Elon Musk just proved that his commercial rocket venture could reach the International Space Station. Now, he wants to show well-heeled motorists on Earth how to navigate without gasoline.
The California entrepreneur who heads companies at opposite ends of the state is hardly a household name. But he's emerging with a higher profile with the success of his cutting-edge, high-risk, ventures.
The back-to-back successes began last month when SpaceX — the Southern California rocket company where Musk is founder, CEO and "chief designer" — made its Dragon the first commercial spacecraft to dock at the International Space Station.
Then last Friday, Tesla Motors— the electric car company where Musk is co-founder and CEO — held a splashy ceremony at its cavernous factory here southeast of San Francisco to deliver the first of its new Model S electric luxury sedans. The four-door is rated by the government at up to 265 miles per charge for the costliest model, about three times more than mainstream electric cars.
Running either SpaceX or Tesla would be enough high-wire excitement for most CEOs. "There are a lot of easier ways to make money," Musk conceded in an interview at the Model S event. But Musk says he feels driven to have a personal hand in both. After years of development for both the rocket and the car, Musk is savoring the success. Yes, he acknowledges, he's on "a bit of a roll." But he's quick to add, "I don't want to sound complacent."
That's an unlikely accusation. Musk made a fortune as co-founder of online payment service PayPal, which was sold to eBay. At that point, he could have followed other Silicon Valley tycoons into early retirement and raised his five young sons.
Instead, Musk, who turned 41 last Thursday and recently split from his second wife, British actress Talulah Riley, plowed his money and his talent into not one but two costly, high-risk ventures.
One paid off with the flight of the Dragon spacecraft, lifted aloft by a Falcon 9 rocket, both products of Musk's Space Exploration Technologies — or SpaceX, for short. SpaceX is on track to carry out its government contract to ferry supplies to the station, taking over where the recently retired NASA space shuttles left off.
Now, naysayers are voicing doubts about whether Musk can make a success of Tesla. The company was founded in 2003 by Silicon Valley engineers bent on shedding electric cars' wimpy image.
Tesla sold more than 2,300 of its first effort — a high-performance, $109,000 electric roadster based on a heavily modified Lotus sports car — from the start of production in 2008 through the end of last year. Though it says the roadster was a moneymaker, Tesla never has made an annual profit. It survives on investor funds, Musk's included, and on taxpayer loans, having drawn $360.5 million of a $465 million federal energy loan as of March 31.
Musk insists he never intended to be CEO of Tesla, planning instead to spend only about 20% of his time on it. But in 2008, with the company struggling and the economy sinking, he says he had to make the transition from investor to boss. "I had a very tough choice," Musk says. "Either I apply a lot more time and be willing to absorb an enormous amount of pain, or Tesla would die."
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