Making a Mark with Rockets and Roadsters Self-made entrepreneur Elon Musk thinks outside the box when trying to make smart investments. Venturing into the world of $100,000 electric sports cars and rocket orbiters, Musk puts a different spin on the art of saving the world.
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Making a Mark with Rockets and Roadsters

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Making a Mark with Rockets and Roadsters

Making a Mark with Rockets and Roadsters

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If he makes the history books one day, it will likely be a sizable entry. Elon Musk, still just 36 years old, has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from two Internet startups. And instead of, say, buying an island, he set himself two challenges that will cut way into his leisure time. First, he'd like to get people to drive clean, electric cars. Then, he wants to help humans settle another planet.

NPR's David Kestenbaum has this profile.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: I meet Elon Musk in a San Diego hotel lobby. The first words out of his mouth are hi and, have you seen the car yet? Outside, there's a red sports car, the Tesla Roadster. Musk describes it in technical detail. I feel like I'm in one of those James Bond movie scenes where Q is explaining the latest gadget. Finally, we get in.

(Soundbite of doors closing)

Mr. ELON MUSK (Chairman, Tesla Motors): Want to go for a little ride?

KESTENBAUM: So the car's on?

Mr. MUSK: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: Not so good for radio - there's no vroom-vroom.

Mr. MUSK: Well, it's great if we want to talk. It's quiet as a mouse.

KESTENBAUM: Under the hood are batteries, about 7,000 of the little cells used in some laptops, all connected together. The car goes from zero to 60 in under four seconds.

(Soundbite of electric car engine)

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: Musk looks young and boyish. He's also tall. His left leg is all crunched up behind the dashboard.

Mr. MUSK: That's second gear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: The cost on electricity to drive a mile - one or two cents, he says. No gasoline, no tailpipe. There's an impressive list of people who have prepaid for one of these cars. Not impressively long, just impressive.

Mr. MUSK: George Clooney, there's the founders of Google, Lawrence Brigade(ph), and what's the name?

KESTENBAUM: Flea. Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Mr. MUSK: Yeah. Okay. Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers bought a car.

KESTENBAUM: The Tesla Roadster lists for about $100,000. Sounds crazy but for Elon Musk certain things make fundamental irrefutable sense. Clean electric cars are one. He got the company off the ground with $37 million, hopes it can grow into a major auto company like Ford or GM, though he sometimes says that in a quiet voice.

Musk has not experienced a lot of failure. His first company sold for over $300 million. Then he helped build up PayPal, which sold for $1.5 billion. And the electric car business is really a side project. Here's the thing that takes up most of his time.

Unidentified Woman #1: Five, four, three…

Unidentified Man: First engine sequence initiated.

KESTENBAUM: A rocket company called SpaceX. Musk built it from scratch with over a hundred million dollars of his own money.

Unidentified Man: Velocity 450 meters-per-second. Altitude…

KESTENBAUM: His goal is to bring down the cost of putting something in orbit. Not by a little, by 90 percent, eventually 99 percent by recovering and reusing parts of the rocket. We talked about the project on the way back to Los Angeles on his private jet.

Mr. MUSK: My interest in space is not really - does not really stem from a personal desire to go there but from a philosophical belief that we should extend life beyond Earth.

KESTENBAUM: Out the window of the airplane the Earth inches by.

Mr. MUSK: If you look at the history of life itself, the big milestones, you could say, are, well, the advent of single celled-life, of course, the evident multi-cellular life. You know, there's maybe 10 or 12 really big ones. And on that scale would also fit the extension of life for the first time to another planet.

KESTENBAUM: So four billion years of history, then Elon Musk. He hired engineers from Boeing, TRW, Lockheed, the Air Force. He could not lure a chief engineer, so the person doing that job is him.

Mr. MUSK: I know more about rockets than anyone at the company by a pretty significant margin. I mean, you know, the Falcon One, I could redraw substantial portions of that rocket from memory without the blueprints.

KESTENBAUM: The company has costumers for another 11 launches. NASA is also paying in the hopes that SpaceX will one day be able to bring astronauts to the space station.

What do you think you're good at?

Mr. MUSK: What I'm good at is, well, I think I'm good at inventing solutions to problems. Things seem fairly obvious to me that are clearly not obvious to most people, so. And I'm not really trying to do it or anything, I just - it just seems like, I don't know, it's like I can see the truth of things and others seem less able to do so.

KESTENBAUM: And up in this plane in Elon's world, everything seems possible, inevitable. But when we get to the SpaceX offices, there is a reminder that failure is always an option. SpaceX has tried two launches, neither made it to orbit. And in a cubicle next to Elon's cubicle are mangled rocket pieces.

Ms. GWYNNE SHOTWELL (Vice President of Business Development, SpaceX): This here is a B-nut. This is the baddie. You can see the corrosion here. Obviously, it's worse now because it was actually submerged in the ocean.

KESTENBAUM: This is Gwynne Shotwell. She's in charge of business development.

Ms. SHOTWELL: It started squirting propellant, and when we ignited the gas generator to light the engine, it obviously caught the fuel on fire.

KESTENBAUM: At what point do you get into trouble? Like how many more times can you not reach orbit?

Ms. SHOTWELL: We need to get to orbit. We need to get to an orbit, a stable orbit, on the next flight. We'll survive if we don't, but it will be difficult to acquire costumers at that point.

KESTENBAUM: There are risks to all of Elon Musk's plans, which, of course, he knows.

Elon Musk was born in South Africa. He read science fiction as a kid and the great philosophers, which he didn't think so much of. He taught himself to program computers so he could make video games. When he came to the United States, he studied physics and business. In Silicon Valley, he lived out of a small office, had to shower at the YMCA.

What do you think the hardest thing you've been through? One of your friends told me you got very sick and - at some point.

Mr. MUSK: I got malaria and came very close to dying.

KESTENBAUM: Did that change you at all?

Mr. MUSK: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: I watched him in meetings making a thousand small decisions, fixing one problem, giving advice on another. He has a lot of people to worry about these days, hundreds of employees following him on these dreams, employees with families. I talked to his wife Justine, and she says though Elon doesn't always show it, work can be pretty stressful.

Do you see that at home, does he…

Mrs. JUSTINE MUSK (Wife of Elon Musk): Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, I mean, I live with that. That's, you know, that's a big part of the marriage is, you know? And you accept that when you're, you know, spending time with him, you're getting a very small part of him because 95 percent of his mental energy is still being consumed by these problems. He doesn't get any breaks from it.

KESTENBAUM: Justine says Elon is not the sort to give up on things. When they first met in college, he asked her out for ice cream. She said she had to study. But he searched the campus for her with two cones, ice cream melting down onto his hands.

Ms. MUSK: You know, that was Elon at 19 with just this, you know, single-minded persistence. For a long time that was kind of what our pseudo-dating life was like. You know, he would ask me out, and I would say no for one reason or another, and it really didn't make any difference.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: I asked Justine if she ever thought she was marrying a dreamer. No, she said, just someone insanely ambitious, intensely logical, and very determined.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Elon Musk once told a friend about a unique way to make more time for work. You can hear about that at

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