Wednesday 17 September 2014
Home / Features / The young man from Pretoria who is shaking up USA

It really is astonishing how little has been said and written in this country about the most remarkable South African or our time Elon Musk. He hails from Pretoria but he now lives in America where his exploits are the stuff of legends.

He made his first fortune developing ZIP 2 software for the publishing industry before going on to make his second fortune as a co-founder of Paypal. When Paypal was sold for about R12 billion he put his share of the money into three companies. The “bread and butter” business is SolarCity which installs solar panels on roofs in California.

Then there is Tesla Motors which has developed and manufactures electric cars that perform like Ferraris. Both Mercedes and Toyota have been so impressed that they have bought stakes in the company.

His sports car has sold to A-list Hollywood stars and in July his Model S will be launched followed by an electric SUV. The prototype has already generated rave reviews. Musk has been described as the most innovative figure in the motor industry since Henry Ford.

His third company is the most exciting of all. He designs and manufactures rockets and spacecraft and has just delivered a load of cargo to the international space station.

SpaceX is not the only private company in the space race but it is quite unique. Others started by adapting inter-continental ballistic missiles which had past their sell-by dates to launch satellites. He started by designing a completely new liquid-fuelled rocket, or rather a whole family of rockets. His boast is that he will launch satellites for a fraction of the cost charged by others in the field.

He has put several satellites into orbit and leapt ahead of the competition (that includes companies like Boeing) by launching his Dragon space capsule into orbit, separating it from its rocket and bringing it back to earth in a perfect mission. He has now followed this up by delivering a cargo to the space station.

And this is just the beginning. His Dragon capsule is designed to carry seven astronauts (the Russian capsule carries just three) and when it comes back to earth it will land on its own rocket power, like the lunar lander.

Not surprisingly his company is being contracted for enough satellite launches to keep it busy for a decade. NASA has a $1.6 billion contract with SpaceX to resupply the space station.

And he has achieved all this by the age of 40!

But it’s just the start. His ambition is to put men on Mars, build a greenhouse there and bring life to the dead planet. At the present rate of progress he will probably do it all before any government can.

So in just 10 years he has conquered space and shaken up the whole motor industry roughly two life-times of achievement squeezed into a single decade. Not bad for a young man from Pretoria.

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