The Life of Elon Musk
For Elon Musk, changing the world isn't enough. His ambitions are multiplanetary. And they extend to the fate of the human species.
Musk's ultimate goal—to spread the seeds of humanity off-Earth—improves the chances that our species will outlive extinction-level events. It also paves the way for downstream generations to go galactic.
He's starting with Mars. And with the first crewed mission slated for 2029, SpaceX is gearing up to send 80,000 colonists to the Red Planet by the year 2040.
But building rockets isn't cheap, and in the early days of SpaceX, Musk had to front up the cash himself for his reusable rocket R&D. So how did Elon Musk make his money? What exactly did he invent? And how will SpaceX drive the development of the first city on Mars? Buckle up for the extraordinary, star-gazing life of Elon Musk.
"I'd like to die on Mars. Just not on impact." - Elon Musk
Where Did Elon Musk Grow Up?
Elon was born, or possibly engineered, in South Africa in 1971. His father, Errol, was an electromechanical engineer; his mother, Maye, a model and nutritional scientist. The eldest of three children, Elon grew up with his brother and sister, Kimbal and Toska, in the suburbs of Pretoria.
Being on the autism spectrum, Elon took to certain ideas obsessively; a trait that no doubt drove his extraordinary career. But the drawbacks of autism meant he found it much harder to interpret the language and behaviour of others.
"I would just tend to take things very literally... but then that turned out to be wrong. [People were not] simply saying exactly what they mean, there's all sorts of other things that are meant, and it took me a while to figure that out." - Elon Musk
When his parents divorced in 1979, Elon lived with his father for two years and threw himself into computer programming. At the age of 12, he made a video game called Blastar and sold it to the magazine PC and Office Technology for $500.
As a teenager, Elon became a huge fan of science fiction. He devoured Isaac Asimov's futuristic series, Foundation, and was deeply inspired by its message to prolong and advance civilisation. This kid dreamed big.
Unfortunately, his love of humanity was seen as "not cool" by bullies who tortured him on a regular basis, once throwing him down a flight of stairs and beating him unconscious. Elon also suffered years of abuse at the hands of his dad.
"He's a terrible human being... Almost every evil thing you could possibly think of, he has done." - Elon Musk
Though much of Errol Musk's deeds are kept under wraps, the 72-year-old has spoken publicly about cheating on his wife to have a baby with his 30-year-old step-daughter. Today, Elon and his dad are estranged.
After graduating high school, Elon set a goal of escaping his homeland. He spent a year working at a farm and lumber mill in Canada before moving to the US to pursue a career in physics, programming, or both.
Elon graduated in 1994 and moved to California. He held two summer internships in Silicon Valley before starting a PhD in Applied Physics and Materials Science at Stanford. But Musk never completed his PhD. In fact, he quit after two days to crack on with saving the world and everything.
Elon Musk's First Company
In 1995, Elon and Kimbal started a software company called Zip2. They developed an online city guide for the newspaper industry, providing interactive maps and yellow pages. This was a decade before the release of Google Maps and came just as the internet made its way into people's homes.
The brothers couldn't afford an apartment at the time, so they hired an office space in Palo Alto where they worked, ate, and slept. They had a single computer between them. The website was up during the day, and they coded and updated it at night.
"I found it rewarding to spend all night programming computers, just by myself... But I think that is not normal." - Elon Musk
How X.com Became PayPal
After selling Zip2, Elon Musk immediately invested $10 million into his next start-up company, X.com, which he ran with three other co-founders. The single-letter domain was a savvy acquisition made right before the dot com boom. But what would X.com do?
The company was ambitious. X.com became one of the first online banks whose funds were federally insured. The secure e-payment system attracted 200,000 customers in the first few months. But a power struggle between the founders soon saw Musk pulled as CEO, citing his lack of experience.
In its second year, X.com merged with its biggest competitor, Confinity, the owner of PayPal. Musk returned as CEO under the merger, only to clash with the creator of PayPal, Peter Thiel. As technical issues mounted, Musk was ousted once again and replaced by Thiel, who focused the company's resources on the PayPal platform.
The venture still paid off for Elon Musk. In 2002, eBay purchased the both payment platforms for $1.5 billion in stock, and as the largest shareholder, Musk received more than $100 million.
With the beauty of hindsight we can see that Elon's software companies were experiments in making money, of which he would need a great deal to go to space. And that's exactly where we go next.
SpaceX and Resuable Rockets
Enter Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, whose name can't be said without inducing unconscious thoughts of low-gravity love-making.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of designing, building, and operating reusable space rockets. He saw single-use rockets as a non-starter for a multiplanetary civilisation, and set his mind to dramatically reducing the cost of launching humans into space.
Finally, Elon could do what he had always dreamed of. He starting making space rockets. And that's when the real challenges began.
That same year, fresh out of a divorce, all three of his tech companies—SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity—were on the edge of bankruptcy.
"Always bear in mind that entropy is not on your side." - Elon Musk
But tenacity prevailed, and a fourth launch saw Falcon 1 make a successful round-trip to orbit, some 480km above Earth. Confidence was restored. SpaceX began developing larger orbital rockets, and NASA locked down Musk's Dragon spacecraft to start transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.
SpaceX's flagship vehicle, the Starship, made its first autonomous launch in December 2020. It reached a target altitude of 12.5km, made a controlled descent, then crash-landed due to lack of thrust on the landing burn.
The SpaceX team endured the heartache of three more failed landings before the fifteenth edition of the Starship made a successful flight. In May 2021, the spacecraft flew to an altitude of 10km and returned to the South Texas test site of Boca Chica.
The Starship is scheduled to make its first orbital flight in July 2022, which Musk expects could easily fail seeing as there's so much new ground to break. Further monthly test flights will help SpaceX refine the rocket with the goal of moving real payloads by 2023.
In 2024, the Starship will take people to the Moon as part of NASA's Artemis program, set to build a base camp on the surface and the Gateway depot in lunar orbit. The Moon project is built with three goals: scientific discovery, economic payoff, and inspiration for the next generation of astronauts.
That's a wild thought. And while we're getting our heads around a dozen astronauts poking around on Mars, Musk is planning to seed the alien planet with a permanent, self-sustaining population.
"Excluding organic growth [babies on Mars], if you could take 100 people at a time, you would need 10,000 trips to get to a million people." - Elon Musk
He elaborated that 10,000 trips excludes cargo to support those colonists. With cargo, we're looking at 100,000 trips to Mars to set up a one-million-person city.
But the first Mars city is more than a generation away. In his biography, Musk forecast that 80,000 colonists could bed down on Mars over the next 20 years. I don't know who these people are, or if the lifestyle could ever live up to the glory. But most of them are already alive, looking up the stars, and wondering.
Tesla and Self-Driving Cars
Let's back-up a little to discover the story of Tesla, electric cars, and autonomous vehicle technology.
In 2004, Musk invested $6.5 million in a young car company called Tesla. He took a lead role in the architecture of its electric vehicles, which led to the company being worth more than $1 trillion today. This is based on the EV line-up of the Tesla Roadster (2008), Model S (2012), Model X (2015), Model 3 (2017), Tesla Semi (2017), Model Y (2020), and the Cybertruck (due 2023).
To speed up the global transition to electric cars, Tesla sells its electric powertrain components and has opened up the patents to other car manufacturers. The goal is to break our addiction with petrol-guzzling autos, with Musk strongly in favour of a tax on carbon dioxide emissions.
Then there's the autonomous vehicle technology, designed to vastly improve safety and efficiency on roads by handing the driving over to computers.
"Autopilot is a good thing to have in planes, and we should have it in cars." - Elon Musk
Tesla uses its Dojo supercomputer to train its neural network algorithms and machine learning models faster than in the real world. With Dojo, Musk expects to release Level 5 FSD by 2023.
The transition to autonomous driving has attracted its critics. Yet Musk insists the overarching logic is sound. Human error is involved in 94% of serious crashes, killing 1.3 million people worldwide every year. These are violent, sudden deaths in people of all ages.
In terms of efficiency, Elon looks toward a time when all cars drive on autopilot. They'll communicate with each other in real-time for superior safety, at faster speeds, and all but eliminate traffic.
While more companies pile into electric cars and autopilot technology, Tesla has enjoyed a phenomenal boom in its valuation. Trading around $88 at the start of 2020, the price of Tesla stock peaked at $1,222 in 2021.
Neuralink and Brain-Machine Interfaces
Even while running Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk still had the time to team up with eight experts in neuroscience, biochemistry, and robotics to create Neuralink.
In 2016, the company joined the race to develop next-gen brain implants that will ultimately deliver therapeutic, cognitive, and recreational advancements.
Neurons are brain cells that communicate in tiny bursts of electricity. With neural implants, artificial neurons sit within the brain and join the conversation. The ongoing challenge is to make these implants smaller in size, yet larger in scope, to dramatically alter the experience of being human.
"I could have a Neuralink right now and you wouldn’t know." - Elon Musk
Neuralink improved the scope of implant technology with the Link, a brain-machine interface (BMI) with 3,072 electrodes that's been demonstrated in pigs. Pigs! They're basically human.
When it comes to actual human brains, the Link will create two-way communication channels that allow users to control their digital devices with their minds.
The long term goal of Neuralink is to offer the Link to everyone, ultimately creating a human-AI symbiosis.
Why? The scope of artificial intelligence is broadening. And when it surpasses human intelligence, it won't even need our input to evolve. It will run our stock markets, our social calendars, and our doctor appointments. It will tell us what to study, who to marry, and when to have babies.
And there's no knowing what the AI will want for itself. So rather than compete with this powerful synthetic lifeform, we actually need to merge with it. Today's Neuralink is a starting point for a high-bandwidth BMI that will allow us to control AI—before it controls us.
"We can actually go along for the ride... and we can effectively have the option of merging with AI." - Elon Musk
Read my full Neuralink explainer about the potential benefits, risks, and societal impacts of this wild technology.
Elon Musk Outside of Work
As a self-confessed workaholic known to push 120-hour work weeks, Musk doesn't really do spare time. But has has squeezed in a number of relationships and had more kids than most.
Elon met his first wife, Justine Wilson, while at university in Canada. They married in 2000. That same year, he took a trip home to South Africa, contracted malaria, and almost died.
Two years later, the couple had their first child, Nevada, only to suffer the profound tragedy of losing him to SIDS at 10 weeks old. They went on to use IVF to conceive twins and then triplets, who Musk described as "the love of my life".
Elon and Justine divorced after eight years, and he went on to have an on-off relationship with the actress Talulah Riley, marrying and divorcing twice between 2010 and 2016. That same year he had the misfortune of dating Amber Heard, now infamous for her highly suspect allegations against Johnny Depp.
In 2018, Musk settled down with the singer Grimes, aka Claire Boucher, and they had a son named X. They went on to have a daughter named Y who was carried via surrogacy. By 2022, their work split them between Texas and LA, and Musk declared himself single.
While seven kids sounds like overdrive for most of us, Musk assures us one of the biggest threats to civilisation is a population crash. He says that with birth rates declining all over the world, we aren't making enough people to labour and innovate in future. Without action, this scenario will manifest in the generational blink of an eye.
"Please look at the numbers—if people don't have more children, civilisation is going to crumble, mark my words." - Elon Musk
Beyond family planning, Musk has strong views on climate change, universal basic income, the existence of aliens, the dangers of artificial intelligence, and the likelihood that we're all living in a digital simulation.
"The strongest argument for us probably being in a simulation I think is the following: 40 years ago we had Pong—two rectangles and a dot. That's where we were. Now 40 years later we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it's getting better every year. And soon we'll have virtual reality, we'll have augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, just indistinguishable." - Elon Musk
He's referring to the Simulation Argument, a case put forward by the philosopher Nick Bostrom. It hangs on the idea that if such advanced simulation technology is possible, then we're already a part of it. Mathematically, the chance that we're living in the real world vs one of countless simulations is next to zero. Read Superintelligence for more terrifying ideas from Bostrom.
Billionaires take ever more criticism for their surplus wealth, especially now with COVID plunging an additional 97 million people into poverty. Yet Musk is keen to demonstrate that his resources are substantially directed at humanity.
He's got his fair share of critics. But between reducing carbon emissions and road deaths, safeguarding our species on a second planet, and tackling the coming AI dominion, I reckon Elon Musk's long-game is admirable.
"To anyone I've offended, I reinvented electric cars and I'm sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was going to be a chill, normal dude?" - Elon Musk