TECH
09/30/2016 11:49 am ET Updated Oct 03, 2016

This Is What Inspired Elon Musk To Get Into The Modern Space Race

It all started 15 years ago.
Harry Kloor

This adapted excerpt is taken from a new book, How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight, by Julian Guthrie, with a foreword by Richard Branson and an afterword by Stephen Hawking. (Penguin Press, Sept. 20, 2016) The new book tells the story of entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, his idea for a $10 million space prize, and the group of dreamers, engineers, rocket enthusiasts and aviation designers from across the globe who entered the race to become the first team to privately build and fly a rocket to the  start of space.

June 2001

Peter Diamandis arrived at the Skybar, a rooftop watering hole on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, with the idea of meeting two young guys who had struck it rich in the dot com boom. Peter, whose lifelong dream had been to get man and machine to space without the government’s help, had heard these Internet entrepreneurs were interested in space.

Peter had never heard of the men before the meeting was arranged by a mutual friend, so he wrote down their names: Adeo Ressi and Elon Musk.

Peter usually approached pitch meetings with great enthusiasm, but tonight he felt subdued. He spotted Adeo by the Skybar pool, smoking a cigarette and looking out at the gold and glimmering Los Angeles sunset. He was tall and thin, a Giacometti walking man figure, and immediately affable. Adeo said Elon was running late but on his way. Elon was working on getting his pilot’s license and was flying down from San Jose with his instructor. He had a new plane being built.

It was Sunday, June 3, 2001, and Adeo, Elon, and Peter were scheduled to have dinner at Asia de Cuba, adjacent to the Skybar in the Mondrian Hotel. Peter took in the beautiful women in filmy tops and short skirts, and felt overdressed in his suit and mock turtleneck. Adeo was in casual slacks and a shirt open at the collar. The music was pulsating, the lychee up martinis flowing, and the entire hotel was bathed in white, with minimalist accents of Hermès orange. Even the matches were stylish, with lime-green tips. Peter had taken notice of the white-clad valet team when he pulled up to the white-façade hotel. The valet attendants all clasped their hands in exactly the same way. Peter joined Adeo for a drink near the pool. Adeo had just sold his Web development firm Methodfive and was working on turnarounds of lagging public companies. He said he and Elon had been housemates at the University of Pennsylvania. Elon was South African and had founded Zip2, a mapping and business services company, and cofounded PayPal, the online payment service being bought by eBay.

Their shared interest in space came to light during a late-night car ride the weekend before Memorial Day. As they drove back to New York City from Long Island on a cloudy night, talk turned to what they wanted to do next. As a joke, one of them said, “Why don’t we do something in space?” When the laughter died down, Elon said, “Well, why can’t we do something in space?” The debate went back and forth: Space was too expensive. Why was it so expensive? Space takes a lot of infrastructure. Why does it take so much infrastructure? Space is controlled by governments and strict regulation. What happens if it is taken out of the government’s hands? Finally, they asked each other, Why do we even think space is interesting? This led to a discussion of where they would go if they could go to space. By the end of the car ride, they had their answer about what to do next. They knew exactly where they wanted to go.

Before Adeo could continue, Elon arrived and apologized for being late. The three men moved with drinks in hand from the Skybar to the restaurant and ordered a feast: pan-seared ahi tuna, miso grilled salmon, the Asian noodle box, and more. Tracks from the Buddha Bar collection played in the background. Peter found Elon immediately likable: good chemistry from the start, soft-spoken, polite, his words well chosen. Adeo was also great, but more of an extrovert who seemed to enjoy playing devil’s advocate. Peter knew very little about the two coming into the night’s dinner. He’d had a quick conference call the week before with Elon and Adeo, thought they said all the right things, and took Elon’s accent to be British.

Adeo made Peter laugh knowingly when he said, “I think every geek is a bit of a space buff.” Peter talked about his various space ventures, including the XPRIZE, which he had launched five years earlier to try to jumpstart the private space industry by offering a $10 million prize for the first team that could build and fly a rocket to the start of space. Peter also talked about Space Adventures, his company with Eric Anderson, which had brokered the final part of the deal to send the world’s first space tourist, Dennis Tito, to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for $20 million. Peter talked briefly about how NASA had tried to stop Tito from flying, but Tito had launched on April 28 and landed safely in Kazakhstan on May 6. It was big news in space circles that Tito, an American, had to fly with Russian cosmonauts and was not allowed on the U.S. side of the space station.

As Peter talked about what the “ultimate space company” would look like, putting on Moon missions and suborbital and ZERO‑G flights, Elon and Adeo said they had set their sights on something different, something even more difficult. They wanted to reach the Red Planet. Their mission, decided that night on Long Island, was to put humanity on Mars. They wanted to spend money to “shame, embarrass, or prod” the government into doing a human mission to Mars.

Julian Guthrie

Peter cautioned that he had seen a lot of great missions fail because one wealthy backer or another expected other wealthy individuals to support his vision. “But every wealthy person has his own vision,” Peter said. To make such a mission work, Peter now believed, one very wealthy and determined person would need to be willing to pay for everything, something he had yet to encounter. As Elon listened to Peter talk about Blastoff and his other companies, he thought Peter’s heart was in the right place, and it was obvious that he cared deeply about the future of space travel. But the Blastoff plan didn’t make sense to him. He didn’t think sending a rover back to the Moon was going to reignite space travel.

Returning to the subject of Mars, Elon said, “We want to do something that’s significant enough but does something for a reasonable budget—for a couple million.” Adeo added that they had $10 million to $15 million to spend, but wanted to start with a $1 million or $2 million project.

Peter was stunned to hear such a low figure of “a couple million,” but knew that in aerospace, a couple million often led to many more millions. He listened to them with interest, but made sure not to get his hopes up.

Still, at the very least, even if Elon and Adeo did nothing, Peter had met some smart guys who would be friends. Elon was a major Trekkie. He had watched all of the episodes as a kid in South Africa, dreamed of spaceships, and read Heinlein, Asimov, and Douglas Adams. He said his successes in Silicon Valley had paved the way for his future in space—not unlike what Jeff Bezos had told him.

Adeo, Elon, and Peter shared an interest in using small teams to accomplish what only the government had done before, though Elon remarked that he saw the government as “a corporation—the biggest corporation.” And like Peter, Adeo and Elon didn’t see NASA as the bad guy, but instead saw the public’s expectation of perfection as an unnecessary speed limit on innovation. The expectation that everything needed to go right caused NASA to be overly cautious.

Elon talked about how he had been trying to understand why the world had not made more progress in sending people to the Moon or Mars. “There was a lot of excitement with the Apollo program and the dream of space travel,” Elon said. “It was ignited, and somehow that dream died or was put into stasis.” He said he was “trying to figure out if there is anything we can do to bring back the dream of Apollo. Maybe even a philanthropic mission.”

Peter could see that Elon—a logician and engineer above all else—needed to understand the physical and psychological limitations of why rockets hadn’t improved since the sixties. Peter knew that Elon and Adeo were in research mode, talking to a mix of major players and fringe players in the world of aerospace. Peter told them he thought Mars was a great place to set up a future colony, but “the Moon was economical. The Moon is a place where you can go to gain access to resources and you are close enough to Earth that you can build on it.”

But Elon was not interested in the Moon. “Maybe we do a mini greenhouse to Mars,” he said. “Maybe mice to Mars. Maybe we grow samples of food crops.” He said it had been obvious to him since childhood, when the Moon was already reached, that “Mars is next.” Also, Mars was even more mythical, more unattainable. The Moon was 240,000 miles away from Earth. Mars was about 34 million miles away when their orbits were together on the same side of the sun, but as much as 250 million miles apart when the two planets were on the opposite sides of the sun. The Moon was the talcum face in the night sky. Mars was the out‑of‑reach gem. Mars would take at least half a year to reach, using optimal energy cost. It would take a year and a half for the planets to realign, and then it would take another six months to return. Elon said he thought such a mission sounded entirely doable. Earlier, in May, Elon had attended a Mars Society event with Jim Cameron, who was working on a six-episode TV miniseries on the Red Planet. Over breakfast the next morning with Mars Society cofounder Robert Zubrin, Elon had pledged $100,000 to the cause.

Elon Musk, chief executive officer for Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), pauses while speaking during the 67th I
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Elon Musk, chief executive officer for Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), pauses while speaking during the 67th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. Musk's vision for building a self-sustaining city on Mars will require full rocket reusability, refueling the spacecraft in orbit and propellant production on the Red Planet.

Peter, who had been in constant pitching mode for what felt like an eternity, tried to sit back and listen, but he kept finding himself back in the mode of selling. Elon and Adeo asked whether a manned mission to Mars was possible for less than $10 billion. Now the budget is edging closer to reality, Peter thought. Peter said enticingly, “I’ve got a way for you to do it for a tenth of the cost, for one billion.” Everyone leaned in. “You could build a one-way mission with existing Russian hardware. You send a few people with the goal of their living on Mars for five years until a resupply or rescue mission gets there. They will be the world’s first Martians.”

Adeo and Elon loved the idea and spent the next hour in a fast-paced discussion, going over details and obstacles. Peter then told them that whatever they did in space, they needed to first prove themselves, “step by step.” Even though Peter had figured out quickly that Elon and Adeo had no interest in funding one of his for-profit ventures, he admired how these guys were willing to gamble on space. And the evening offered a pleasant surprise: Elon loved the XPRIZE idea. “I could be a supporter of that,” he said. Elon thought that the XPRIZE could jump-start an industry and rekindle public interest in space.

Elon and Adeo appeared keenly interested as Peter talked about the Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh, and the teams that had signed up for the XPRIZE. Peter said that the idea for his space prize came from reading about the $25,000 Orteig prize offered first in 1919 to the first aviator who could fly nonstop from Paris to New York or New York to Paris.

“I’d love to meet some of the teams,” Elon said. Adeo offered to join the XPRIZE board.

Well after midnight, the men finally walked out of the restaurant and were greeted by the white-clad valet. They had plans to meet the next morning to continue the discussion.

As Peter drove back to his apartment in Santa Monica, he turned on his recorder and began to reflect. It was strange, he said, how until tonight, he had felt like the kid in the room. Now, at forty, he felt more like the elder statesman. Both Adeo and Elon were weeks shy of turning thirty. They were just starting on space; he had never been anywhere else.

“They only have ten million to fifteen million to spend,” Peter said as he drove. “They could be backers of the XPRIZE. Regardless, I get the feeling we’ll be friends. I really liked this guy Elon. He was quieter, but sounded serious about space. I think I planted some ideas, some seeds, maybe some direction, tonight.”

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