Elon Musk Photo Credit: Flickr user oninnovatio via creative commons

The Space Entrepreneur

It’s true – South Africa is winning the space race. Or, more accurately, a South African is. This week, 40-year-old Elon Musk (from Pretoria) saw his private Falcon 9 rocket take off for the International Space Station: The first private rocket to do so. How does this affect YOUR future? Perhaps at a far deeper level than might appear at first glance…


With this week’s launch, a threshold has been crossed. As NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden declared, “Today marks the beginning of a new era in exploration.” Why? It’s the first private flight into space, replacing the space shuttle missions. NASA is no longer sending their own rockets up, but instead has given a $1.6 billion contract to Elon’s SpaceX company, and Elon has matched that with $1 billion of private funding to get the first of many rockets up into space…

$1 billion?? Where does a 40 year old get that kind of money? Elon actually got his start in the South African military, but he left at 19 for the US, saying “Serving in the South African army suppressing black people just didn’t seem like a really good way to spend time.”

Elon Musk Photo Credit: Flickr user oninnovatio via creative commons

‘X’ MARKS THE SPOT

Even in the army, at 19, he had dreams of space. As he later said “I’ve always been interested in space exploration as a mission, but I thought it wasn’t something that I could do right away because of its capital requirements. So I began by founding PayPal…”

In 1999, after arriving in the US, Elon started X.com, an online payment company. One year later, he bought Confinity, who had started PayPal. Elon wanted to use X.com as the brand name, but PayPal won out. Within two years, what started as a $10 million investment turned into a $1.5 billion sale to eBay. In the same year that PayPal was sold, Elon took the proceeds to start SpaceX, with the goal of interplanetary travel.

Fast Forward 10 years, and Elon is now worth over $2 billion. SpaceX has over 1,700 employees, and in his spare time, Elon has also launched and listed Tesla Motors, one of the world’s leading electric sports car companies, worth $3 billion on the stock market today, and SolarCity, the No.1 Solar company in the US…

THE AGE OF DISCOVERY

If you’ve seen Robert Downey Jr as the billionaire gadget-loving superhero, Iron Man (aka Tony Stark) the character is based on Elon Musk. Part of Iron Man 2 was filmed at the SpaceX factory. What does Elon think of this? As he tells SPACE.com “I guess we are making giant rockets – that’s kind of cool. I don’t have a suit of armor, though. I don’t fly around in a suit of armor.”

Not yet, anyway. Do you remember the days when it was COUNTRIES that ran big companies and sent people into space? Now the game has changed, and countries are betting on modern-day Iron Men like Elon instead. The last time this happened was 500 years ago…

520 years ago, to be exact. In 1492, Christopher Columbus cobbled together his first journey to the “New World”. Like Elon, half the money came from private hands (Italian investors) and the other half from public funds (The Spanish crown after Portugal turned him down).

Just as Elon has travelled from South Africa and got the funding of NASA, Columbus travelled from his homeland in Genoa to seek out the Spanish. There is another parallel – The explorers and notions of new lands 500 years ago spurred the “Man of unquenchable curiosity”, also known as the “Renaissance Man”. The idea of new frontiers led to the renaissance period also being known as the “Age of Discovery”.

We’re living in a similar age where we are not standing on the shoulders of giants as much as walking amongst them. When the frontiers of our civilisation are expanding around us – as long as you’re conscious of this history in the making – it is difficult not to be inspired to expand our own personal frontiers as well.

THE VALUE OF A BILLION DOLLAR MISSION

When in Silicon Valley, I met with Luke Nosek. Another young billionaire, one of the Paypal founders, on the board of SpaceX and part of what’s known as the ‘PayPal Mafia’ along with Elon and Peter Thiel, who I wrote about recently. Luke and Peter are the modern-day equivalent of Columbus’ Italian financiers. When I was with Luke, he was receiving text messages from Elon as the last Falcon test flight was taking place. When asked how he chooses the entrepreneurs to invest in, he said “If I hear an entrepreneur talk about ‘exit strategy’ I run a mile. I’m looking for people who have made it their life mission to make an impact in the world. I want to be with them for life. That’s where I want my money.”

His language is reminiscent of the Medicis, one of the main families that funded the great names of the Renaissance – driven by mission more than money.

Elon began, at 19, with a billion dollar mission – interplanetary travel. He isn’t in space now because he is a billionaire. He is a billionaire so he can go to space. This wasn’t possible 10 years ago, but today we live in a new world of mission-driven investors (both countries and individuals), attracted to the man with the mission.

YOUR TURN – BEAM ME UP SCOTTY

What, in your journey, is more real to you? Your departure point, or your destination?

Columbus’ departure point, Genoa, is no longer the same state it was when he was born. Over the last 500 years it became part of Spain, then Austria, then France, and now Italy. His name outlived his nation. NASA named their first space shuttle ‘Columbia’ after him.

What is it about hearing that South Africa is leading the space race that seems absurd, in a way that hearing a 40 year-old South African has taken over NASA’s job does not?

Today, it’s easier for an individual to pursue an unreasonable dream than for a country to.

We’re living in a new age of discovery. We’re walking in the company of giants. What unreasonable entrepreneurs with outsized dreams will you back? What size is your mission? What new worlds will you conquer or create?

If you’re ready, then, in the words of Captain Kirk “Beam me up, Scotty”

James Doohan, Image from StarTrek.com

>> Bonus trivia – Where’s James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty in Star Trek? He passed away in 2005 and his ashes have patiently waited for this week. As part of his final wishes, they are now peacefully orbiting earth on Elon’s rocket…

This article is originally published at Roger’s Facebook page.