About our writer
Naomi Foster is in her second year studying Engineering Science at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. Naomi was a Mentor for Cambridge Immerse in 2017.
Elon Musk – he’s the man overturning the car industry, taking us to Mars and is thought to be worth around $20 billion. His name is on everyone’s lips and he seems to enjoy success after success. Where did it all begin for Elon Musk, and what journey has brought him to where he is now?
Elon Musk was born in Pretoria in South Africa in 1971 and from a very early age showed skill and interest in programming, writing his first computer game aged just 12. He went to university in the US and was poised to pursue a PhD in energy physics at Stanford in 1995 when the world suddenly changed.
The 90s was the decade of the “internet boom” and Musk was at the very fore. He dropped out of Stanford after just 2 days to start up Zip2 with his brother, a company which provided software to newspapers to make city guides. The company was a success and the Musks sold it in 1999, leaving Elon Musk with a hefty $22 million.
Musk went on to found the company which would become PayPal, gaining $180 million when eBay bought it. For a less driven person, this would have been his cue to retire; he had more money than any sane person needs and could comfortably live for years.
His decision to make this juncture his beginning, not his end, is probably what defines Musk.
It’s clear that Elon Musk wants to leave his mark on the Earth, and possibly even further afield. In 2002 he set up SpaceX, a private company which aims, in its own words, “to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” Just one year later, Musk became involved with Tesla Motors, whose website claims will “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”.
But just how does Musk plan to achieve his ambitious goals?
When NASA decided to move away from launching interstellar rockets and towards more low-orbit crafts, Musk saw an opportunity and leapt at it. SpaceX was set up to profit from this opening of the market as the giant NASA made way.
To date, SpaceX is the only private company who’ve managed to get a load out into orbit and then back to Earth intact. But there are others with the same aim – what have SpaceX done that the others haven’t?
Musk has made some very clever moves. Firstly he makes most of his parts in-house. This means he spends less because he doesn’t have to pay other people to do things he can do himself.
His rockets are also modular. They don’t run on one big engine but rather lots of smaller ones (as many as 27 in some cases). This streamlines production, as making the same thing repeatedly reduces cost and complexity. The big key to Musk’s cheapening of space travel lies in reusability – a rocket which takes years to build and gets one person to Mars is a lot less attractive to investors than one which can keep shooting back and forth.
These techniques have made a huge difference to the viability of space travel – Musk has reduced the cost of reaching the ISS by a staggering 90 percent, with more savings to follow.
There’s thought to be a lot of money in SpaceX although no one knows exactly as it’s a private company. What we do know is that SpaceX has $4.2 billion in contracts from NASA alone.
Tesla Motors was set up with the aim of ending the reputation of electric cars as a compromise in terms of quality – the founding engineers were determined to show that electric cars could be faster and more fun to drive than a petrol or diesel car.
It all began with a man called Martin Eberhard. Long before Musk even knew about Tesla motors, Martin Eberhard was shopping for a new car. He was frustrated by his lack of options for an environmentally friendly, yet fun, car. Cars running on hydrogen cells are painfully inefficient and, at the time, electric cars were known for being slow and sluggish.
Eberhard and his friend Marc Tarpenning figured out that they could take advantage of the steadily decreasing size of lithium batteries to make lighter and faster cars. They developed plans for their first car and founded a company, naming it after the famous engineer Nikola Tesla.
Their biggest remaining obstacle was money. They managed to set up a meeting with Elon Musk and, as soon as they met, realised that this was a man who shared their vision of an electric car not only to match its petrol counterparts, but to outperform them. The investment from Musk allowed them to start building at Lotus in the UK. It was a tall order – building a completely new car rather than basing a new model on something older was something which hadn’t been done in a long time. But when the Tesla Roadster was unveiled to the public it was a hit and over 100 had been sold in 2 weeks.
Tesla has since gone from strength to strength and a lot of Tesla’s success can be put down to Musk’s charisma and charm; when the Model D was unveiled in 2014 it was hailed as a “supercar” and Musk was likened to “Iron Man”.
Of course, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Musk and Eberhard, one of the founders, are no longer speaking and many have criticised Musk’s management of the company. On the other hand, the numbers speak for themselves – Tesla is now planning to increase production to a rate of 500,000 vehicles a year by this year.
Where from now?
Musk is beyond ambitious and talks of colonising Mars within 20 years. He says he’d go to Mars, a statement which seems to fit with his big ideas and adventurous spirit.
And in the long term? At a conference, Musk told reporters “I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.”
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