Making spaceships and electric supercars isn’t enough for Elon Musk. Meghan Daum meets the entrepreneur who wants to save the world.
The name sounds like a men’s cologne. Or a type of ox. It sounds possibly made up. But then, so much about Elon Musk seems the creation of a fiction writer—and not necessarily one committed to realism. At 44, Musk is both superstar entrepreneur and mad scientist. Sixteen years after cofounding a company called X.com that would, following a merger, go on to become PayPal, he’s launched the electric carmaker Tesla Motors and the aerospace manufacturer SpaceX, which are among the most closely watched—some would say obsessed-over—companies in the world. He has been compared to the Christian Grey character in Fifty Shades of Grey, though not as often as he’s been called “the real Tony Stark,” referring to the playboy tech entrepreneur whose alter ego, Iron Man, rescues the universe from various manifestations of evil.
The Iron Man comparison is, strangely, as apt as it is hyperbolic, since Musk has the boyish air of a nascent superhero and says his ultimate aim is to save humanity from what he sees as its eventual and unavoidable demise—from any number of causes, carbon consumption high among them. (As it happens, he met with Robert Downey, Jr., to discuss the Tony Stark role, and his factory doubled as the villain’s hideaway in Iron Man 2.) To this end he’s building his own rockets, envisioning a future in which we colonize Mars, funding research aimed at keeping artificial intelligence beneficial to humanity, and making lithium-ion electric batteries that might, one day, put the internal-combustion engine out to pasture.
There are signs that he’s succeeding. Despite its average price tag of $100,000 and the inherent complications of owning an electric vehicle, Tesla’s Model S is now among the best-selling luxury sedans in North America (a sport-utility vehicle called the Model X has been breathlessly awaited for years and will be introduced September 28th). Musk’s detailed concept for a high-speed transportation system dubbed the Hyperloop, which could conceivably move passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 30 minutes, has become a source of great public anticipation and fascination—even though it remains largely theoretical at this point. A very real energy-service company called SolarCity, which Musk helped get off the ground and for which he serves as chairman, has been described as a possible existential threat to big utility companies.
Of all his ventures, though, it’s SpaceX, which Musk founded because he was frustrated with the pace and cost of government-sponsored space exploration, that feels the grandest and, by definition, the most otherworldly. Even with a string of setbacks (most recently the doomed launch of the Falcon 9 cargo rocket, which blew apart shortly after takeoff last June—on Musk’s forty-fourth birthday, no less), the company seems poised to grow into a major force in the aerospace industry. This is thanks largely to a pair of contracts with NASA totaling up to $5.7 billion to deliver cargo (which SpaceX has done seven times) and eventually crew members to the International Space Station.
Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, October 2015
“From a financial perspective, SpaceX is probably the most secure of his companies,” says New York Times business writer and longtime Musk observer Andrew Ross Sorkin. “And that is because the government is handing over real hard cash for it to do what it does. Even if it turned out to be a company that just worked for the government, could it be the next Lockheed Martin? It’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
I meet Musk in his office pod in the nearly 500,000-square-foot, white slab of a building in Hawthorne, California, that houses SpaceX’s headquarters and factory. Dwarfed only by the looming presence of nearby LAX airport, the facility is a paean to the discipline required to maintain the clean lines of minimalism while also running a mega-scale manufacturing operation. The factory floor is a gleaming, grinding explosion of moving pieces. Work happens around the clock, with robots zinging tirelessly back and forth on assembly lines, 3-D printers carving out metal sections for rocket engines, and engineers sitting at monitors in a mission-control room preparing for upcoming launches. There are 3,500 employees here and a discernible air of secrecy. No photos are allowed. Outside in the lobby, every time a visitor or employee presses through the glass doors, a watchful janitor steps in to wipe away any print marks.
Musk’s physical presence is a bit like the building’s—blocky and imposing, tidy without being fussy. Well over six feet tall, he’s broad in the shoulders, giant in the hands, and appears not just clean shaven but thoroughly scrubbed. He’s dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt. His desk, which is made of a polished aerospace-grade aluminum, is immaculate and uncluttered save for photos of his five sons from his first marriage, to Justine Musk—eleven-year-old twins and nine-year-old triplets. (His current wife is the English actress Talulah Riley.)
“Hopefully when they grow up we’ll be in the process of becoming a multiplanet civilization,” he says of his boys. “Hopefully we’ll have a small base on Mars. . . . Going there slowly would take six months. I think we can shorten that journey to three.”
This is how Musk talks—like a science-fiction writer, or at least the science-fiction fan he was as a kid and remains today (current reading: the late Scottish writer Iain M. Banks). Friends and observers often talk about him operating on a massive scale, as though his life’s perimeter exceeds normal human bounds.
“He is the most impressive out-of-the-box thinker I know,” says the writer Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute. “There’s no shortage of people with a vision for the future,” adds Bill Gates. “What makes Elon exceptional is his ability to make his come true.”
The outsize visions Musk entertains make an odd juxtaposition with his manner, which is soft-spoken, precise, and, above all, considered. Though he sometimes comes across as not entirely comfortable in his own skin—he fidgets when not engaged in deeply concentrated work—he appears to be remarkably at ease with silence and will take long pauses to think before he speaks.
The pauses are especially long when the conversation turns to his private life. His marriage to Riley, whom he wed in 2010, divorced in 2012, and remarried in 2013, almost came to an end yet again when the couple filed for divorce last New Year’s Eve. But they reunited over the summer, just days before the divorce was finalized. “Right under the wire,” Riley says when I speak to her. “We told the lawyers we’d changed our minds. It was the same lawyers we’ve had all along, so I think they’re used to us by now.”
A recently published biography by tech writer Ashlee Vance, which Musk participated in reluctantly and minimally, has drawn attention for portraying Musk as Asperger’s-ish in his interpersonal dealings (on the subject of dating, Vance wrote that Musk asked him, “How much time does a woman want a week? Maybe ten hours?”) and occasionally tyrannical as a boss. One ex-employee claimed Musk upbraided him in an email for missing work in order to attend the birth of his child. Musk tells me he did no such thing and that the employee has never been able to produce the alleged email.
“If anything, I’ve always been incredibly supportive of people having children,” Musk tells me. “Before the companies grew so large, I actually personally wrote notes of congratulations to employees who had babies.” Musk also takes issue with the book’s depiction of the way his former assistant left the company—“It seems I summarily fired her after twelve years, and that simply is not true”—and is in the process of composing a response, possibly for The Huffington Post, setting the record straight.
Amid the chatter around the biography, Musk’s first wife, Justine, posted an observation to the Web forum Quora that quickly went viral: “Extreme success results from an extreme personality and comes at the cost of many other things.” There was little doubt about whom she was writing, and the media buzzed with speculation into Musk’s personal affairs. But Musk has no quarrel with her basic premise. “You’re not going to create revolutionary cars or rockets on 40 hours a week,” he tells me. “It just won’t work. Colonizing Mars isn’t going to happen on 40 hours a week.”
That Musk has managed to parlay a tableau of boyhood fantasies—cars, rockets, the idea of life on other planets—into a billion-dollar enterprise is, of course, integral to his mystique. So is the fact that in 2008, when both companies were in free fall during the stock-market crisis and auto bailout, he shocked investors and the tech world by pouring his entire personal savings into rescuing Tesla. Despite a firm rooting in the Silicon Valley ecosystem—Tesla’s factory is in Fremont, California, and Musk spends two to three days a week in the Bay Area—his interests occupy a notably different sphere from the market-driven preoccupations of many tech entrepreneurs.
“He gets tagged as the industrialist,” says SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell, who’s been Musk’s right-hand woman at the company nearly since its inception. “But he never starts out saying, ‘I want to make a billion dollars.’ He says, ‘We have to fix the fossil-fuel industry.’ He is all about making a world—and not necessarily the world—better for humans.” As we strive for enlightenment, we better understand what questions to ask about the universe. It seems like there’s a fundamental good in that
As with most comic book–hero origin stories, Musk’s childhood was shadowed in some measure of darkness. Growing up in apartheid-era South Africa, he was profoundly intelligent and ambitious—at age fifteen, he started an arcade business with his brother and cousin; they got it all the way to the city zoning phase before their parents found out and pulled the plug—but also socially awkward at school. He had a terrible time with bullies and was once beaten up so badly that he was taken to the hospital.
“South Africa was quite a violent place,” he says. “There was a level of violence growing up that wouldn’t be tolerated in any American school. It was like Lord of the Flies. There were a couple of gangs that were pretty evil, and they picked their victims and I was one of them. I think part of what set them off was that I ended up sticking up for this one kid who they were relentless on. And that made me a target.”
His parents divorced when he was nine, and Musk and his brother, Kimbal, eventually went to live with their father, Errol, an engineer. (His sister, Tosca, remained with their mother.) Though Kimbal told Vance that their father gave them “a very emotionally challenging upbringing,” the Musks keep discussions about Errol to a minimum.
“Everyone has tough parents,” Kimbal tells me from his home in Boulder. “The public seems interested in our experience with our father, but people should let it go. We’ve let it go. We’ve gotten past it.”
Asked what Elon was like as a child, his mother, Maye Musk, says only that he was “happy” and “a normal boy with his siblings and cousins.”
Musk himself tells a different story, saying that he was in an “existential crisis” from roughly the ages of eleven to fifteen, struggling with “What’s the point of it all?” kinds of questions. “I read a lot of books, and it didn’t sound like anything really had the answer to what’s the meaning of life,” Musk says. “And then it’s like, ‘Is it all meaningless?’ I was reading Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and it was terrible. No one should read them. It’s too depressing. They were not happy people.”
The answer eventually came (as it does for many disaffected teenage boys, even those not reading Nietzsche) through the cult 1979 novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, a writer known, perhaps not coincidentally, for his interest in both environmental conservation and fast cars.
“I thought Adams was actually quite good because he was making the point that the question is the real difficulty,” says Musk. “The universe is essentially the answer, so what’s the question? As we strive for enlightenment, we better understand what questions to ask about the nature of the universe. It seems like there’s a fundamental good in that. So that seemed like a good way to apply my efforts—to strive for greater enlightenment.”
In 1989, Musk left South Africa for Canada, where he attended Queen’s University in Ontario before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied economics and physics. At Penn he roomed with Adeo Ressi, now also a highly successful entrepreneur and investor. Eager to escape their barracks-like student housing, they rented a large house and, in order to pay the rent, turned it into a nightclub that attracted as many as 1,000 patrons. Ressi says that although Musk was already a capable businessman, his interest in the parties themselves was often negligible.
“There were some nights where I’d be like, ‘Where’s Elon?’ and I’d go up to his room and pound on the door and he’s in there alone playing a video game,” Ressi recalls. “And I’m like, ‘There are 500 people out there who need our attention!’ I’m not even sure that he was aware that the party was going on.”
After Penn, Musk entered a Ph.D. program at Stanford in applied physics but dropped out after two days to join his brother in starting Zip2, the online city directory whose proceeds would beget X.com, which in turn would beget him the rest of his life.
But unlike Christian Grey, who lets it be known to his bonny submissive that he earns around $1 million a day (hearing this, Musk asks, “That’s all?” and collapses into a protracted fit of laughter, saying, “I’m joking! I’m joking! That was a joke!”), Musk has a relationship to money that is, like many of his relationships, notably aloof. When he arrived in Silicon Valley in 1995, he says, he was more interested in “figuring out how to be part of building the Internet” than in getting rich. Besides, no one was getting rich yet.
“I think he always just assumed the money would come,” says Justine Musk, whom he met during his stint at Queen’s University and married in 2000 and who is, fittingly, not your average ex-wife of a mogul. A novelist and prolific blogger, she speaks of Musk with equal measures of frankness and fondness, calling him “not the most demonstrative person” and “certainly not a normal father” but a committed parent who’s deeply interested in his kids. “He’s not taking them to soccer games,” she says. “He’s taking them to Shanghai. Even though there are all of these advantages and he has this very unusual lifestyle, I think they see what he does for a living and how difficult it is.”
During their early courtship, Justine recalls, “the brilliance was obvious,” but Musk’s personality bore traces of the social obtuseness that had dogged him in childhood. She says he had a habit of calling her and letting the phone ring endlessly if she didn’t answer. Then he’d hang up and call right back. Every Valentine’s Day he sent her red roses with a note that read, “I like you.”
“People have always referred to him as robotic,” Justine says. “My best friend in college would always comment about how he didn’t really know how to hug. She’d try to hug him goodbye and he’d just kind of stand there. He’s since learned to be a better hugger.”
A set of twins and a set of triplets—all boys, no less—is in many ways a quintessentially Elon Musk kind of brood. But it was tragedy that shaped the family’s trajectory. The Musks’ first baby, a boy named Nevada, died at ten weeks of a SIDS-related incident. After he spent three days on life support, the Musks made the decision to turn off the machines. Devastated yet determined to get pregnant again as quickly as possible, Justine sought fertility treatments that eventually resulted in the twins. She and Elon were thrilled.
“After that we were like, ‘Yes, let’s do it again!’ ” Justine says. “We didn’t expect to get triplets. That was our attempt to get one girl. It didn’t work that way. . . . But there are a lot of boys in his family. I think he’s a Y-chromosome kind of guy.”
When Musk became less than satisfied with the schools his sons were attending, he created a new one for them last year. With an enrollment of fifteen elementary-age kids, the school, called Ad Astra (“to the stars”), has three teachers and is situated in a house he purchased a few years ago.
“It has all these funny nooks and crannies and cute cupboards,” says Musk. “It also feels quite like a little schoolhouse on the prairie—except in Bel-Air on a golf course.”
Though none of his kids are reading Schopenhauer—“I’d never introduce anyone to Schopenhauer!”—Musk says one of the nine-year-olds is reading books of poetry as well as Flannery O’Connor and Charles Dickens. He’s about to take them camping for the weekend, he tells me in a slightly weary voice, admitting he’d never go camping of his own volition. “I do it because I think they should have occasional arduous things. They have to cook and clean up: camping things.”
A week later, Musk is in Silicon Valley, where he’s just addressed Tesla’s shareholders at the annual meeting. The shareholders, not all of whom actually own the vehicles, represent a cross section of well-heeled, progressive types. The mood in the room is palpably earnest. He takes a question from a young man identifying himself as a tenth-grader who, “due to some pretty fortunate investments,” has been able to purchase a Tesla. His question has to do with autopilot software the company is currently testing and whether it will effectively turn the car into a self-driving vehicle so that passengers can relax. The boy’s precociousness produces a titter from the audience, but Musk answers the question as though he were talking to any adult. He explains that the autopilot isn’t designed to be used without human oversight, at least not yet.
“Several years from now,” he says, “there will be a fail operational autopilot with redundant sensors and everything that’s needed for someone to actually literally go to sleep and wake up at their destination.”
“I just treat all questions equally,” Musk says a few hours later. He’s in a private dining room in the restaurant of a luxury golf resort in Menlo Park. He orders a cappuccino and an enormous spread of food—flatbreads, cheeses, tuna ceviche. I carefully broach the subject of his recent romantic history with Riley, whom he first met on a trip in London in 2008, noting that he was wearing a wedding band at the shareholders’ meeting, though he didn’t have it on when we met last week, nor does he have it on now. He tells me he tends to fidget, so he puts it in his pocket so he doesn’t lose it.
I ask if I can see it and he takes it out of his pocket and hands it to me for inspection. It’s a simple titanium band, practically weightless. This is when he reveals to me for the first time that he and Riley are not officially divorced yet and, in fact, are kind of back together. He then puts the ring back in his pocket.
“I’m the flighty one; I’m the one who does all the leaving and divorcing,” Riley says when I call her later. “But we are now totally solidly together.”
All the drama aside, Riley may in fact be the perfect partner for Musk. They plan to have kids, she says, but she’s also prepared to let her husband go to Mars someday if he needs to. It’s a trip that would likely require being gone for two years at a minimum.
“If Elon gets everything up and running, I can’t imagine him not going,” she tells me. “We joke around the house all the time about who’s going to Mars first and who will take care of the kids while the other person is gone. I kind of jestingly say, ‘No, you can’t go,’ but this is his life’s work. I wouldn’t want to stop him.”
As far as Musk is concerned, this decision isn’t that far off on the horizon.
“I hope we’ll be able to send the first people to Mars in about ten years,” he says.
The first settlers, he explains, would be scientists and engineers building some kind of pressurized dome. Terraforming, or making the planet’s surface and climate inhabitable by humans, would be the next step, though it could take centuries.
“You can only go there every two years because the orbital synchronization of Earth and Mars is about every two years,” he says. “But I think it would be an interesting way for the civilization to develop. People would meet each other and be like, ‘What orbital synchronization did you arrive on?’ ”
It’s not a bad way to start a conversation.