“Fuck Earth!” Elon Musk said to me, laughing. “Who cares about Earth?” We were sitting in his cubicle, in the front corner of a large open-plan office at SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles. It was a sunny afternoon, a Thursday, one of three designated weekdays Musk spends at SpaceX. Musk was laughing because he was joking: He cares a great deal about Earth. When he is not here at SpaceX, he is running an electric-car company. But this is his manner. On television Musk can seem solemn, but in person he tells jokes. He giggles. He says things that surprise you.
When I arrived, Musk was at his computer, powering through a stream of single-line email replies. I took a seat and glanced around at his workspace. There was a black leather couch and a large desk, empty but for a few wine bottles and awards. The windows looked out to a sunbaked parking lot. The vibe was ordinary, utilitarian, even boring. After a few minutes passed, I began to worry that Musk had forgotten about me, but then suddenly, and somewhat theatrically, he wheeled around, scooted his chair over, and extended his hand. “I’m Elon,” he said.
It was a nice gesture, but in the year 2014 Elon Musk doesn’t need much of an introduction. Not since Steve Jobs has an American technologist captured the cultural imagination like Musk. There are Tumblrs and subreddits devoted to him. He is the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. His life story has already become a legend. There is the alienated childhood in South Africa, the video game he invented at 12, his migration to the United States in the mid-1990s. Then the quick rise, beginning when Musk sold his software company Zip2 for $300 million at the age of 28, and continuing three years later, when he dealt PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion. And finally, the double down, when Musk decided idle hedonism wasn’t for him, and instead sank his fortune into a pair of unusually ambitious start-ups. With Tesla he would replace the world’s cars with electric vehicles, and with SpaceX he would colonize Mars. Automobile manufacturing and aerospace are mature industries, dominated by corporate behemoths with plush lobbying budgets and factories in all the right congressional districts. No matter. Musk would transform both, simultaneously, and he would do it within the space of a single generation.