In Their Own Words was made possible in part by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.
Spike Feresten: What is it about Elon Musk?
He's at once a genius and a fool.
(audience cheering) Narrator: He is quite possibly the most polarizing public figure in business today.
Elon Musk: Doing a startup is, at the beginning, it's like eating glass and staring into the abyss.
Tim Higgins: It depends on the day, he's either the hero or the villain.
And that's why he's such a complicated figure.
Narrator: Love him or hate him, Elon Musk is in a relentless pursuit to change life on Earth by giving us a chance to leave it behind.
- Lift off!
- And lift off!
Elon Musk: I've thought about what are the things that are most gonna affect the future of humanity?
And the three things I came up with were the internet, transitioning to a sustainable energy economy, and the third was space exploration.
Eric Berger: He feels as long as humans are on one planet, we're vulnerable to all sorts of catastrophes.
- We're at Stage One!
- Good lift off indication.
(rocket roaring) We have liftoff!
Tim Urban: To Elon, it is so obvious that you have to try to keep the light of human consciousness alive.
And it would be so sad, so utterly heartbreaking if it, if it went out like a candle.
Narrator: Bullied as a teen, young Elon escaped by immersing himself in fantastical stories about the future.
Anna Crowley: It becomes part of a bigger inquiry into where we are as a civilization, as humanity, and where we should be going.
Narrator: His drive to succeed, coupled with a sharp mind, would propel him to early success in the tech world.
Higgins: It's almost as if he delights in showing the world that he can do something that people said was impossible.
Narrator: As the money rolled in, Elon set his sights on the future he had read about years before.
But like all disrupters, his path hasn't been easy.
No one could stand in the way of his boundless vision of a new world.
Higgins: Elon Musk is all about defiance, he's not gonna hold back.
Tim Fernholz: I think that's a very interesting blind spot for Elon, the suffering of his employees sometimes.
Narrator: But Elon Musk remains unapologetic... Garrett Reisman: He's so determined to accomplish those goals that if it hurts somebody's feelings, that's not gonna stop him.
Narrator: ...and ever driven to reach beyond what anyone but him thought was possible.
Higgins: Building rockets to go into space, building sports cars, dating actresses, appearing on TV.
He is living every nerdy boy's dream life.
♪ (triumphant music) ♪ ♪ ♪ (explosion) ♪ (dramatic music) ♪ ♪ (dramatic music) ♪ Tim Fernholz: The first three rockets were paid for by about a hundred million dollars out of his own pocket.
♪ ♪ And there was a point where he thought that was all gonna go down the drain.
♪ ♪ 2008 was a year where SpaceX was in trouble, Tesla was in trouble-- Tim Urban: Both starting to fail.
Crowley: At the same time, personally, he is going through a high profile, expensive divorce.
♪ ♪ Tim Urban: That was probably the worst year of his life.
Berger: So for SpaceX, they had one final chance.
They had the parts for a fourth rocket, but they were out of money.
Like they were...weeks away from missing payroll, so Elon said, you have six weeks.
♪ ♪ We gotta build this rocket, and launch it to orbit, or we're done.
Controller: Five...four... Crowley: This is it, this is do or die.
Controller: Three...two... one...zero.
♪ (dramatic music fading) ♪ ♪ (gentle music) ♪ ♪ ♪ Crowley: Elon Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa.
♪ ♪ When he was 8 years old, his parents divorced, and Elon was desperately unhappy at home.
♪ ♪ Tim Urban: Elon was picked on, and beaten up as a teen in school.
♪ ♪ He read a ton of sci-fi, and still does.
I think he, like a lot of people who are building things for the future, whether it's in science or in tech, they find sci-fi to be an inspiration, because the sci-fi writers are professional imagination people.
♪ (upbeat futuristic music) ♪ Kurt Knutsson: The fantastical escapism of these novels is what sparked a life-long interest in the trajectory of the human race.
Crowley: It becomes part of a bigger investigation and inquiry into where we are as a civilization, as humanity, and where we should be going.
And he started to see this pattern, that an unlikely hero come out from last place, and save the world.
Berger: He grew up in the 1970's and 80's... with the Jetsons, the Space Shuttle was coming online, it was gonna open up the solar system.
He could envision this bright future of humans as a multi-planetary space-faring species.
How I would react to that, I'd go watch Star Wars or just something like that to give me that kind of adrenaline burst.
But his mindset is, well, this is a problem, what can we do to solve it?
Knutsson: But for Elon, it wasn't all fantasy, he had a natural aptitude for math and science.
It was off the charts.
Higgins: They called him 'encyclopedia,' because he memorized the encyclopedia and you can imagine a situation, where you got this kid who's got a lot of intelligence, he has talked about how at times he felt like perhaps he was crazy, because he had all these wild ideas, and he realized other people didn't have the same kind of thing.
♪ Musk: I actually had a computer and it was a Commodore Vic 20, then I got some books on how to teach yourself programming.
And this was like the coolest thing I'd ever seen.
♪ Maye Musk: He'd spent most of the time on the computer, and then he wrote his first computer program at 12.
He showed it to me and I was at the university, then doing my Master of Science degree, and I showed it to the engineering students and they said "Oh, he knows all the shortcuts!"
So, I said to Elon you should submit it to a computer magazine, and he did!
Matt Pressman: He actually programmed a video game called Blastar by himself and he sold that video game for $500.
So his first entrepreneurial venture was when he was 12 years old.
♪ (soft dramatic music) ♪ Knutsson: When Elon was 17, his genius earned him a scholarship to Queen's University in Canada.
♪ (upbeat dramatic music) ♪ ♪ ♪ Crowley: When Elon is at Queen's University in Ontario, he gets an internship at the Bank of Nova Scotia.
And as is typical with Elon, he spends the summer learning everything he can about banking.
♪ ♪ Knutsson: After two years at Queen's, Elon heads off to the University of Pennsylvania for a dual degree he earns in both physics and economics.
Four years later, he's off to Silicon Valley, where he's at Stanford University, and he's pursuing a Ph.D. in energy physics.
♪ (upbeat dramatic music) ♪ ♪ ♪ Crowley: Being at Stanford at that time in the 90's was like a golden ticket.
Knutsson: This thing called the internet, it was so far-fetched to most people, but it wasn't for Elon Musk.
♪ (upbeat dramatic music) ♪ ♪ ♪ Crowley: He decides to leave Stanford on day two.
Urban: When it comes to school, he sees it as a data download.
It's a way to... get knowledge, right?
But there's lots of ways to get knowledge.
And one of the things he said is that he thinks school is a slow data download, like an incredibly inefficient way to get that data.
♪ (soft dramatic music) ♪ Knutsson: In 1995, Silicon Valley was full of 20-somethings.
They had dreams and ideas, and what they were doing is creating the digital age.
♪ (soft dramatic music) ♪ ♪ Crowley: There is so much happening in terms of developing technology to be used on the internet.
Man: The Valley is where it's all happening at the moment in terms of the internet, and the companies and the things they're doing over here are six, six months to a year ahead of what we're doing in the UK.
Elon Musk: At the time in '95, nobody was making any money on the internet.
And in fact, when we tried to get funding, more than half of the venture capitalists we met with did not know what the internet was and had not used it.
♪ (soft dramatic music) ♪ Crowley: When you think of internet tech startup, you might think of like Google's headquarters, hanging out, gaming together.
This was not that situation.
Knutsson: They weren't thinking about what money they'd earn from this.
They wanted to change the future, and that's what was important.
Crowley: Kimbal and Elon were living in their tiny office, and it was very cramped quarters.
They were across the street from a fitness club, so they could go there during the day and have a shower.
It was bare bones.
Urban: You know, the classic scrappy startup story.
Knutsson: For just about four years, they're on the phone, trying to teach internet 101 to just about any customer or investor.
Crowley: It was a huge hurdle to overcome explaining that.
♪ Knutsson: Newspapers saw the potential, early adopters at digitizing articles, so Elon sells them on it, they pay him a bunch of money.
Elon takes some of that money for R&D of his next idea, digitizing phone books.
♪ (dramatic music) ♪ Crowley: If you think back to that period of time, if people wanted to find a business, you had to open something called the Yellow Pages, which were paid ads in this paper, physical book.
So, what Elon figured out is what if you used the internet to give you the listing of your business, and turn by turn directions to get there?
Knutsson: Elon, along with his younger brother Kimbal, who he'd convinced to join him from Canada, created Zip2.
♪ (dramatic music) ♪ Crowley: This was revolutionary thinking.
It was a brand new idea.
♪ ♪ Knutsson: Compaq Computers understood the value of digitizing information like phone books, so they end up buying Zip2.
Crowley: Elon sold that company for $307 million dollars.
And he personally made $22 million from the sale of Zip2.
♪ ♪ Knutsson: This is the beginning of a process that Elon Musk would use for success.
Make it, and then sink it all into the next venture.
Feresten: People say that he sunk all of that money into his company.
He bought a million dollar McLaren F1... (chuckles) first!
(laughs) Which I admire.
I like that!
Elon Musk: Wow, I can't believe it's actually here.
It's pretty wild, man!
There are 62 McLarens in the world, and I will own one of them.
(engine revving smoothly) It's just a moment in my life!
(laughter) Knutsson: After the McLaren, he goes all in on his next mission.
Crowley: So Elon decides to take this windfall, and invest it in a new startup, which he called x.com Knutsson: In 1999, the idea of telling somebody that their money is gonna be online in some form, was outrageous and completely foreign.
Crowley: If you wanted to buy something, that was in California, and you're sitting in New York, you had two options.
You could send a paper check in the mail and they would wait, or you could call them over the phone, and give them your credit card number and hope that you are working with a reputable person.
Those were your options.
Elon began to think about his internship for the bank of Nova Scotia and what he learned there, and he realizes that the internet is a perfect vehicle for moving money around in a digital way.
Knutsson: On Thanksgiving in 1999, Elon launches x.com.
Despite it being way ahead of its time, a hundred thousand people sign up within 30 days.
- A big, big X. Elon Musk: Exactly!
Knutsson: Around the same time there's another digital payment startup called Confinity, a tech entrepreneur named Peter Thiel is behind it.
What Elon loves is how easy to use their interface is, so he merges x.com with Confinity.
Crowley: This company goes through a name change and becomes PayPal.
It was rough going, getting the two teams who had been die-hard competitors on the same page.
♪ (soft dramatic music) ♪ Higgins: Meanwhile, his girlfriend Justine, she eventually comes out to Silicon Valley where he has started his companies, she's there alongside him, they tie the knot, and on the way to the honeymoon, his colleagues at PayPal felt like he was making things overly complex, and they didn't like his, his management style in general.
And so, while he was heading towards his honeymoon, there essentially was a coup, and he was booted from the role as CEO.
♪ (dramatic music) ♪ He flies back, deals with that.
So ultimately, then they try to take another honeymoon, and on this honeymoon, he gets malaria that by all accounts, nearly does him in.
♪ ♪ And on his near death bed, he is thinking about what he's done with his life and what he could do next, and this is where you kind of see the origins of kind of the next chapter of his life.
He wants to take big chances and try to have an impact for the world.
Crowley: So he's out of the company as CEO, but stays on as an advisor.
When eBay buys PayPal, Elon makes $180 million from that sale.
Fernholz: If I had $100 million dollars, I would retire to Tahiti.
It would be great.
Elon Musk: The idea of lying on a beach as my main thing, just sounds horrible to me.
I would go bonkers.
I would have to be on serious drugs.
Fernholz: Elon took it all and put it into the riskiest business imaginable.
Crowley: Space exploration.
Urban: Conventional wisdom says starting a company is scary.
Conventional wisdom says, when you sell PayPal, and make over $100 million dollars, you definitely need to make sure you're rich for the rest of your life.
Elon doesn't care what conventional wisdom says.
He said, what's the worst that's going to happen, if I put all this money down on something, that I think is incredibly important?
Then I lose it!
In the end, is it really the end of the world?
And so, Elon has the same appetite for risk that the rest of us have, it's just that he defines risk very differently.
♪ (soft dramatic music) ♪ ♪ ♪ After PayPal, he took a sharp turn and never looked back.
And that turn was towards how can we reduce existential risk and give humanity the best shot of a good and long future?
Knutsson: I think if you look back at his childhood and the fantastical stories in these novels about how the world would come to an end and he thought, 'Hey, how do I fix that?'
So it should come as no surprise, really that he aimed towards saving mankind.
Elon Musk: I always thought that we would make much more progress in space.
When we went to the moon, we were supposed to have a base on the moon, we're supposed to send people to Mars.
And that stuff just, it just didn't happen.
We went backwards.
It was really disappointing.
♪ (music fading) ♪ (rocket engine roaring) Miles O'Brien: Now, those of us who grew up in the Apollo days and were sprinkled by moon dust, expected we would have colonies on Mars by the mid 1980's.
Well this never happened.
NASA had not put Mars on its agenda.
♪ Reisman: In the early days of Apollo, NASA was very forward-leaning and innovative and trying all kinds of new things.
I think what's really changed NASA were the tragedies.
♪ We had first, Apollo One.
♪ Then we had Challenger... ♪ ...and then we had Columbia.
♪ (soft dramatic music) ♪ Berger: At NASA, one of the most famous mottos of the agency is 'failure is not an option'.
So when people are in space, you can't really afford to fail.
The problem is that mindset transcended everything the agency did, and it reinforced this risk-averse culture.
O'Brien: NASA became much more entrenched, much more bureaucratic, and took bold destinations, bold journeys, frankly, off their agenda.
Berger: Elon Musk worries a lot about the fate of humanity.
He feels as long as humans are on one planet, we're vulnerable to all sorts of catastrophes.
Crowley: There could be an incoming asteroid that could eliminate life on Earth as we know it.
That we cannot solve climate change and that our planet is no longer habitable for humans.
Reisman: The reason he wants us to be a space faring civilization is for survival of the species.
There's nothing less important than that.
Higgins: In a lot of ways he's the world's greatest prepper.
Tim Urban: To understand why he does what he does, you need to take that huge step back and understand how he sees humanity.
The big, big picture.
And once you understand that, it's actually very obvious why he's doing what he's doing.
To Elon, it is so obvious that you have to try to keep the light of human consciousness alive.
And it would be so sad, so utterly heartbreaking if it went out like a candle.
♪ ♪ Berger: And so he started thinking about what's the best option in our solar system.
And Mars as imperfect as it is, is the best place for us to start learning to survive on other worlds.
♪ The end of 2001, he began looking in to see what NASA was doing about sending humans to Mars.
Urban: Elon actually went to the NASA website and was saying, 'what's the Mars effort look like?'
And he realized, there was no Mars effort at all.
O'Brien: Elon realized first of all, that getting anything into space was ridiculously expensive.
Crowley: Keep in mind at that time, the only really big players in space were government funded.
Berger: The way it had worked for decades was that NASA and the Department of Defense would decide that they needed a particular rocket or a particular satellite or a particular spacecraft.
And then they would go to industry and they would put out a request, how much could you do it for, and how soon could you do it?
O'Brien: The government owns everything.
They're hiring a contractor to build it precisely to their specs.
And the contractor is charging an hourly rate to build, this case, the rocket.
Well, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that the slower it goes, the more you make.
How perverse is that?
So there was no incentive up to that point, to make it any cheaper.
Elon saw the niche right away, as it's not so much a lack of vision.
It's a lack of affordable rockets.
Crowley: During this process of exploring that, Elon thinks, "what if I bought a rocket?"
And he realizes the only way to do that is to buy some ICBMs or Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles.
O'Brien: So he thought, well, the cheap way to do it, we'll go to the Russians, who need some money and we'll buy an ICBM.
But he discovered that the Russians drive very hard bargains and did not take him seriously at all.
♪ (soft dramatic music) ♪ Matt Pressman: On the plane ride back to the U.S., they saw him reading a Russian rocket manual translated into English.
And he just decided, I'm gonna do this myself.
Urban: I'm just gonna start a company that colonizes Mars, we don't need NASA.
We don't need the U.S. or Russia.
I'm gonna do it.
O'Brien: Then he starts thinking, "well, why don't I just build my own rocket?"
Elon Musk: We're looking for great people of all kinds to join the company, so if you're interested, please send us your resume.
O'Brien: This is a classic tale of a disruptive force in a market.
It almost seemed insurmountable to most of us, and that's why we all laughed at him.
♪ ♪ ♪ (dramatic music) ♪ Pressman: At the same time as he's starting SpaceX, he was very interested in this idea of launching an electric car company.
Higgins: Tesla in its early stages was an idea.
It was a business plan that thought there might be a market for an electric sports car and had some ideas on how to do it, but it needed funding.
Pressman: The original founders had this idea to create an electric car using computer batteries.
Elon became very interested in this concept.
And soon after that, he became an initial investor and a founder in the business.
Elon Musk: I mean, fundamentally we have a delayed gratification issue, collectively as a species, like, are we willing to sacrifice the near term for the long term?
♪ (soft dramatic music) ♪ Urban: The goal was to start Tesla, and have someone else be the CEO.
And so he never intended to be the CEO of two companies.
Uh, but that's what ended up happening.
♪ ♪ Feresten: Before Tesla, electric cars were pretty much dead.
It was pretty much an idea that had failed before and was going nowhere, fast.
Crowley: They were dorky, they didn't go very far.
I mean, you would be kind of embarrassed.
You wouldn't show up to a job in that, and you certainly wouldn't show up to a date driving an electric vehicle.
♪ ♪ Urban: The goal of Tesla was never to become a giant car company.
It's to become a company that is a catalyst for a paradigm shift.
Pressman: It really started with him trying to figure out a way in which he could capture the world's attention with electric cars.
Elon Musk: Their idea of an electric car is something that doesn't look good, isn't fast, it doesn't have high performance, has low range.
We wanted to break the mold of all of that.
And so do something that was beautiful, had high acceleration, incredible handling, had tons of capability, lots of room, and really was better than any gasoline car.
Crowley: Elon sees this potential, to come in at the extreme high end, with a luxury electric vehicle.
And that if you made driving them cool, if they were reliable, if they actually went a distance, he could see a way forward for this company.
And that a company like that could help the world get off of its dependence on oil.
Urban: He's trying to create a car so good, that everyone wants it, every car company has to start making it, and eventually it's the car that everyone drives.
Then it's like the iPhone of cars.
♪ (dramatic music) ♪ ♪ (music fading) ♪ Elon Musk: Doing a startup is, at the beginning, it's like eating glass and staring into the abyss.
It's not fun."
Higgins: Elon Musk's attention was at SpaceX, but as the Tesla went down the road, it was becoming clearer and clearer that it was going to be a lot harder to make the Roadster than everybody originally thought.
Costs were getting out of control, deadlines were being missed, and Elon Musk starts to wonder about what's happening.
Crowley: At the same time Tesla is developing the Roadster, SpaceX, they were now developing a rocket.
Reisman: Up until this point, NASA had only used expendable rockets and it was just not affordable.
Fernholz: He really believes reusable rockets are the only path forward for cost effective space access.
Elon was saying, you know, I'm gonna make a reusable rocket to go to Mars.
And everyone was saying, 'this is impossible.'
So SpaceX began creating a small rocket called the Falcon One.
♪ Elon Musk: It's not a question of will, it's a question of showing that there's a way.
Berger: No one's paying SpaceX to build that rocket.
Crowley: This wasn't money from other investors.
This was his personal fortune in the game.
Interviewer: So you had a budget of about a hundred million?
Something like that?
Elon: Well I was hoping it would be less than that, but, uh, I mean, I couldn't, I couldn't spend much more than that.
Astronaut: Okay, Houston, I'm gonna change lenses on you.
O'Brien: "Failure is not an option" is the famous NASA phrase.
And...it is absolutely the opposite of the way Elon Musk thinks.
Berger: Failure is an option at SpaceX.
And while he didn't like to fail, he realized that failing was part of going fast.
Fernholz: It is a willingness to accept risks and to iterate quickly, to test hardware, to accept failure, that is not part of NASA's culture.
Elon Musk: And there should be an expectation that, that failure is highly likely.
Urban: When SpaceX started, you know, it was funded by Elon and, you know, he had money from PayPal, but not that much, and rocket launches are really expensive.
So they had to show that they really were a real company that could truly launch something into space successfully.
So they could get a contract from NASA, so that they could actually have funding to keep going.
Fernholz: NASA's deputy administrator at that time, Lori Garver, she saw how NASA was just not living up to what it could be.
♪ (soft dramatic music) ♪ Lori Garver: I believed in the concept, that the private sector, properly incentivized, could do something better and cheaper, more efficiently for sure, than the government, Because we had been doing it for 60 years.
O'Brien: Lori Garver said, "the fastest way for Americans to get back into space on a rocket, is to rethink how we do business."
So she's a crucial player in all of this.
Certainly, we would not see Elon where he is now, if Lori Garver hadn't been in that job.
Garver: Elon didn't play the game.
Like, these are big aerospace companies.
These are defense contractors, and it's a club, and it's a very exclusive club, a hundreds of billions of dollars a year business.
And they weren't going to go quietly into the night.
Reisman: There was a big difference in corporate culture between the entire aerospace industry and SpaceX, no question about it.
The aerospace industry had a certain way of doing things.
And then you had this upstart, you know, this SpaceX, that really had Silicon Valley in the DNA, that was out there with the status quo as the enemy.
Garver: There were a lot of things about Elon and SpaceX that the aerospace community didn't like.
That combination of being y'know, not from here, he's South African, he's Canadian, he's young.
And the aerospace community in my view, used those things to try and put more negativity on him and SpaceX.
They were scared.
Reisman: I remember once we had this meeting with some NASA officials, some very high level NASA officials, and they were talking about how we don't have enough meetings at SpaceX, and Elon said, "why do you think we need to have more meetings?"
They said, well, at NASA, in meetings, that's how we make decisions.
That's how we get stuff done.
And I sat there and I cringed, you know, having been a former NASA guy, I just knew what was going through Elon's mind hearing this, losing respect by the nanosecond.
(laughter) ♪ Garver: I was in meetings in the Pentagon for years, where they would make fun of Elon and me, for even pushing for NASA to invest in these new ways of doing space transportation.
And they believed that they would never, never trust their very precious military satellites to... 'that kid.'
And they like to believe what they do was so hard and so special, and maybe even secret, that no one else could do it.
♪ Urban: Elon predicted they had, you know, three, maybe four tries, before he ran out of money.
♪ Berger: The first launch attempt was in March of 2006.
(rocket rumbling) At that point, the company was not quite four years old.
They'd built their first rocket, (rocket blast roaring) and the engine caught on fire seconds before the launch, because there was a fuel leak.
The rocket went up for about 30 seconds and then the engine petered out and it came crashing back to Earth.
O'Brien: We would look at that and say, oh, that was a failure.
And he was like, "no, that was actually 80% success!"
And if you're not at that kind of ratty edge of what's possible, how are you gonna know, until you have a failure?
And this is the insight which Elon Musk, of course, embraced.
Reisman: At SpaceX, Elon would tell us things like, "take 15 minutes every day and sit down at your desk and think about something you've been doing the same way, for like a year or longer.
You've probably missed an opportunity to do it better."
(rocket roaring) Berger: After the first launch, they matured a lot.
and they made improvements to the rocket.
And so, they were more confident by the time they got to the second launch, a year later.
Controller: Three, two, one-- (rocket roaring) We have lift off!
- We have lift off.
Berger: The first stage performed normally, it burned for more than two minutes, got up into space.
And the second stage pulled away.
- Stages are separated!
Berger: Things were going great, but then the second stage started oscillating and then spinning, due to a fuel sloshing issue in that upper stage.
And that rocket almost made it to orbit.
Fernholz: Everyone has seen the videos of Elon trying to make the reusable rocket work, blowing up again and again, as it crashes into the ocean.
And that would never fly at NASA, y'know, NASA would have a congressional hearing and they would be saying, why are you blowing up these rockets?
We're canceling the program, stop it!
And that's a problem for NASA's culture.
It makes it hard for them to innovate.
Whereas for Elon, you know, he blows up a rocket, and he makes a joke on Twitter about rapid unexpected disassembly.
And that is a huge culture clash between the space establishment and Elon Musk.
Berger: And so, that sets the stage for the third launch of the Falcon One rocket in early August of 2008.
♪ (upbeat dramatic music) ♪ (rocket engine roaring) ♪ ♪ They were counting on success.
And what happened was right when the second stage was supposed to take off and pull away, the first stage engine shut off, but then it restarted, and it bumped into the second stage.
And so they lost that vehicle.
At that point they were almost out of money, and it was devastating.
Crowley: That was a very difficult year.
Fernholz: Those first three rockets were paid for by about a hundred million dollars out of his own pocket.
And there was a point where he thought that was all gonna go down the drain.
Urban: That was probably the worst year of his life.
Fernholz: 2008 was a year where SpaceX was in trouble, Tesla was in trouble.
Higgins: There's a debate about what Tesla should become.
Some think the company perhaps is more valuable being an automotive supplier, selling the battery technology to other companies.
Elon wants to ensure that it is an electric car company to usher in that new world.
Urban: SpaceX and Tesla are both starting to fail.
Higgins: I remember talking to some people who were, would watch him on the phone with his money manager saying, "we gotta raise money, I gotta make payroll."
Urban: He actually was getting divorced the same year.
Knutsson: Elon had married his college girlfriend.
The marriage lasted eight years.
They had six children total, including triplets and twins, all boys.
One of those boys passed away of SIDS.
Berger: It was an enormously stressful time in terms of emotion, in terms of finances, and both of his companies were basically failing.
Well, for SpaceX, they had one final chance.
They had the parts for a fourth rocket, and the team to assemble it and launch it, but they were out of money.
Like they were, they were weeks away from missing payroll, and so Elon got his team together the day after that third failure of the Falcon One and said, "You have six weeks.
We've gotta build this rocket, get it to Kwajalein and launch it to orbit, or we're done.
Elon Musk: Late 2008, there was some bad news board meetings.
Look, if we did just one and it didn't work, then that could have like the opposite effect.
Like, look how dumb it is to, to try to send this to Mars.
Journalist: Right, look at all this money down the drain.
Elon Musk: Yeah!
What an idiot!
(chuckles) That was one of the toughest things we wrestled with.
♪ ♪ Crowley: In September of that year comes that last opportunity, the fourth rocket launch.
And this is it.
This is do or die.
Urban: He thought, you know, if we don't get it on this fourth try, I don't think we're going to be able to keep going, because we're going to run out of money.
And, you know, this huge moment for SpaceX and... and really for, for space travel.
Controller: Three, two, one, zero.
- We're at Stage One!
- We have lift off indication!
Berger: The launch is perfect.
Controller: We have lift off!
SpaceX Falcon One launch vehicle, Falcon has cleared the tower.
Crowley: The rocket takes off and it's a success.
Berger: It gets into orbit, and it's an enormous moment of success for SpaceX.
Controller: Firing separation confirmed.
♪ (dramatic music) ♪ ♪ ♪ Berger: It was a relief, but it just meant that SpaceX was not going to die that day.
Garver: NASA was clearly impressed, and in the end of 2008, awarded them $1.6 billion dollars, to take cargo to the space station.
♪ (uplifting music) ♪ Crowley: Now they have a huge customer, and this is incredibly important.
And then he also learns on Christmas Eve, that Tesla has now received a new round of funding and that company will also be saved.
Knutsson: It was a Christmas miracle.
After being close to their death, both companies were back in the game.
But they were both costly ventures.
Elon might have to choose which one to save.
I like to call it a billionaire's 'Sophie's choice.'
♪ (dramatic music) ♪ Crowley: You see it all the time, oh, now he's done it.
This is too far.
This is too crazy.
This is too different.
And then he pulls it off.
He's a game changer, willing to go out on a limb, and show all of his critics, that he is the one laughing at the end of the day.
Feresten: Elon Musk kind of took the model for how to run a business and threw it out the window, into a wood chipper and said, "let's make it more efficient."
Tesla is, in my opinion, single-handedly responsible for this paradigm shift in, in how we power cars.
When you walk into SpaceX, it's this giant hangar, this beehive of activity, with workers coming in on 12 hour shifts, other workers leaving and sometimes sleeping in RV's in the parking lot.
But this kind of universal drive, that we have to get this stuff done, get it done quickly, and then get our asses to Mars.
Crowley: There has been controversy about the amount of work and devotion that he expects from his team.
Berger: He's extremely demanding.
Reisman: He has a tremendously strong work ethic and he expects you to live up to those expectations.
Berger: He has a temper.
And if a project is not done on time, he wants to know why, and who screwed up.
Reisman: And if you fall short, he will tell you, okay?
To him, your esteem is completely measured by your technical aptitude.
And if you demonstrate a weakness, you'll be shown the door.
Fernholz: I think it's a very interesting blind spot for Elon, the suffering of his employees sometimes.
In part, because he will suffer alongside of them and work those 80 or 90 hour weeks.
And he sort of feels like, 'if I can do it, you can too.'
This is just the cost of achieving greatness.
Higgins: And on one hand, they talk about how just an incredible experience it is.
He's charming, he can be funny.
He's just super inspiring in a way that they just haven't had before.
On the other hand, he's a nano-manager who has a temper that can be triggered by seemingly random things.
Crowley: From Elon's perspective, it's a race against the clock.
Berger: He realizes that to actually get humans to Mars, it's going to take most of his adult life.
And he has a finite amount of time.
He doesn't know how long he's gonna live, he doesn't know how long funding will be available.
Crowley: Those are the stakes.
That's the pressure, that's the timeline.
And Elon has intimated several times, that you, you can't do it on 40 hours a week.
Berger: His response to that is going as fast as possible.
Reisman: He said several times to the entire staff, if you're in a meeting, and you feel like your time is not being well spent, get up and leave.
Do not apologize, do not make excuses, just walk out.
He's so determined to accomplish those goals, that if it hurts somebody's feelings, that's not going to stop him.
He'll do it.
Higgins: Elon Musk is all about defiance, whether he's fighting rivals or regulators or, you know the media, he's not gonna hold back.
And Twitter is his most potent tool.
He's a guy that likes drama, he's a guy that likes attention, he likes the thrill of it all, it would seem.
If somebody is attacking him on Twitter, he has a very hard time letting go.
Urban: People get upset about, "why are you acting this way on Twitter, why are you, you know, doing things that, you know, you shouldn't?"
Well, they're trying to get him to be more conformist, to conform to the kind of 'way people are supposed to be,' which is the direct opposite of what has gotten him where he is.
Elon Musk: Look, I know I sometimes say or post strange things, but that's just how my brain works.
To anyone I've offended, I just wanna say, I reinvented electric cars and I'm sending people to Mars in a rocketship.
Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?
Higgins: If he thinks that Tesla or any part of his empire is in danger, he's going to defend himself.
♪ (slow dramatic music) ♪ ♪ Elon Musk: A future where we are a space-faring civilization, and out there among the stars is infinitely more exciting and inspiring than one where we are not.
You basically, I think, have to hate humanity if you don't like that future.
Knutsson: The vision for SpaceX was simple.
You need to first send up cargo and then deliver people safely.
And if he's gonna colonize Mars, he's got to send lots of cargo, and then people.
Berger: The Falcon One rocket is not big enough to send cargo to orbit.
And so they had to build a much larger rocket, which became the Falcon Nine.
Fernholz: The Falcon Heavy is the largest rocket that any private company has ever built.
It is a complex rocket that a lot of people were worried would not work.
It would blow up on the launch pad.
For a normal rocket company, they would use something called a mass simulator.
They'd just put a big metal box on top of the rocket and say, this weighs as much as a satellite, we've proved that it works.
But Elon Musk is a showman, and so instead of a metal box, he put a Tesla with a mannequin inside, and launched it on a trajectory to pass by Mars.
(rocket engine roaring) Knutsson: I remember being in the newsroom that day.
Even the most jaded news people were glued to the TV set, to watch this rocket go up, with a Roadster inside, it makes it to space!
♪ (dramatic music) ♪ Berger: The image of a mannequin sitting at the wheel of a Tesla in space was incredibly iconic, and like, was shared around the world, because it was just so wild to look at.
♪ ♪ Fernholz: It was not enough to say, we're doing what a space company has never done before and launching this huge rocket.
We're also going to, by the way, show off, my electric car.
And then you'd see the rocket come down and actually land on a landing pad, folding out its little feet.
It looked like something out of a science fiction film from the 1960's.
This was actually rocket reusability.
Elon Musk: I've thought about what are the things that are most gonna affect the future of humanity.
And the three things I came up with were the internet, transitioning to a sustainable energy economy, and the third was space exploration.
Pressman: When everybody said Tesla was gonna go bankrupt, there wasn't a lot of faith that Tesla was going to make it.
And it turns out that there was something there.
Elon Musk: The strategy I had was to start off with a high price, low volume car, being the sports car, and then Phase Two was the Model S, and that's mid-price, mid-volume.
And then Phase Three is the high volume, low price car.
Higgins: There's so many reasons why they should fail, or why, questions on why haven't they failed?
And people are, you know, not wrong when they point to the shortcomings of the company.
They do have some problems, their service is not very great, they've got quality issues.
On the other hand, they have a car that you can go buy and people are buying and are being attracted to.
They've created a brand, that resonates with people around the world.
Pressman: Somehow he can come up with really unique, and interesting, often disruptive solutions.
That's what he's done with Tesla.
That's what he's done with SpaceX.
Berger: The first step was cargo, but then NASA started planning seriously about a commercial crew program to use private vendors to get astronauts into space.
And SpaceX was among several bidders for that.
SpaceX was the upstart, the new space, the commercial space company, and Boeing was very much the blue-blood traditional provider.
Boeing got $4.2 billion from NASA and SpaceX got $2.6 billion.
♪ (dramatic music) ♪ And SpaceX, this nimble, fast moving, y'know, upstart company, lo and behold, beat Boeing by a couple of years, with far less money.
Knutsson: The Dragon launch, this wasn't a car, these were humans.
Fernholz: So, as the first flight on SpaceX's crew Dragon approached, nerves were through the roof.
Controller: Three, two, one, zero, ignition.
Lift off of the Falcon 9 and crew Dragon, go NASA!
Reisman: And lo and behold, it actually worked.
It cost the taxpayer more than ten times less money, than they projected it would have, if they did it the traditional way.
And it turned out to be a huge success.
Fernholz: The jubilation at SpaceX and at NASA was just through the roof, that they had accomplished this technical goal and proven that this model of public-private partnerships in space can succeed.
(computers beeping) Garver: Human space flight for NASA has been sort of the heart and soul of the agency.
And launching the astronauts to the space station was an amazing achievement.
When they returned safely, was when I finally could let out a breath and there is no doubt, it is a game changer.
James L. Green: This is a huge step for us.
And I think it's important for the world to realize, that we're going into space to stay, and we're going to continue on to then the Moon, and then onto Mars.
♪ (upbeat dramatic music) ♪ Berger: He's made space flight cool again.
And I think he's had an enormous impact in changing the mindset of what is possible.
Knutsson: Just look at the Starship, the rocket that's going to take us to Mars.
It's as if it's ripped right out of the fantasy books he used to read.
Tim Urban: It is a 36-story skyscraper, that goes into space.
That thing...goes up in the air and then 16 stories of it gets pinged off into space to head to Mars.
It lands on Mars, it can then take people, launch off Mars, and come back to Earth and land on Earth.
This is the new 1960's.
We're about to have a new Neil Armstrong of some kind land on Mars.
Berger: You know, SpaceX has never lost that founder's mentality.
It's gone from starting with three employees, to now almost 10,000.
I mean, they are now the establishment in the space industry.
They're probably NASA's most important contractor now, and certainly will be in the future.
They launch far more rockets than any company or country in the world.
But, they're not resting on those laurels.
There's still this underlying culture that is driving them to be the upstarts, the renegades.
And you have to put that all back on Elon Musk and his personality.
Elon Musk: Human space flight is the, is the reason that SpaceX was created.
Crowley: It will be interesting to see what this next half of his life is like.
Higgins: Elon's talked about how he probably has too many ideas.
I've talked to people who say, y'know, you'll be in one of these moments and you just kind of see that light kind of go on, where he's coming up with an idea.
Knutsson: Tell me one other person that has reinvented space travel, created the first all-electric car company, figured out transportation underground, put satellites in the air, providing the internet to everybody, solar panels on the roof.
Who's done all this?
Higgins: There is no Tesla-tomorrow.
Elon Musk and Tesla have won the day.
You see General Motors, Volkswagen, Mercedes, all these companies racing to invest their fortunes in bringing out electric cars.
Tesla and Elon Musk have convinced the world that the car should be electrified.
Berger: He did the same thing with the space industry.
He completely disrupted Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Russia!
Just completely upended their entire businesses.
No one was sitting around, inviting him in.
He had to sort of, be a bull in a china shop.
Knutsson: He brought a rock and roll swagger to the world of business like the business world has never seen.
Reisman: Elon will view himself as a failure if he doesn't fundamentally change the course of human history of, of how we all live our lives.
Garver: He made more money than I'm sure he envisioned in his life.
And what does he want to do?
Expand humanity and take those first steps.
That's an unbelievable thing for an individual to do.
Fernholz: If you were to ask Elon, he'll tell you he'll end up in history as the first man to build a city on Mars.
Crowley: For anyone out there, whether you like him or you don't like him, that's not taking him seriously, they're missing an opportunity to understand one of the greatest minds that is shaping life on Earth and maybe elsewhere.
♪ (triumphant uplifting music) ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ Announcer: To order In Their Own Words Season Two on DVD visit ShopPBS or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS This program is also available on Amazon Prime video.
♪ ♪ In Their Own Words was made possible in part by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.