The billion dollar rocket man: He’s the maverick tech tycoon who has just fired two NASA astronauts into orbit. From his turbulent love life to his bizarre business style, GUY ADAMS examines the life and times of Elon Musk
Except for one sticky moment when U.S. astronaut Doug Hurley appeared to clobber his head on an entry hatch as he crossed the threshold of the International Space Station, it all went like a dream.
At teatime yesterday, a 19-hour flight followed by a flawless piece of zero-orbit parking saw the Space X capsule reach its destination some 262 miles above Earth.
Watching was an audience of tens of millions bearing witness to a new chapter in space exploration: not only are Doug and his crewmate Bob Behnken the first Americans to fly from their own soil into space for almost nine years (in the interim, colleagues have been hitching pricey rides on Russian spacecraft) they are also the first astronauts to reach the ISS in a privately built rocket.
The pioneering duo blasted off from Titusville, Florida, on Saturday, watched by President Donald Trump and his deputy, Mike Pence. In the UK, the rocket was spotted passing below the moon just before 10pm.
Space X is the brainchild of Elon Musk (pictured left, with girlfriend Grime, right), a highly eccentric Silicon Valley tycoon who brought the world PayPal and Tesla cars, and is now devoting his $37 billion fortune to going where no man has gone before
En route, they enjoyed an eight-hour sleep, ate dinner and sent a short film back to Earth with footage of a ‘stowaway’: a toy dinosaur named Tremor the Apatosaurus, sent by their sons (aged six and ten) to keep them company. They will now spend up to four months at their destination.
To some, the so-far-successful mission recalls the heyday of American space exploration, when the world gathered round television sets to watch the likes of Neil Armstrong take giant leaps for mankind.
Yet the man behind this brave new era is no ordinary Nasa boffin.
Space X is the brainchild of Elon Musk, a highly eccentric Silicon Valley tycoon who brought the world PayPal and Tesla cars, and is now devoting his $37 billion fortune to going where no man has gone before.
Musk launched the firm in the early 2000s, announcing that he intends, within a few decades, not only to have put an astronaut on Mars, but also to be taking the first steps to establish a human colony there, thus ensuring mankind’s future, should Earth one day become uninhabitable.
Declaring himself ‘overcome with emotion’, he has, for now, managed to silence the doubters. So who is this eccentric rocket man?
Astronaut Bob Behnken arrives at the International Space Station and becomes one of two Americans to fly from their own soil into space for almost nine years
A troubled Childhood
Nicknamed ‘genius boy’, Elon Musk purportedly read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica in early childhood and learned to ‘code’ at the age of ten, within days of acquiring a computer. By 12, he’d created and sold his first tech product, a video game called Blastar, for £500.
It was not, however, a happy childhood. The 48-year-old was born in apartheid-era South Africa, one of three children of engineer Errol Musk and his author wife, Maye. His parents divorced when he was eight.
At school, he was badly bullied, once beaten so badly he spent a fortnight in hospital. At home, things were barely better. Errol, from whom he’s been estranged for years, was a strict disciplinarian allegedly fond of corporal punishment. In 2018, it emerged that Errol had a fathered child with his stepdaughter Jana. Musk told Rolling Stone magazine that Errol is ‘a terrible human being’.
Off to AMERICA…
By the age of 17, Musk was desperate to escape South Africa and his overbearing dad, so decided to head for Canada, where his mother Maye had grown up.
He arrived without a penny to his name, relying on the generosity of relatives for accommodation and living for weeks at a time off economy-size bags of hot dogs.
Eventually, he won a place at the University of Pennsylvania to study Economics and Physics. After graduating, Musk headed west, to Silicon Valley, where in 1995 he was accepted onto a PhD course at the prestigious Stanford University. However, he dropped out during his first week to start a business called Zip2, which developed software for media companies.
The timing could not have been better: Zip2 rode the internet boom and was sold in 1999 for an astonishing $341 million, netting Musk a $22 million cut. But that was just the start . . .
Musk proceeded to join the ranks of the global super-rich via his next bet: an online bank called X.com, which was eventually sold to eBay in 2002, earning him roughly $180 million —after tax.
The cash allowed him to dream big. That year he founded SpaceX, announcing that his end goal was to build a ‘BFR’ — or ‘Big F*****g Rocket’ — to help mankind colonise Mars before over-population renders Earth uninhabitable.
In 2003 and 2004, Musk also made timely bets on the alternative energy sector, founding a company called Solarcity, which is now America’s largest installer of solar panels, and Tesla, the luxury electric car firm, which has revolutionised the motor industry.
His logic was that helping to wean the world off oil would buy us extra time to address global warming, should the colonisation of Mars take longer than expected.
Tangled love life
Wealth and success appear to have made the once geeky Musk very attractive to women.
But the entrepreneur is a proud and unapologetic workaholic who famously boasted ‘nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week’.
His first wife, Justine Wilson, a fantasy novelist whom he’d met at university, grew tired of spending all day at home with their five sons — a set of twins and triplets.
She announced around the time of their 2008 divorce: ‘Elon’s central relationship is with his work.’ Within weeks, Musk had moved on to the British actress Talulah Riley, whom he married, then divorced in 2012, remarried in 2013, but then divorced for a second time in 2015.
U.S. astronauts Doug Hurley and his crewmate Bob Behnken are the first astronauts to reach the ISS in a privately built rocket
After a year-long dalliance with Johnny Depp’s ex, Hollywood actress Amber Heard, Musk began stepping out with a Canadian indie musician known as Grimes.
Their son, who was born earlier this month, made headlines after the couple attempted, for reasons best known to themselves, to register his name as ‘X Æ A-12’ (pronounced ‘Ex ash A twelve’). Californian authorities refused to play ball, on the grounds that it’s illegal to use numbers in a name, so the couple had to eventually make do with ‘X Æ A-Xii’.
In a recent interview, Grimes, whose real name is Claire Boucher, told Bloomberg that around the house, the baby is actually known as ‘Little X’.
Digging a hole…
Stuck in a traffic jam just before Christmas 2016, Musk took to Twitter to declare ‘I am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging’, to create an alternative transport network deep underground in his home city of Los Angeles.
He duly launched The Boring Company, a firm designed to pursue that very aim.
Two years later, in June 2018, Musk decided that it could help save a dozen members of a youth football team trapped a vast cave complex in northern Thailand.
Musk arrived at the scene with a child-sized submarine, which he claimed would be able to act as a sort of escape pod.
However, experts were sceptical, with one rescue diver, a British national called Vernon Unsworth, telling CNN that the whole thing was a PR stunt and that the South African could ‘stick his submarine where it hurts’.
Musk responded via Twitter, branding Unsworth, who has a younger Thai partner, ‘pedo guy’.
The Briton responded by suing for defamation in California, seeking $190 million. In court, Musk apologised for the slur but alleged that he did not mean to suggest that Unsworth had actually molested a child.
The jury agreed, leading Musk to declare: ‘My faith in humanity is restored!’
SpaceX CEO and owner Elon Musk celebrates after the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft on NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station
Drink and drugs
Sending men into space is a dangerous and complex task that requires clear heads, sharp thinking, and an extraordinary eye for detail. Especially when American taxpayers are footing the bill.
All of which explains the almighty kerfuffle that ensued in September 2018, when a dishevelled-looking Musk appeared on a podcast and proceeded to drink copious quantities of whisky and smoke a large marijuana cigarette, while discussing his life and times.
Film of the appearance, in which the puce-faced tech tycoon coughed and spluttered his way through a haze of cannabis smoke, rapidly went viral, prompting Nasa to launch an urgent investigation into SpaceX’s ‘adherence to a drug-free environment’. The Pentagon decided to review his Federal security clearance.
Chastened, Musk shoehorned himself into a suit and tie for a more formal TV interview. ‘I do not smoke pot,’ he said. ‘As anyone who has watched that podcast could tell, I have no idea how to smoke pot.’
Much like President Trump, Musk is a compulsive user of Twitter, posting endlessly on the site, often at odd hours of the day and night.
This does not always dovetail well with his role as boss of Tesla, a $150billion company traded on the Nasdaq, which can make market-sensitive information public only in strictly regulated circumstances.
Around the same time as the pot-smoking controversy, he suddenly used the social network to announce that he had ‘funding secured’ to take his car company Tesla private at $420 a share. The message may have been intended as a joke (‘420’ is slang for marijuana), but regulators did not see the funny side since Tesla shares were then trading at 20 per cent less than the supposed price.
An investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates U.S. markets, duly saw Musk charged with securities fraud.
In a settlement reached in late 2018, he agreed to step down as Tesla chairman for three years, pay a $20 million fine, and grant a company lawyer oversight of future Tweets.
Yet last month, Musk embarked on a lengthy rant on the site during which he promised to sell ‘almost all’ his physical possessions and declared that Tesla’s share price was ‘too high’, sending it down by nearly 12 per cent in half an hour.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has yet to comment on what action, if any, it plans to take.
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