What Makes Elon Musk Different

The agonies and ecstasies of Elon Musk have been amply chronicled over the years, including in Ashlee Vance’s 2015 biography as well as books on the race to privatize space travel by Christian Davenport and Tim Fernholz. Two new books, both written with Musk’s cooperation, now deepen our appreciation of his achievements by showing how Musk’s success comes from his profound understanding of the physics and technology underlying his products. “Liftoff,” by Ars Technica space writer Eric Berger, is a colorful page-turner that focuses on the downs and ups of the early years of SpaceX. “Power Play,” by Wall Street Journal reporter Tim Higgins, is a deeply reported and business-savvy chronicle of Tesla’s wild ride from the launch of the high-end Roadster in 2009 to the Model S luxury sedan and then the Model 3, which is now the world’s best-selling electric car. Musk’s fanboys as well as his growing legion of grudging admirers should read the books in tandem, because the parallel tales combine to convey the depths of Musk’s interwoven passions to save the planet and colonize Mars.

At the height of Tesla’s financial problems at the end of 2008, Musk decided that he would double down. He personally borrowed money to keep the company afloat and pushed his investors to match him. When they reluctantly agreed, he broke down in tears. “All of his fortune was now on the line,” Higgins writes. “From the depths of the Great Recession, he’d done something that other U.S. automakers were unable to do: avoid bankruptcy.”

At the same time, he decided to forge ahead at SpaceX. He gathered the company’s employees and said they had the components for a fourth attempt. “We have another rocket,“ he told them. “Go back to the island and launch it in six weeks.”

On the morning of September 28, 2008, Musk went with his brother and their children to Disneyland, where they rode, in an apt metaphor, the Space Mountain roller coaster. Then he raced back to SpaceX headquarters to take his seat in the command van. For more than nine minutes, he and his team watched on monitors as the rocket lifted off flawlessly, the second stage detached without a hitch, and finally the payload went into orbit. On the factory floor, more than 100 employees started jumping and screaming for joy. Their company had been saved, and private space flight was going to be a reality. Then Musk stepped forward and reminded them there was more work to do. “This is just the first step of many,” he said.

At the same time, Musk’s chief car designer was preparing to go to work in a corner of SpaceX’s factory, beneath a white tent that was designated as the Tesla area. Musk had ordered him to produce a prototype of the Model S, an all-electric luxury sedan that would make or break his company. In March 2009, Musk was able to drive the sleek prototype onto the SpaceX factory floor at a celebrity-packed gala launch party. As the crowd cheered and music boomed, Musk announced, “You’re looking at what will be the world’s first mass manufactured electric car.”