Elon Musk has been compared with Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. Doing the impossible—whether creating the Tesla electric car or launching rockets with SpaceX—is second nature to him. He was also the co-founder of PayPal.
His passion for innovation has made him one of the richest men in America, with an estimated worth of $10 billion. At the same time, he has been criticized for his hard-driving methods as a boss and for some of his more outlandish ideas, like establishing a human colony on Mars. Musk's third attempt to resupply the International Space Station ended in failure Sunday when the rocket exploded just after launch.
In Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest For a Fantastic Future, biographer Ashlee Vance gives us a warts-and-all glimpse inside the fantastical world of America’s most mercurial entrepreneur.
Talking from his home in Mountain View, California, he describes how a grim childhood in South Africa underlies Musk’s personality; how the idea of colonizing Mars is Musk’s overriding obsession; and how the Hyperloop may make it possible to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in thirty minutes.
Elon Musk. It’s an odd name. Give us the backstory.
It is an odd name, isn’t it? (Laughs) He was born in South Africa but his roots are stretched in different directions. Half his family was from North America—the United States and Canada; the other half was from Britain and then South Africa. The name Elon comes from his mother’s side of the family, the American side. His great grandfather was John Elon Haldeman, so it’s a family name. The Musk side comes from his Dad.
You write that suffering is Musk’s default mode. Tell us how his childhood in South Africa shaped him.
It was pretty miserable. On the surface it looks okay. His Dad was an engineer and was pretty well off, so Elon was never in need of money. Quite the opposite. He had a lot provided for him.
But his parents got divorced when he was pretty young. He spends time with his Mom, then goes and lives with his Dad. They have a very fractured relationship. Elon talks about his father playing him psychologically.
As a kid, he consumed tons of science fiction books and was very smart. But he was a bit of a know-it-all, so not many people outside of his family liked him. He also got bullied at school quite badly. One time he got kicked in the head and had to go to the hospital for a week.
He was a loner, who didn’t seem to have any friends. This continues to play out in later life. It’s a bit of a cliché, but in many ways his life has been this call for attention and to prove he’s special.
He called me one day...and said, 'Look, I can either make life really miserable for you and start telling people never to speak to you, or I’ll cooperate with the book.'
Is this an authorized biography? How hard was it to get access?
It was hard. It’s not authorized in the sense that he did not commission it or get to see it. I had done a cover story on him for Business Week. I was not an Elon fan, but I ended finding him much more interesting than I had given him credit for. His companies were finally hitting on all cylinders. So I told him I wanted to do a book. He turned me down at first. I then spent 18 months interviewing hundreds upon hundreds of people;eventually,I wore him down.
He called me at home one day after those 18 months, and said, “Look, I can either make life really miserable for you and start telling people never to speak to you, or I’ll cooperate with the book.” He asked for some control. He wanted to do footnotes and read it before it came out. I wouldn’t let him do that. But in the end he agreed to do a bunch of interviews.
Any discussion of Musk has to begin with SpaceX. It was beset by teething troubles, wasn’t it? Put us on the ground on Kwajelain at blast-off.
It’s nuts! [Laughs] It should not exist at all! Usually it’s governments that try to do these things.
Here’s a private guy, who didn’t know much about rocket technology. He’s reading textbooks, like Rocketry 101, to come up to speed. They start the company in Los Angeles. Elon sets out, like he would with an Internet start-up, and hires tons of smart, hardworking, young engineers. Some of them knew what they were doing. Most of them had no idea. They were just kind of good at doing stuff.
But they set out to build a rocket. Then they can’t find anywhere to launch it. [Laughs] The sites in Florida and California were not especially welcoming to the idea of some millionaire, who had never done this before, sending off rockets. The competition, Lockheed and Boeing, didn’t want to have anything to do with him.
So they end up going to this place Kwajelain, this island in the Pacific where the US military used to do Star Wars stuff, shooting down missiles. It’s like Gilligan’s island for space [Laughs] They build showers and barbeque pits and 200 SpaceX engineers live there for two years with rockets exploding over their heads.
Today SpaceX is probably the most successful company in Elon’s empire. It’s not space tourism. It’s taking satellites up for countries and for companies and resupplying the international space station. They have a backlog of about eight billion dollars in orders over the next five years. They fly every three weeks or so. And they’re getting very close to reusable rockets and other cool stuff.
He told me once he wants to die on Mars, just not on impact.
The words Tesla and Musk go hand in hand. Vaclav Smil, a prominent writer on manufacturing and energy, dissed the Tesla car as “nothing but an utterly overhyped toy for showoffs.” Or is it the car of tomorrow?
[Laughs] Vaclav has some fun things to say about Elon in my book. There is a case to be made that, okay, Elon did not invent the electric car; and the Tesla is very expensive.
Most people pay about $100,000 for the model S. But I think it does stand on its own as an important invention, mostly because of the software it uses. The electric car part is key. But they have advanced the state of automotive software dramatically. It’s got this 17-inch touchscreen that handles all of the car’s functions. There’s no physical buttons.
When you go to sleep at night a new feature gets added. In many ways, your car gets better instead of worse over time, which is a whole new concept. The company’s also building this Gigafactory in Nevada, which will be a battery factory on a scale we’ve never seen before.
The goal is to get the price down to the point where it would not only make electric cars more affordable. It would make things like home storage systems for solar panels more affordable.
How does he compare with those other titans of technology, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs?
They have certainly had the bigger consumer hits so far, and are more household names. Elon still like has a lot to prove. But if he’s the guy who brings solar to the masses, with the third company in his empire, Solar City; or turns the electric car into a real thing that has an impact on global warming, it would be hard not to consider that a profound achievement.
In many ways, he is running counter to the prevailing attitudes of Silicon Valley, which are focussed on consumer products and apps and things like that. He is tackling things that the Valley has been more traditionally known for: really hard, manufacturing stuff, like the semiconductor or all the breakthroughs in physics that took place here. He harkens back to a previous era in Silicon Valley and that’s what drew me to him.
A former employee is on record as saying Musk’s “worst trait is a complete lack of loyalty or human connection.” His sacking of long-term aide de camp, Mary Beth Brown, suggests that is true. Do you agree?
I do on a lot of levels. If you’ve seen the movie Iron Man, Elon gets compared to the Tony Stark character. His loyal assistant is Pepper Potts, and Mary Beth Brown was his Pepper Potts. She spent about 14 years working for him and essentially had no life of her own. One day, she asks for a raise. Elon says, ‘I’m gonna see how hard your job is, why don’t you take a couple weeks off?’
When she comes back, he’s like, ‘I think I can pretty much do your job,’ which anyone who knows what she did would think is like ludicrous. So she gets outraged and leaves the company. This was the scandal of all scandals at SpaceX and Tesla.
He’s obsessively worried whether the human species will continue. He gets emotional and weeps about that kind of stuff
But I think he has this strange kind of empathy. He does not care about your day-to-day life. In the course of all the time we spent together, he never once asked me if I had a family or anything like that. But he has this empathy for mankind. He’s obsessively worried whether the human species will continue. He gets emotional and weeps about that kind of stuff. A lot of people say he is on the autism spectrum, that he has no emotion or feeling for people. I don’t think that’s true. I think he does feel things deeply.
Musk’s big obsession is to establish a human colony on Mars. Has he been reading too many comic books?
You could definitely argue that. When he was a kid, he consumed all that sci-fi stuff, but he took it as a calling instead of just a story. He told me once he wants to die on Mars, just not on impact. [Laughs] Another time he told me he has this vision of himself retiring there.
I know for a fact that the guys within SpaceX already have a design for the engines and the rocket that would get to Mars. Knowing the caliber of talent there, I trust that that part is feasible if not probable. The colonizing part? That’s still an enormous question.
Tell us about his latest projects, like the Hyperloop and space Internet.
The Hyperloop is this crazy fast monorail. You have a tube with these pods inside it. He wants them to go 800 miles an hour on a bed of air, so you could get between San Francisco and LA in half an hour. It’s like an indictment of the high-speed rail that California’s trying to build.
The idea behind the Space Internet is to surround the earth with thousands of small satellites and beam the Internet down from space. Half the world’s population can’t get access to fiber optic Internet. They have slow, crappy Internet service. If you had a terminal where you could tap into these space satellites, you’d bring high speed Internet to the whole world.
What do you think are the defining traits of Musk’s success?
I don’t know it’s a recipe you’d want to recommend for your kid. A good chunk of it, I think, comes from being tortured in your youth. It’s something we see play out in other guys like Elon: having something to prove and trying to show people that you are fantastic.
The more practical thing is that he is incredibly good at prioritizing the things in his life that matter, like making a colony on Mars or solving global warming. He’s relentless in pursuing these goals. I was also inspired not just by Elon, but the people around him at SpaceX and Tesla. It gave me hope that humans really can do amazing things when they set their minds to it.