Rocket Man

Billionaire Elon Musk is getting America back in the space game

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Andrew Harrer—Getty Images

Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Tesla Motors Inc., speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. Musk said SpaceX is developing a reusable rocket.

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Musk has been compared to Tony Stark--the brilliant industrialist and inventor who, in his off-hours, becomes Iron Man--and the SpaceX factory has even been used as a set in one of the Iron Man movies. The comparison--with the exception of the costumed-superhero part--is not entirely unapt. Musk's business plan was not supposed to work, and yet it does. His spacecraft were not supposed to fly, and yet they do. What Bill Gates was to the operating system and Steve Jobs was to sleek, ingenious and elegant design, Musk may be to rockets. That's starting to look like a very good thing for America's future in space, and never mind any faux humility, Musk himself will tell you so.

"In terms of things that are actually launching," he says, "we are the American space program."

Insanely Great 2.0

The first mistake i made when i visited Musk in his Hawthorne office was to touch the very big sword on his desk--or at least touch it the wrong way. The sword had been awarded to him a few months before by the Heinlein Society, named after legendary science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Musk is proud of the sword, but when he handed it to me to examine, I grabbed it partly by the blade. That leaves fingerprints, and fingerprints carry oil, and oil spoils the finish. He quickly called to an assistant for a cloth to restore the shine.

Musk is not so much fastidious as he is contained. His speaks with the kind of quiet intensity that, when it comes from someone who corners you at a party, can cross the line into crazyland. From Musk it just seems well thought out and deeply felt. His extremely uncluttered desk is in a large corner cubicle in a vast plain of cubicles in what was once an assembly factory for Boeing aircraft fuselages. A few people at SpaceX have offices with doors--financial guys or engineers working on extremely proprietary designs--but the CEO doesn't.

Pictures of Musk's five young sons--a set of triplets and a set of twins--hang above the desk. The boys are the product of his first marriage, to Justine Musk, author of BloodAngel and other fantasy books. His second marriage, to British actress Talulah Riley, ended this year. Musk tweeted about that too: "It was an amazing four years. I will love you forever. You will make someone very happy one day."

Musk also keeps a small collection of books on his desk--a sort of autodidact's guide on how to build rockets: Huzel and Huang on the fundamentals of liquid propellants, Sutton and Biblarz on propulsion elements, J.E. Gordon's Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down. Next to them is one other book: Einstein, by Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson. It's not clear which, if either, of Isaacson's subjects Musk sees himself in. Maybe both.

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