Jeffrey Merker// Research Paper
One of the more interesting people on this planet is Elon Reeve Musk. Some of the few hats he wears is engineer, inventor, investor, and visionary. He went from co creating a software company, to designing forward thinking electric vehicles, to envisioning colonizing Mars with his SpaceX. This planet can literally not hold him down. Musk was born June 28, 1971, to Maye Haldeman and Errol Musk in Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa. Musk started very young by teaching himself computer programming at the early age of 10. Within two years he was already selling code for a BASIC based video game he created. BASIC is an acronym for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, it was a very early form of high level programming language made popular by its ease of use and explosion of personal computers in the mid 80’s. He moved to Canada right before his 18th birthday and secured citizenship through his Canadian born mother. By twenty four he obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in physics at Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences, and a Bachelor of Science degree in economics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. While studying for his PHD at Stanford University he left two days into the program to follow his dreams of space travel and entrepreneurship. Musk’s first business venture was starting a web software company called Zip2 with his younger brother Kimbal with an initial investment of 28,000 dollars from his father Errol. Zip2 helped develop, host, and maintain consumer Web sites specifically for media companies. Zip2 would eventually power nearly 200 sites, including its premier arrangement with The New York Times local directory site New York Today. The company started off with “negative money” Musk says because of his huge student debts. Early on Musk couldn’t afford a place to stay and an office for the company so he rented an office instead and slept on a futon and showered at a local YMCA. Compaq acquired Zip2 for $307 million in cash and $34 million in stock options in 1999. Musk received 7% or $22 million from the acquisition. All that money would have been enough for most people but Elon felt something was missing. He was happy with the success and new found wealth but it was enough. Elon wasn’t content with just slightly altering the newspaper industry, he wanted to leave his mark on the world.
With 10 million of the Zip2 sale Musk cofounded X.com, an online financial services and e-mail payment company. After a year X.com merged with a company who had a money transfer system called PayPal. Musk saw the innovative capabilities in the internet financial sector. Musk understood that money is really just an entry into a database and he could change the way people buy things. Ebay eventually saw the obvious advantage of having their own payment service and bought PayPal for 1.5 billion in stock, of which $165 million was given to Musk directly. By age 30 Musk had enough money to buy a chain of islands but Musk’s aspiration didn’t lay on planet Earth.
In 2001 Musk envisioned sending a miniature experimental greenhouse on Mars, containing food crops growing on Martian soil, in an attempt to regain public interest in space exploration. In October 2001, Musk went to Moscow, Russia with Jim Cantrell an aerospace supplies mechanic, and Adeo Ressi whom was his best friend from college, to buy refurbished ICBMs that could send their envisioned payloads into space. An ICBM is an intercontinental ballistic missile. It is predominantly designed for nuclear weapons delivery. He was not taken seriously at this meeting and was looked down upon by Russian scientists as a “novice”. Musk stormed out of the meeting and realized that he could start a company that could build the reusable rockets he needed. Musk calculated that the raw materials for building a rocket actually were only 3 percent of the sales price of a rocket at the time. By applying vertical integration and the modular approach from software engineering, SpaceX could cut launch price by a factor of ten and still enjoy a 70 percent gross margin. Sequentially Musk ended up founding SpaceX with the long-term goal of creating a Martian colony. In the early years of the company Elon was the only investor, investing 100 million of his own wealth, nearly all of his fortune. But he really believed that a private enterprise could bring back curiosity in space that had been lost since humans went to the moon. He figured no one on the planet thinks this venture is financeable so He’ll just go and finance it himself. SpaceX is a company that takes existing NASA technology and streamlines its designs. In a way you can call Musk the henry ford of his time in that he didn’t invent the automobile but he created a way to make it commercially viable. On May 25, 2012, the SpaceX Dragon vehicle locked with the ISS, making history as the first private company to launch and lock a vehicle to the International Space Station. Musk views space exploration as a crucial cog in preserving the human species. “An asteroid or a super volcano could destroy us, and we face risks the dinosaurs never saw: an engineered virus, inadvertent creation of a micro black hole, catastrophic global warming or some as-yet-unknown technology could spell the end of us. Humankind evolved over millions of years, but in the last sixty years atomic weaponry created the potential to extinguish ourselves. Sooner or later, we must expand life beyond this green and blue ball—or go extinct.” (Wikipedia) The goal is to reduce the cost of human spaceflight by a factor of 10. In a 2011 interview, he said he hopes to send humans to Mars’ surface within 10–20 years, quite an exuberant vision but if anyone could its Musk. The ultimate goal is to colonize Mars with 80,000 by 2040.
Elon Musk is a genius that taught himself programming and rocket science. It’s not realistic to believe that this is my path as a designer, but what I can take from his path is the ingenuity as a designer. My fascination with musk lies with how no matter how other people look upon his ideas or how farfetched they seem he followed through anyway. Forbes named him one of the most influential people in the world and I can agree.