandatory service in the South African military, but he left in 1992 to study business and physics at the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated with an undergraduate degree in economics and stayed for a second bachelor’s degree in physics.
After leaving Penn, Elon Musk headed to Stanford University in California to pursue a Ph.D in energy physics. However, his move was timed perfectly with the Internet boom, and he dropped out of Stanford after just two days to become a part of it, launching his first company, Zip2 Corporation.
An online city guide, Zip2 was soon providing content for the new websites of both The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, and in 1999, a division of Compaq Computer Corporation bought Zip2 for $307 million in cash and $34 million in stock options.
An Earnest Entrepreneur
Also in 1999, Musk co-founded X.com, an online financial services/payments company. An X.com acquisition the following year led to the creation of PayPal as it is known today, and in October 2002, PayPal was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion in stock. Before the sale, Musk owned 11 percent of PayPal stock.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Musk founded his third company, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, in 2002 with the intention of building spacecraft for commercial space travel. By 2008, SpaceX was well established, and NASA awarded the company the contract to handle cargo transport for the International Space Station—with plans for astronaut transport in the future—in a move to replace NASA’s own space shuttle missions.
The boundless potential of space exploration and the preservation of the future of the human race have become the cornerstones of Musk's abiding interests, and toward these he has founded the Musk Foundation, which is dedicated to space exploration and the discovery of renewable and clean energy sources.
Another Musk venture is Tesla Motors, a company dedicated to producing affordable, mass-market electric cars. Five years after its formation, the company in 2008 unveiled the Roadster, a sports car capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, as well traveling nearly 250 miles between charges of its lithum ion battery. With a stake in the company taken by Daimler and a strategic partnership with Toyota, Tesla Motors launched its initial public offering in June 2010, raising $226 million.
Additional successes include the Model S, the company's first electric sedan. Capable of covering 265 miles between charges, the Model S was honored as the 2013 Car of the Year by Motor Trend magazine.
In April 2017, it was announced that Tesla had surpassed General Motors to become the most valuable U.S. car maker. The news was an obvious boon to Tesla, which was looking to ramp up production and release its Model 3 sedan later that year.
Preparing for Lift-Off
On May 22, 2012, Musk and SpaceX made history when the company launched its Falcon 9 rocket into space with an unmanned capsule. The vehicle was sent to the International Space Station with 1,000 pounds of supplies for the astronauts stationed there, marking the first time a private company had sent a spacecraft to the International Space Station. Of the launch, Musk was quoted as saying, "I feel very lucky. ... For us, it's like winning the Super Bowl."
In December 2013, SpaceX notched another milestone when Falcon 9 carried a satellite to geosynchronous transfer orbit, a distance at which the satellite would lock into an orbital path that matched the Earth's rotation. In February 2015, SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 fitted with the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite, aiming to observe the extreme emissions from the sun that affect power grids and communications systems on Earth.
In March 2017, SpaceX enjoyed another breakthrough with the successful test flight and landing of a Falcon 9 rocket made from reusable parts, a development that opened the door for more affordable space travel.
Musk has continued his work in attempting to make his innovative ideas a reality. In August 2013, he released a concept for a new form of transportation called the "Hyperloop," an invention that would foster commuting between major cities while severely cutting travel time. Ideally resistant to weather and powered by renewable energy, the Hyperloop would propel riders in pods through a network of low-pressure tubes at speeds reaching more than 700 mph. Musk noted that the Hyperloop could take from seven to 10 years to be built and ready for use.
Although he introduced the Hyperloop with claims that it would be safer than a plane or train, with an estimated cost of $6 billion—approximately one-tenth of the cost for the rail system planned by the state of California—Musk's concept has drawn skepticism. Nevertheless, the entrepreneur has sought to encourage the development of this idea. After he announced a competition for teams to submit their designs for a Hyperloop pod prototype, the first Hyperloop Pod Competition was held at the SpaceX facility in January 2017.
The entrepreneur has also pursued an interest in Artificial Intelligence. He became co-chair of the nonprofit research company OpenAI, which launched in late 2015 with the stated mission of advancing digital intelligence to benefit humanity. Additionally, in 2017 it was revealed that Musk was backing a venture called Neuralink, which intends to create devices to be implanted in the human brain and help people merge with software.
In yet another innovation, Musk in January 2017 suddenly decided he was going find a way to reduce traffic by devoting resources to boring and building tunnels. He launched his venture, reportedly named "The Boring Company," with a test dig on the SpaceX property in Los Angeles.
In August 2016, in Musk’s continuing effort to promote and advance sustainable energy and products for a wider consumer base, a $2.6 billion dollar deal was solidified to combine his electric car and solar energy companies. His Tesla Motors Inc. announced an all-stock deal purchase of SolarCity Corp., a company Musk had helped his cousins start in 2006. He is a majority shareholder in each entity. “Solar and storage are at their best when they're combined. As one company, Tesla (storage) and SolarCity (solar) can create fully integrated residential, commercial and grid-scale products that improve the way that energy is generated, stored and consumed,” read a statement on Tesla’s website about the deal.
With Donald Trump announcing plans to pursue massive infrastructure developments after his successful election to the U.S. presidency in 2016, Musk found himself on common ground with the new president and his advisers. That December, he was named to President Trump’s Strategy and Policy Forum, and the following January he joined Trump's Manufacturing Jobs Initiative.
While sometimes at odds with the president's controversial measures, such as a proposed ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, Musk defended his involvement with the new administration. "My goals," he tweeted in early 2017, "are to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy and to help make humanity a multi-planet civilization, a consequence of which will be the creating of hundreds of thousands of jobs and a more inspiring future for all."
Musk, who became a U.S. citizen in 2002, has been married twice and has five sons. He married Justine Wilson in 2000. In 2002, their first son died at 10 weeks old from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). They would have five additional sons together, twins and triplets.
Carlos C. Johnson III
"The UnderCover Millionaire"