August 3, 2008 – Kwajalein Atoll, South Pacific Ocean: On a tiny 8-acre island, almost 5,000 miles southwest of Honolulu, his 70-foot tall Falcon 1 rocket sat on the launch pad. Liftoff was perfect and at nine miles up the first stage separation was also perfect.
Then the command screens went blank, and the team slowly realized that this rocket, their third attempt, had exploded and would also land back in the ocean. The atmosphere in the room was like a funeral. The team had devoted six years and many 80-hour work weeks to the mission, and now it was over. They were out of money.
All eyes were fixed on the 37-year-old space entrepreneur as he walked to the middle of the command center. He told them that before the launch he had convinced his former partner at PayPal to invest additional money in SpaceX, and they now had sufficient funds for two more launches. He concluded by saying, “We knew this was going to be hard – it is, after all, rocket science. For my part, I will never give up. And I mean never!” Disappointment erupted into cheers.
Born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1971, Elon Musk was 12 when he taught himself computer programming. Three years later he created and sold his space battle computer game, Blastar, to PC Magazine. Musk earned degrees in economics and physics from the University of Pennsylvania. He enrolled at Stanford University to get a Ph.D. in applied physics, but after two days he left school to start his own company.
Musk and his brother borrowed $28,000 from their father to start Zip2, a web software company. In February 1999, Compaq Computers bought Zip2 for $300 million earning Musk $22 million from the deal. He then started X.com, an email payment company, which later became PayPal. In 2002, Musk sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in stock and cash. This time he pocketed $165 million from the sale.
Musk used the proceeds from PayPal and created SpaceX with a goal to cost-effectively build rockets that would some day travel to and from Mars. He boldly told the world he was going to die on Mars. He was not the first Internet millionaire to try to tackle space. NASA and the rocket scientist community labeled Elon Musk a lunatic.
Musk was disappointed to learn that NASA had no plans for a Mars mission. He traveled to Russia hoping to buy intercontinental missiles to begin his own space program. While there, a Russian rocket design chief, irritated by the arrogant young millionaire, spat on Musk. With no hope for help coming from the Russians, he returned home determined to start his own company to build inexpensive rockets.
On September 28, 2008, just five weeks after the third failure of the Falcon 1 rocket, SpaceX became the first private company to launch a satellite into orbit. In December 2008, NASA awarded them a $1.6 billion contract for 12 flights to take supplies to the International Space Station.
In May 2012, SpaceX once again made history when their spacecraft, Dragon, docked with the International Space Station. They have also perfected recovering first stage rocket boosters, dramatically reducing costs and thus making space flight more affordable.
Today SpaceX is the largest private producer of rocket engines in the world. On May 30, 2020, they became the first private company to send two astronauts to the International Space Station. Elon Musk hopes to send a manned mission to Mars during this decade and he still plans to die on Mars.
“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes…the ones who see things differently. They push the human race forward. Because the ones crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” Steve Jobs