The Believer

As a founder of PayPal, Elon Musk made $250 million in an Internet minute. But then he got bored. He wanted a bigger challenge. Much bigger. So he asked himself: What are the three largest, most important, most difficult challenges of our time? The answer: solar power, space travel, and electric cars. Then he tried to tackle all three at once.

WALK INTO THE giant hangar housing the offices of SpaceX and you will immediately find your eye drawn to a large glass-walled space named after Wernher von Braun, the Teutonic creator-god of rocketry and, like Elon Musk, a naturalized American citizen. Spend an hour or two at the company and you’ll realize that von Braun refers less to a room than a state of mind. “We’ll take it to the von Braun”—that’s the argot, the invocation, in the face of any conflict that requires immediate resolution. Engineers at SpaceX talk about takin’ it to the von Braun the way toughs in dive bars talk about takin’ it outside.

It’s early November, late in the afternoon on election eve, as the dozen men who make up SpaceX’s senior design team file into the von Braun Room. (Yes, they’re all men, ranging from their early twenties to early fifties. Two wear wedding rings; all but Elon sport metal watches chunky enough to deflect gunfire.) There is every reason to believe that this will be a truly terrible meeting for Elon Musk. Actually, meetings are terrible almost by definition in Musk’s view. Meetings, he’s fond of saying, are what happens when people aren’t working.

But this Monday afternoon is special, thanks to Tesla. October has just proven to be the single worst month for the auto industry in twenty-five years. Despite being a new kind of company making a new kind of car, Tesla isn’t immune from what is ailing Detroit. People aren’t buying cars, period, much less $109,000 electric sports cars with a 244-mile range—a fact not lost on the venture capitalists Tesla relies on for financing. In recent weeks, Musk has had to close Tesla’s engineering office in Michigan, lay off 20 percent of the company’s staff (mostly from the Michigan office but also from the Silicon Valley headquarters), and announce a significant production delay in Tesla’s Model S—the $57,000 sedan that Musk (and those venture capitalists) have been hoping will broaden the company’s client base.

Yet more: That announcement about the S has nearly coincided with another, on the blog of Elon’s wife, the fantasy novelist Justine Musk, that he has left her and their five boys (4-year-old twins and 2-year-old triplets) for a 23-year-old English actress named Talulah Riley. “By all accounts she is bright and sweet and of course beautiful, and about as personally responsible for the death of my marriage as she is for the dynamic that played out inside it. In other words, not very,” Justine wrote. “Also, she is not blonde, and I do find this refreshing.” (After initial publication of this story, Elon contacted GQ to clarify that he and Riley met only after he had filed divorce papers, and that he has his boys several days a week at his home; in an e-mail, Justine confirms the custodial arrangement, and that Elon “has always insisted that he met Talulah on the July 4 weekend following his June 16 filing for divorce.”) And about a week after that, a Tesla employee leaked information to a popular Silicon Valley blog about how low morale at Tesla had sunk, and revealing the proprietary fact that the company—which has taken more than a thousand deposits from buyers who haven’t yet received their Roadsters—was down to its last $9 million in liquid reserves. The same day the blog item appeared, Musk issued a statement confirming the $9 million figure while announcing his intention to bolster Tesla’s cash with at least $20 million in additional financing. Then, in search of the leaker, he sent a computer-forensics team to seize and search the computers of various employees. The only redeeming pieces of news about Tesla? Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and George Clooney are all having their Roadsters delivered this week.

Today, Elon and his SpaceX engineers are takin’ it to the von Braun to discuss a fine point of reentry physics, per an exchange in one of the day’s earlier meetings.

ENGINEER #1: Would you VPPA?
ENGINEER #2: [lustily] Naaaaaah, I’d probably go to soft plasma.
ELON: You always get misplaced diameters with that.
ENGINEER #2: What if the heat shield attached to the Dragon’s base…
[A prolonged exchange of glances; a clear consensus that there are sometimes feelings for which there can be no words.]
ELON: We’ll take it to the von Braun.
[Satisfied nods from all. Exeunt, pursued by a bear.]

Now Musk sits, his engineers loosely grouped around him, waiting for one of them to begin a PowerPoint presentation. He just misses being extremely handsome, and somehow, by just missing the extreme of handsomeness, he also just misses being merely handsome. Yet Elon Musk draws eyes the way an extremely handsome man does, for two reasons. The first is that he is unusual looking, in a boyish and pleasant way. The second is that physically, Elon Musk is a very, very still human being, and there is something arresting about that. Or as one Silicon Valley blog recently put it, “The liquored-up consensus at San Francisco watering hole Joey & Eddie’s last night: Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk is actually kind of hot.”

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