How Elon Musk Works

Elon Musk is using the fortune he made from Internet businesses to invest in space exploration.
Elon Musk is using the fortune he made from Internet businesses to invest in space exploration.
Vince Bucci/Getty Images

One of the most interesting things about how Elon Musk works is the fact that he does work -- because, really, he doesn't have to. His ventures in the Internet world earned him a considerable fortune. By his early 30s, he was already worth about $200 million. But when people ask him why he hasn't retired -- or bought himself an island, for that matter -- he claims he'd simply get bored. Instead, Elon Musk decided to enter one of the riskiest, costliest, most unforgiving businesses there is: the space business.

Unlike many of the other private attempts to enter space, Musk's rockets are built to enter Earth orbit or beyond, which is a bigger challenge than merely reaching suborbital heights (something SpaceShipOne accomplished). And although Musk has proven his business savvy through several successful ventures (he's linked to PayPal, for one), he's surprised everyone with his space aspirations. Not easily discouraged, he explained in one interview that people are too easily frightened by risk -- in fact, they all too often overestimate the risk involved [source: TIEcon].

Musk continues to push the limits of expectation, and, as a result, was named the Inc. Magazine 2007 entrepreneur of the year [source: Chafkin].

Born in South Africa in 1971, the computer bug bit Musk at an early age. At a mere 12 years old, he wrote code for a video game that he sold to a computer magazine. When he was 17, he moved to Canada on his own and eventually ended up in the U.S. at the University of Pennsylvania where he earned degrees in physics and business. Afterwards, he was set up to begin a graduate pro­gram at Stanford in 1995.

But he chose to drop out of the Stanford program before classes began. The Internet was emerging and business opportunities were too tantalizing for Musk to ignore. What did he do next? Find out how he raised his fortune on the next page.

Elon Musk's Business Ventures

Elon Musk made his fortune starting Internet businesses Zip2 and
Elon Musk made his fortune starting Internet businesses Zip2 and
Chris Weeks/WireImage/Getty Images

After ditching the Stanford program, Elon Musk broke onto the Internet scene. He devoted the next four years to a company he started, Zip2. Zip2 enabled companies to post content on the Internet, such as maps and directory listings. With an investment deal, Musk gave up much of his control of the company. But he made out like a bandit when Compaq bought Zip2 for $307 million (in cash), which was the biggest sum paid for an Internet company up to that time. Musk walked away from Zip2 with $22 million at 28 years old [source: Watson].

But his Internet energy was far from sapped. Next, he founded a company called, which offered online financial services. Eventually, merged with another company, Confinity, which had developed a service you've probably heard of -- PayPal. PayPal provided customers with easy and secure payment transactions over the Internet. Musk came out ahead again when eBay bought PayPal for $1.5 billion in 2002 [source: Watson].

After eBay took over PayPal, Musk left the Internet behind, bored with the challenge. He then turned to three other ventures: Tesla Motors, SolarCity and, the most ambitious of all, SpaceX.

­The Tesla Motors venture centered on the development of an environmentally friendly sports car, the Tesla Roadster, which has challenged people's conceptions about electric cars. The car charges overnight, uses no gasoline, and Tesla claims it goes from zero to 60 mph (96 kph) in less than 4 seconds.

Another one of Musk's projects, SolarCity, also focuses on conserving resources. He combined several solar power companies to form SolarCity, a California-based company that offers solar panel installation services. By offering a cost-effective installation, Musk hopes to help many people reduce their carbon footprints.

He has even used SolarCity to mount solar arrays on the roof of a facility for SpaceX, his commercial space company. He hopes SpaceX will reduce the cost and increase the reliability of space travel by a factor of ten. Next, we'll talk about how he plans on accomplish this goal.

Elon Musk and SpaceX: Internet Wiz Turned Rocketman

Musk wasn't even alive during this liftoff of Apollo 11, the first manned journey to the moon.
Musk wasn't even alive during this liftoff of Apollo 11, the first manned journey to the moon.
Time Life Pictures/NASA/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Elon Musk started SpaceX in 2002 with comparatively little background in rocket science. For only having an undergraduate degree in physics and keen business sense, he's got inspiring confidence. In an audacious move, he has hired professional engineers to build rockets from the ground up instead of buying rockets from other, established rocket-building companies. And these rockets, he hopes, will take payloads and humans to Earth orbit and beyond.

Before we delve into his SpaceX rockets, we'll need some generalized education on rockets. If you've read How Rocket Engines Work, you know that the rocket's get-up-and-go revolves around the same principle that thrusts a burst balloon. In essence, the rocket (and the balloon) throw force one way in order to move them the opposite way. The air in a burst balloon quickly escapes through its hole, propelling the balloon in the opposite direction. In the same way, a rocket moves up by burning fuel and sending the exhaust through a downward-facing nozzle. This kind of thrust means that a rocket can move through the air as well as the vacuum of space. Space-faring vehicles rely on very powerful rockets to break through the Earth's atmosphere.

Although the concept of rockets is simple enough, the process of making a safe and reliable rocket is a bit more complicated. NASA has spent billions of dollars and several decades trying to perfect rocket science, and mistakes still happen.

­But Elon Musk, who wasn't even alive when the first man walked on the moon, is frustrated with how long it's taking space exploration to achieve another major milestone. He's also just as frustrated with how much money NASA spends on the space program. Business sense dictates that the costs of space exploration would have decreased in the decades succeeding the Apollo moon landing. That hasn't been the case, however, and Musk thinks inefficiency is to blame.

NASA, he claims, spends an inordinate amount of money for only slightly better performance [source: Hoffman]. Musk believes private companies, instead, must improve the reliability of space exploration and keep the costs low. For those who balk at this goal, he argues that better performance does not equal reliability -- an expensive Ferrari can be unreliable while a cheap Honda can be very reliable [source: Reingold].

Although Musk is known to be a stern boss, he's far from a heartless mercenary; he claims he's doing all this to save the world. Fearing the end of natural resources on Earth, Musk believes it's paramount to work toward colonizing Mars. He believes his SpaceX organization can send reliable rockets into space for much less money than NASA spends. Musk has said he aspires to be the "Southwest Airlines of space" in terms of low-cost human travel [source: Foust].

Before he can send people to Mars, however, he'll need to get his rockets into orbit. Next, we'll take a look at the Musk's Falcon rockets.

Falcon 1 Rocket

Falcon 1 taking off in March 2007
Falcon 1 taking off in March 2007
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation

SpaceX's first launching vehicle model, called the Falcon 1, is a two-stage rocket. Space-faring rockets use multiple stages in order to boost themselves into high altitude. A rocket changes stages when expendable engines burn up all of their fuel and drop off the spaceship. That leaves the other engines to keep the rocket going. This process is necessary because it takes a lot of fuel to launch a rocket, and letting go of used, empty vessels rids the vessel of excess weight. The NASA space shuttle also sheds its solid rocket boosters during flight. Also, keeping the Falcon launches down to two stages minimizes the potential for damage that can occur during separation.

SpaceX's first attempts at launches used the Falcon 1, which uses one engine per stage, the Merlin engine and the Kestrel Engine, both designed by SpaceX. The Merlin engine, which powers the first stage, originally used an ablative cooling method, meaning that the engine has a protective coating that breaks away as it absorbs heat. But after this method proved problematic, Musk changed the Merlin to include a regenerative-cooling method, which is a common cooling process that runs a special coolant through the engine to relieve it of some heat using convection. This heated coolant then works as a propellant for the engine. SpaceX designed the first stage section of the rocket to fall to water with parachutes. That way the rocket is reusable, which makes multiple launches significantly less expensive.

The second stage (also known as the upper stage) employs a Kestrel engine, which is cooled with both ablative material and a radiative-cooling method. Applied primarily for low-thrust engines, radiative cooling uses walls that sustain high temperatures. The heat it absorbs then gets radiated off into the rocket's exhaust.

The Falcon 1 burns liquid oxygen and a special grade of kerosene to achieve thrust. The main structure is made of aluminum alloy. It also incorporates a common bulkhead, which is a shared wall between the fuel and the oxidizer in the rocket. This insulated wall keeps the two chambers at different temperatures but consolidates materials, which makes the rocket lighter. Before liftoff, the rocket is actually held in place for a period after the engines start as engineers make sure the systems are running properly. This process is common for commercial airplanes, but less so for rocket launches.

In March 2006, Musk and his SpaceX launched the maiden flight of Falcon 1. The rocket was carrying an experimental satellite that cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy constructed. Unfortunately, having already experienced several delays, the Falcon 1 failed 29 seconds after liftoff, still in its first stage. The Falcon 1's main engine caught fire [source: Berger]. The Falcon 1 was launched again in March 2007, and this time it performed significantly better. But ultimately it failed to reach orbit. An engine failed 90 seconds too soon, and the rocket only achieved an altitude of 180 miles (290 km) [source: SpaceX]. Heavy vibrations caused the fuel to slosh around and the rocket to waver and fall [source: Chafkin].

Despite these failures, Musk plans to keep trying with the Falcon 1, and with a slightly altered version, the Falcon 1e, to be finished in 2010. Meanwhile, SpaceX is already at work designing another model of Falcon rockets, the Falcon 9, which we'll talk about next.


SpaceX's Falcon 9 Rocket

Close up of the nine engines on Falcon 9.
Close up of the nine engines on Falcon 9.
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation

The Falcon 9, the next SpaceX Falcon, is also a two-stage rocket. But the Falcon 9 is much larger than the Falcon 1. In fact, it's so much larger, it uses nine Merlin engines for its first stage instead of one, like its predecessor. Using nine engines for the first stage allows SpaceX to live up to its promises of reliability. If at any time an engine failure occurs, the other working engines can easily and safely pick up the slack [source: SpaceX].

The second stage only uses one engine. And, unlike the Falcon 1, its second stage uses a Merlin engine, not a Kestrel. The Kestrel doesn't achieve as high a specific impulse (a measure of thrust) as the Merlin. In fact, Musk claims that the Merlin can achieve higher performance than any other gas-generator cycle kerosene engine ever built [source: SpaceX].

Illustration of Falcon 9.
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation

Using Merlin engines allows SpaceX to cut costs, which, next to reliability, is a high priority for Musk [source: Foust]. The Falcon 1 has a reusable first stage, but both stages on the Falcon 9 rocket are fully reusable. Another cost-saving technique SpaceX employs on the Falcon 9 is to use much of the same materials for the second stage structure as it does on the first stage structure. Using the same material means, for instance, that it uses the same methods to manufacture and that there's no need to buy new tools [source: SpaceX].

To give you an idea of how large Falcon 9 is, here's a shot of the quarter section of the Falcon 9 fairing at SpaceX's Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters.
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation

As with Falcon 1, the Falcon 9 also is held down after the engines start to allow SpaceX to verify that the systems are working properly. But the Falcon 9 has another safety feature that distinguishes it from Falcon 1: Kevlar shields on the engines that protect them from damaging debris.

SpaceX has also started to build a structure it calls the Falcon 9 Heavy. As the name indicates, it's a larger structure than the normal Falcon 9. It's larger so that it can carry heavy payloads into space. The Falcon 9 Heavy is simply a Falcon 9 with two more Falcon 9 stages strapped on either side of it. Each of the strapped-on rockets has nine engines. These extra 18 engines work together as boosters to accommodate a heavy payload. SpaceX hopes to have this structure up and running by 2010.

Falcon 9 Heavy
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation

So far we've only been talking about the launching vehicles, but for SpaceX to send humans into space, it will need the Dragon, which we'll talk about next.


SpaceX's Dragon Spaceship

Dragon spacecraft (capsule and trunk) with solar panels deployed
Dragon spacecraft (capsule and trunk) with solar panels deployed
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation

Whoever heard of a falcon carrying a dragon? It's a scenario that could only come out of Elon Musk's imagination, and he's making it happen. SpaceX's spaceship, called the Dragon, will launch on the Falcon 9 to carry cargo and crew into space.

  1. Nosecone: The aerodynamic, protective top of the spaceship.
  2. Pressurized section: This section includes the crew or cargo that needs to be pressurized.
  3. The service section: This section holds necessary elements such as the reaction control system (RCS), which helps direct the movement of the ship, the parachutes for landing back on earth and avionics, which refers to aviation electronics.

An unpressurized section or "trunk" will house cargo that doesn't need to be pressurized during flight. When the Dragon is equipped for human transport, it will include controls that will allow the crew to take over the ship, as well as an escape system and a life support system. The design allows room for seven on board crew members.

Dragon capsule in crew configuration
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation

During re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere, the Dragon will benefit from an ablative covering and heat shield to allow it to sustain high temperatures. Specifically, the material is known as Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA), an extremely heat-resistant material developed by NASA [source: Musk]. The systems can then steer the ship toward a water landing, aided by parachutes. Finally, ships come to pick up the Dragon and its crew.

Dragon spacecraft in cargo configuration
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation

One thing that's helping to speed along the development of the Dragon is SpaceX's partnership with NASA. When NASA retires the Space Shuttle in 2010, it won't be sending missions up to the International Space Station (ISS) for five years. So NASA has been reaching out to private U.S. space organizations to use the ISS in its absence. NASA hopes SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Dragon will put the U.S. in the ISS.

NASA gave Musk's company an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract, which means that NASA will wait to specify exactly what SpaceX's mission is, or even how many missions it will do. But what they do know is that the contract could total up to $1 billion. Although SpaceX plans on providing the Dragon for a cargo flight in 2010, Musk hopes to provide both cargo and crew on the Dragon to the ISS eventually [source: Morris].

So, it seems, despite setbacks, both Musk and NASA are confident SpaceX ships will make it into orbit. Only time will tell if Musk can colonize Mars. Until then, take a look at the outer space articles listed on the next page.

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More Great Links



  • Berger, Brian. "SpaceX Targets Late June for Next Rocket Launch Attempt." May 16, 2008. (June 5, 2008)
  • Chafkin, Max. "Entrepreneur of the Year." Inc. Magazine. December 2007. (June 5, 2008)
  • Cringely, Robert X. "To the Moon Alyce!: Team Cringely will win the Google Lunar X Prize." Sept. 27, 2007. (June 5, 2008)
  • ­Foust, Jeff. "Big plans for SpaceX." The Space Review. Nov. 14, 2005. (June 5, 2008).
  • Hoffman, Carl. "Elon Musk Betting His Fortune on a Mission Beyond Earth's Orbit." Wired Magazine. May 22, 2007. (June 5, 2008)
  • Logsdon, Tom. "Orbital Mechanics: Theory and Applications." Wiley-IEEE, 1997. (June 5, 2008)
  • Morris, Jefferson, "Musk says SpaceX could transfer ISS crew by 2011." Aerospace Daily & Defense Report. May 15, 2008. (June 6, 2008)
  • Musk, Elon. "Another Monster Update." Space Exploration Technologies Corporation. Dec. 10, 2007. (June 5, 2008)
  • Reingold, Jennifer. "Hondas in Space." Dec. 19, 2007. (June 5, 2008)
  • SpaceX. Space Exploration Technologies Corporation. (June 5, 2008)
  • TIEcon. "Interview with Elon Musk." TIEcon. May 17, 2008. (June 5, 2008)
  • Watson, Ian. "Elon Musk gets NASA backing to boldly go; Elon Musks enterprising partnership with NASA." The Business. Aug. 29, 2006. (June 5, 2008)