When the global financial crash hit in 2008, Elon Musk’s business empire was left on the brink of collapse.
His rocket business SpaceX had seen three catastrophic launch failures. His electric car manufacturer Tesla was haemorrhaging cash, with 18 per cent of its workforce laid off.
The $200 million (£159 million) he made from the sale of PayPal to Ebay six years earlier was almost all gone.
Musk’s girlfriend, British actress Talulah Riley, said he would wake up at night screaming and seemingly in physical pain.
‘That was definitely the worst year of my life,’ Musk has said.
‘I remember waking up and thinking, ‘Man, I never, ever thought I was someone who would be capable of a nervous breakdown. Damn! This is the closest I’ve ever come.’ It seemed pretty dark.’
With much of his personal fortune plunged into his businesses, and his last $30 million evaporating at terrifying speed, he was working more than 100 hours a week and faced a bleak dilemma.
‘I could either provide all of the money for SpaceX or all of the money for Tesla, and then increase the chance that one of them would survive. Or I have to split the money. But if I split the money, then maybe both will die.
A common response to Elon Musk (pictured on his 18th birthday back in 1989) seems to be either to declare him the saviour of humanity or to discredit him immediately as a charlatan
‘It’s almost like if you had two children and you only had so much food. What do you do?’
Three days before Christmas, one phone call changed everything.
‘Nasa called and told me we’d won a $1.5 billion contract for SpaceX. I just blurted out, ‘I love you guys’,’ he recalled.
The next day, SpaceX issued a press release to announce the deal, to provide 12 flights to ship supplies to the International Space Station in orbit.
And the day after that, on Christmas Eve, Tesla’s investors decided to inject a further $40 million into the car firm. Both Musk’s businesses were saved.
Today, Musk is probably the richest man on Earth, with a fortune estimated at between $218 billion and $268 billion (£173-£212 billion).
SpaceX alone is valued at around $127 billion (£100 billion). Last month, Musk agreed to buy Twitter for £44 billion (£35 billion).
Yet he has been perilously close to wipe-out, and many observers believe all his projects are mere sci-fi, doomed to failure.
Musk has his zealous fan base, the ‘Musketeers’, and his equally zealous critics.
Whether it’s because of his great wealth, his perceived arrogance or the fact that he’s doing what so many have talked about but never tried, a common response seems to be either to declare him the saviour of humanity or to discredit him immediately as a charlatan.
Perhaps disingenuously, Musk insists, ‘I’m just being me.’ But who is that?
Today, Musk (pictured with ex Talulah Riley in 2012) is probably the richest man on Earth, with a fortune estimated at between $218 billion and $268 billion (£173-£212 billion).
The father of eight children, he claims to be a romantic, a man who defines himself by the people he loves.
He has been married three times — the second and third times to the same woman, Talulah Riley — and has had relationships with actress Amber Heard and pop star Claire Elise Boucher, whose stage name is Grimes.
But he is also obsessed with saving humankind by establishing an outpost on Mars: ‘We should really do our very best to become an interplanetary species,’ he says, ‘and extend our consciousness beyond Earth. And we should do it now.’ Our failure to do so already is, he claims, ‘an outrage’.
He was born in Pretoria, South Africa, in June 1971 — by coincidence, a month after Nasa launched the Mariner 9 rocket that would be the first spacecraft to orbit Mars and send back images of the Red Planet.
When he was three years old, his maternal grandfather, Dr Joshua Haldeman, was killed when the light aircraft he was piloting hit power lines.
Elon grew up idolising family legends about Haldeman’s adventures — how he flew across the Indian Ocean and circumnavigated Australia in a single-engine plane.
‘He did this in a plane with no electronic instruments,’ Musk told one journalist proudly, ‘and in some places they had diesel and in some places they had gasoline, and he had to rebuild the engine according to whatever fuel they had.’
It’s plain that this combination of ingenuity and unquenchable urge for exploration inspired him.
Dr Haldeman’s family motto was ‘Live dangerously — carefully’ and he taught his children, including Elon’s mother Maye, that ‘there’s nothing a Haldeman can’t do’.
But Elon’s passion for knowledge and adventure came at a price in 1970s South Africa, where it was dangerous to stand out for any reason.
‘I was very curious about the world: how did we come to be here, what’s the meaning of life? I always had a really intense desire to understand things and learn.
‘It was clear that not everybody’s mind was exploding with ideas all the time,’ he added.
Musk does not speak fondly of his father (pictured). His parents married under strange circumstances: Maye Haldeman was 21, a former beauty queen who was suffering from an eating disorder. Her former boyfriend Errol Musk turned up on her doorstep, out of the blue after two years, with an engagement ring.
‘I thought I was kind of like a crazy kid, I suppose. I thought I was insane.’
As well as devouring sci-fi comics and novels, he spent hours reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, until the family nickname for him became ‘Encyclopedia’.
In 1984 he began secondary school at Bryanston High, Johannesburg. An awkward, shy, geeky-looking child, Elon was no longer just an object of passing amusement and a slight oddity.
In a culture that regarded bullying as simply ‘boys being boys’, a rite of passage to manhood, Musk became a target. He was bullied relentlessly and viciously.
‘I was almost beaten to death,’ he later said, ‘if you would call that being bullied. I was the youngest and the smallest kid in the class. And I was a late bloomer. The gangs at school would hunt me down — literally hunt me down.’
The worst beating he ever suffered put him in hospital. Sitting at the top of a flight of stairs, he was kicked in the head by a group of seniors. As he tumbled to the bottom, the bullies set on him there as well. Musk was beaten so badly he had to be taken to the Sandton Mediclinic.
His father Errol told a friend his son had been in hospital for two weeks but the police declined to prosecute, saying it was ‘schoolboy high jinks’. The school itself was non-committal.
Elon was removed and sent to Pretoria Boys High. Nearly 30 years later, he had surgery to repair an old fracture in his nose — the legacy of bullying.
His father, too, was bullied as a boy. Errol urged his son to learn how to fight back, and Elon took up karate to defend himself.
‘I started dishing it out as hard as they’d give it to me,’ he said. ‘It taught me a lesson: If you’re fighting a bully, you cannot appease a bully. You punch the bully in the nose. Bullies are looking for targets that won’t fight back. If you make yourself a hard target and punch the bully in the nose, he’s going to beat the s*** out of you, but he’s actually not going to hit you again.’
But Musk does not speak fondly of his father. His parents married under strange circumstances: Maye Haldeman was 21, a former beauty queen who was suffering from an eating disorder. Her former boyfriend Errol Musk turned up on her doorstep, out of the blue after two years, with an engagement ring.
Maye turned him down, but Errol told her parents she had accepted. They sent out wedding invitations to 800 guests. Shocked and low on confidence, Maye was railroaded into marriage.
The relationship was wretched from the start. On their honeymoon night, Maye said Errol read Playboy magazine while she unpacked.
He insulted her at every turn for nine years, calling her ‘dumb and ugly’ in front of guests.
‘He was cruel in ways that didn’t make sense,’ she said. ‘I was told about three times a day that I’m boring and stupid.’
When her father Joshua died and left his estate to his widow, Errol was so incensed that Maye was forbidden to contact her own family.
‘It was not a happy childhood,’ Musk said in 2017. ‘My father will plan evil. A carefully thought-out plan of evil. It’s so terrible you can’t believe it.
Elon left South Africa as soon as he was able, flying to Canada against his parents’ wishes aged 17 (Pictured: Elon as a baby being held by his father). He spent six weeks working on a cousin’s farm, before working in a lumber mill and then enrolling at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
‘In my experience there is nothing you can do. Nothing. I’ve tried everything — threats, rewards, intellectual arguments, emotional arguments, everything to try to change my father for the better, and he . . . no way, it just got worse.’
The couple divorced when Elon, the eldest of their three children, was eight. He chose to live with his father because he had a computer.
Errol moved to Johannesburg, where his house was raided one night by intruders. He shot and killed three of them.
Elon left South Africa as soon as he was able, flying to Canada against his parents’ wishes aged 17. He spent six weeks working on a cousin’s farm, before working in a lumber mill and then enrolling at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
He chose Queen’s for the social life: ‘There were girls there. I didn’t want to spend my undergraduate time with a bunch of dudes.’
At Queen’s, he met 18-year-old English literature student Justine Wilson, wooing her by bringing her a choc-chip ice cream while she worked in the library.
Musk wanted romance but not parties. A friend who shared his dorm, Adeo Ressi, said: ‘Elon was the most strait-laced dude you have ever met. He never drank. He never did anything. Zero. Literally nothing.’ The implication is not that he was antisocial but that he did not touch drugs or other stimulants.
Three years later he was accepted into Stanford University, California, to do a PhD in physics but dropped out after only two days to launch an internet start-up.
Global Link Information Network was a searchable business directory. Starting in 1995, Musk wrote much of the computer code himself, before his brother Kimbal joined the team. They slept in their rented office and showered at a nearby YMCA hostel, until they secured $3 million in venture capital funding.
The investors changed the start-up’s name to Zip2.
Musk’s girlfriend Justine took her father to meet him while he was building up the business. Walking across the office car park, she remembered, ‘we saw these lanky dudes in jeans and T-shirts. They were racing these remote-controlled contraptions around the parking lot and banging them into cars, and my dad said, ‘Are these the children of the engineers?’ And I said, ‘No Dad, these are the engineers’.’
In 1999, Zip2 was purchased by computer manufacturer Compaq for $300 million. Musk received $22 million, and quit the company.
Maye Musk’s successful children – Elon, Kimbal and Tosca (pictured left to right) – all founded companies and are leaders in their chosen pursuits: tech, restaurants and entertainment.
He ploughed $10 million into a new start-up, an online banking service called X.com, telling a TV interviewer: ‘I could go and buy one of the islands in the Bahamas and turn it into my personal fiefdom. But I’m much more interested in trying to build and create a new company.’
After X.com merged in 2000 with a rival called Confinity, which ran a website called PayPal, Musk became CEO. Within two years, he was ousted in a row over software — but he kept his shares and, when eBay bought PayPal for $1.5 billion, Musk received $180 million.
By then, he and Justine were married. As with Musk’s own parents, there were warning signs on the wedding day. During their first dance, Justine said Musk told her, ‘I am the alpha in this relationship.’
In 2002, the Musks had their first child, a boy, named Nevada Alexander. During the same week the news of eBay’s purchase of PayPal was made public, Nevada died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Justine said: ‘Nevada went down for a nap, placed on his back as always, and stopped breathing. He was ten weeks old, the age when male infants are most susceptible to SIDS.
‘By the time the paramedics resuscitated him, he had been deprived of oxygen for so long that he was brain-dead. I held him in my arms when he died.
‘Elon made it clear that he did not want to talk about Nevada’s death. I didn’t understand this, just as he didn’t understand why I grieved openly, which he regarded as ’emotionally manipulative’.
I buried my feelings instead, coping with Nevada’s death by making my first visit to an IVF clinic less than two months later.’
Within the next five years, she gave birth to twins Xavier and Griffin, then triplets Kai, Saxon and Damian. But the couple argued constantly and, following a serious car accident in 2008, Justine split from Musk.
He filed for divorce and, six weeks later, texted her to announce he was dating Talulah Riley — who was, Justine said, ‘better fitted to my ex-husband’s lifestyle and personality than I ever was’.
As he had with his first wife, Musk insisted Talulah dye her brown hair blonde. He proposed to her ten days after their first date. They divorced in 2012, remarried in 2013 and divorced again in 2016.
That year, he began dating Amber Heard, who was married at the time to Johnny Depp.
According to Musk, they didn’t begin a relationship until a month after Heard filed for divorce: ‘I don’t think I was ever even in the vicinity of Amber during their marriage,’ he said.
When he broke up with Heard, he complained: ‘I was really in love, and it hurt bad… It’s so hard for me to even meet people. I’m looking for a long-term relationship. I’m not looking for a one-night stand. I’m looking for a serious companion or soulmate, that kind of thing.’
A flirtation via Twitter with Canadian rapper Grimes, 16 years his junior, became a relationship, and in May 2020 they had a son together.
They called him X AE A-12, pronounced ‘Ex-ash-ay-12’: according to Grimes, the X is an ‘unknown variable’, the AE stands for Artificial Intelligence (written in Tolkien’s Elvish language, obviously) and the Lockheed A-12 is a classic high-speed aircraft.
At about this time, the previously abstemious Musk made a great show of smoking and praising marijuana on a podcast interview.
Grimes and Musk split up in 2021, though last March she had a second child with him, a girl, conceived by artificial insemination. The baby is called Y.
Despite this complex private life, Musk claims to be a simple man. He dresses in a black T-shirt and black jeans, or a black suit, and insists money does not motivate him.
His goal, he has said repeatedly, is to colonise Mars and make it ‘the new Earth’. Asked by journalists whether he wants to travel to the Red Planet, his standard reply is that he wants to die on Mars — ‘just not on impact’.
‘As far as we know,’ he says, ‘our planet is the only place where there is consciousness. It is a very rare and precious thing and we should take whatever steps we can to preserve the light of consciousness.
‘The window has been opened. I’m pretty optimistic by nature but there’s some chance the window might not be open for long, and I think we should become a multi-planetary civilisation while that window is open.
‘Science fiction,’ he adds, ‘should not be science fiction for ever.’
Adapted from Elon Musk: Risking It All, by Michael Vlismas, published by Jonathan Ball at £14.99. © Michael Vlismas 2022. To order a copy for £13.49 (offer valid until 11/06/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.