Elon Musk’s rocket ride

SpaceX is soaring. Tesla is roaring. How the world’s most creative and controversial CEO is transforming one industry after another—and why he’s Fortune’s Businessperson of the Year.
December 2, 2020, 11:30 AM UTC
FUTURE MAN: Musk introducing Tesla’s all-electric Cybertruck on Nov. 21, 2019. The design is partly inspired by the sci-fi film Blade Runner.
FREDERIC J. BROWN—AFP/Getty Images

Things get serious inside the 45-minute mark. That is a relative term, of course, because there is nothing unserious about placing a $62 million, 208-foot-tall rocket on a launchpad with plans to send it beyond Earth’s atmosphere. It is a balmy Sunday in November. NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida teems with technicians nervously running through checklists. Nightfall has come and gone, and the disappearance of the sun’s warm hues lend the proceedings a clinical cast. Four astronauts—three from NASA; one from JAXA, the Japanese space agency—serenely sit in a row inside a Dragon spacecraft, which is in turn perched atop a Falcon 9 rocket that will carry it. Both are manufactured by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., otherwise known as SpaceX, the L.A.-area aerospace company led by Elon Musk

SpaceX and NASA have partnered on this launch, which is not unusual—over the past decade SpaceX has completed more than 100 launches with its Falcon rockets, and SpaceX regularly transports government payloads. What is unusual, however, is that SpaceX, a private company, would be allowed to ferry American astronauts to and from orbit. NASA certification for that capability came less than a week before the planned mission. Launchpad 39A, where this SpaceX launch will take place, is the same spot where Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins left Earth on the Apollo 11 spaceflight. A successful mission today will take the astronauts to the International Space Station for six months of science experiments. It will also offer further evidence demonstrating that commercial spaceflight is viable.

At T-minus 44:55, a male voice breaks the silence. “The team is ready for crew access, arm retract, propellant loading, and launch,” the launch director says.

T-minus 1:47. Fueling is complete. With a roaring hiss, the rocket and capsule are consumed by a gigantic white cloud, the result of gaseous oxygen colliding with the coastal air.

T-minus 0:42. A voice crackles over the intercom: “Go for launch.” Another, from inside the capsule: “This is Resilience,” the name of the Dragon capsule. “Roger ‘Go.’”

Three. Two. One. The rocket’s rear ignites with the unholy scream of burning chemicals. Its deafening blast drowns out the radio. “And Resilience rises!” a ground observer excitedly proclaims as the thundering column of light races toward the stars. “Not even gravity contains humanity when we explore as one for all.”

At 8:09 p.m. Eastern, as the four astronauts hurtle toward low-earth orbit at 17,000 miles per hour and become the first operational flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, Musk—unusually out of sight, owing to a possible COVID-19 infection—publishes a new tweet: ❤

WHAT A BLAST: The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, on Nov. 15, 2020, carrying a crew of four to the International Space Station.
Joe Burbank—Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Just another day in the life of Elon Musk. Some executives play golf in their spare time; others read, meditate, or go for a hike. Musk catapults people into space—and that’s only his night gig. At SpaceX, where he is founder and CEO, the 49-year-old Musk has built a private company currently valued at $46 billion—and projected to be worth much more—that is hell-bent on colonizing Mars. (Rekindling the storied U.S. space program? Just a side effect.)

Then there’s Tesla, which, with a recent market capitalization of north of $520 billion, is now one of the world’s most valuable companies, worth more than quintuple the combined value of U.S. auto icons General Motors and Ford. Through sheer force of will and a healthy dose of operating genius, Musk has built an electric-auto maker and battery manufacturer that is seemingly dragging an entire industry into the 21st century—and captivated investors around the world. Over the past three years, Tesla has averaged revenue growth of 52% and it recently reported its fifth straight quarterly profit. In November, it was announced that Tesla would be added to the S&P 500 index as of Dec. 1—giving the stock a further boost. That rocketed Musk’s personal net worth even higher to nearly $128 billion, according to Bloomberg—making him the world’s second wealthiest person behind Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and slightly ahead of Bill Gates.

Elsewhere, Musk’s Boring Co. aims to dig tunnels to relieve urban traffic congestion. His Neuralink Corp. is working to realize implantable brain-machine interfaces. OpenAI, which he cofounded and funds but no longer holds a board seat at—owing to possibly competing work at Tesla—is trying to develop “friendly” artificial intelligence that won’t threaten society. And Hyperloop? Just a sci-fi transportation idea he decided to open-source to the greater technology community.

Elon Musk, it’s worth stating, has the same number of hours in the day as the rest of us.

If Musk had accomplished any one of these feats, he would have a strong case to be Fortune’s Businessperson of the Year. (And indeed he was once before, in 2013, when we dubbed him a “triple threat.”) But this five-tool player—yes, even Elon Musk can get an upgrade—has managed to achieve it all in the face of some long odds. And he’s far from finished. Ask chief executives in any industry which CEO most inspires them, and far and away it is Musk’s name that most often crosses their lips. They say Elon Musk is the rocket man, the iron man, the savior of the sins of a fossilized auto industry. He is an ambition-emitting entrepreneur who has enough executive aptitude to make the impossible possible. He is a designer, a technologist, and a Renaissance man without peer. He is a turnaround artist with astonishing verve and little apparent fear.

Yet ask executives which CEO vexes them the most, and Musk’s name is first again. To some he is a con, a bully, a toxic male messiah who can’t take criticism. To others he is a hypocrite, a fake, a reckless distraction unfit to lead us into the future. Musk is a taskmaster who plays fast and loose with the rules. He’s a homeless billionaire who takes us all as fools.

But those who know the man best say the reality is somewhere in between. Elon Musk is complicated. Human, even. (Perish the thought.) And that truth, paired with Musk’s audacious successes this year, tells us more about the state of business in 2020 than anything else.

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Elon the brain.

The sedans are lined up in tidy rows at socially distant intervals, 12 deep and two dozen wide, midday sun gleaming off hoods of silver, white, blue, and red. Every single vehicle is a brand-new Tesla Model S.

A 21st-century drive-in movie for the Silicon Valley set? Not quite. It is Battery Day here at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, Calif., and the drivers assembled on this warm September afternoon have come to hear Elon Musk review the company’s annual performance and offer a glimpse into what’s in store for the future—including, they’ll soon discover, a racetrack-ready version of the Model S called Plaid, named not for its sartorial treatment but after the top speed of the spacecraft in the 1987 spoof movie Spaceballs. (No one said Musk didn’t have a sense of humor.)

Cheers and triumphant fists appear from rolled-down windows as Musk, in a black graphic T-shirt, takes the stage. Car horns blare in greeting. The CEO responds with a delighted chuckle. “Hi everyone,” he says, grinning, as he surveys the scene before him. “It’s a little hard to read the room with everyone being in cars, but it’s the only way we could do it.” Musk laughs at the apparent absurdity. This year’s event in the age of COVID is a far cry from last year’s traditional slide-deck session held indoors.

And Musk is in far better spirits than he was a year ago—for good reason. In September 2019, Tesla’s stock price had slumped by one-third in nine months, depressed by sluggish sales of its pricier models, a Walmart lawsuit (since settled) over fires involving solar panels made by Tesla subsidiary SolarCity, and escalating trade tension between the U.S. and China that threatened to affect the company’s soon-to-be-opened manufacturing plant outside Shanghai. When Musk took the stage then, his remarks were muted and aimed to reframe the conversation: “It’s been a hell of a year, but a lot of good things are happening.”

That, it turns out, was an understatement. As Elon addresses the car-bound crowd on this day, Tesla’s stock price has shot up eightfold in 12 months, in part owing to an August stock split that whipped investors into a frenzy. And there is plenty more good news. Reports suggest that partner Panasonic will increase its investment in Tesla’s Gigafactory 1, outside Reno, by $100 million. With its Shanghai plant online, the company is on track to produce and deliver a record number of vehicles. Construction of a Berlin factory—boosting the company’s capacity and further insulating it from global trade tensions—is well underway.

In other words, things are going according to plan—a plan that has led to Tesla controlling roughly a third of the nearly $200 billion global electric-vehicle market, which itself is slowly but steadily gaining ground in the broader, multitrillion-dollar automotive market. 

This is no small feat. Tesla’s vertical integration, software orientation, and product differentiation—the result of years of loss-inducing investment in automation, battery science, and other proprietary technologies—are starkly different from that of its more conventional automotive peers. Tesla has navigated the trickiest of financial tracks as it has worked to secure the tremendous capital necessary to start and scale a new automotive manufacturer. Along the way Musk has fought a prolonged war against short-sellers and survived a near-brush with bankruptcy between 2017 and 2019 as his company scaled up to begin producing its least expensive vehicle, the Model 3. The skeptics are persistent: According to financial data firm S3 Partners, nearly 6% of Tesla’s tradable shares are sold short—a massive $22 billion bet against Tesla that has not paid off so far.

There are plenty of Silicon Valley technology startups that craft a business plan, raise money, and fail. With Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Co., and so many others, the scale, timelines, and stakes are exponentially greater. Though Musk will bend over backward to insist that the tens of thousands of people in his employ are responsible for the innovations he is credited with—and for the most part, they are—it is his executive aptitude that has kept such big bets on track through so many challenges. (Musk declined to comment on this story, stating: “I don’t wish to receive awards or recognition.”)

Chart shows SpaceX valuation

Matt Desch, chief executive of the McLean, Va., satellite company Iridium Communications, says he first met Musk 12 or 13 years ago, years before SpaceX logged its first successful launch. Today Iridium is SpaceX’s largest commercial customer, having launched 75 of its satellites on eight SpaceX rockets. 

“No matter who we talked with or what issue was being discussed, Elon’s fingerprints were clear on the matter at hand,” Desch says. “Even as he was building Tesla and other ventures, he was still behind every critical strategic decision.”

And when you find yourself working directly with the man himself? You have to have all your ideas buttoned up—because Musk will politely interrogate you, says a former executive of one of Musk’s companies who, bound by a nondisclosure agreement, declined to be named. If you didn’t properly prepare, he will know. And he will remember—to your detriment.

“He really is, most of the time, the smartest guy in the room,” the executive says. “He will think through decision trees quickly and thoroughly—10 to 15 chess moves in advance. He will close his eyes, flip his head back, and you can see his eyes darting. It can last for a while.”

That dynamic can go awry, too. 

“Elon sees himself as the smartest guy in the room,” the executive adds. “Most of the time he is—but not all of the time. His mistakes come from this. He doesn’t defer to others with more expertise.”

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Elon the embattled.

Musk may be brilliant and shrewd. But his personality can sometimes be a liability to his success, just as easily as it can be a boon. “Part of maintaining innovation over time is that your tenacity doesn’t become pigheadedness, and that your optimism doesn’t disconnect you too far from reality,” says Gregory Shea, an adjunct professor of management at the Wharton School. 

Like everything else Musk does, his flubs—whether internal or public-facing—are larger-than-life. Some people shrug these off as the eccentricities often associated with brilliance. Others aren’t so quick to dismiss his behavior as an example of “geniuses will be geniuses.” Sometimes, Musk gets taken to task. And when it happens, the world gets a front-row seat. 

In mid-November, as COVID numbers broke all sorts of horrifying records in the U.S.—1 million cases were counted in just the first 10 days of the month—Musk took to Twitter to tell the world that he, too, has COVID. Or not.

“Something extremely bogus is going on,” tweeted the CEO, who had publicly downplayed the virus for months. “Was tested for Covid four times today. Two tests came back negative, two came back positive. Same machine, same test, same nurse. Rapid antigen test from BD [a leading provider of diagnostic tools].”

Musk did have a point: So-called rapid antigen tests have been found to be inaccurate if a person isn’t oozing with the virus. That, albeit with a slightly more scientific choice of words, is what the Food and Drug Administration said in a letter to health providers dated Nov. 3. That’s also what Emma Bell, a bioinformatics scientist in Canada who responded to Musk’s tweet, clarified in her own public post, which mocked the CEO’s seeming ignorance of how these rapid tests work—and don’t work. “What’s bogus is that ‘Space Karen’ didn’t read up on the test before complaining to his millions of followers,” Bell wrote in a tweet that quickly went viral. (A “Karen,” for those who don’t know, is a pejorative term for entitled white women.)

“Space Karen” became a meme, spawning images on the Internet of Musk with a blonde bob. But it was just the latest piece of work in Musk’s larger oeuvre of public relations kerfuffles, many of them also hatched on Twitter.

Elon sees himself as the smartest guy in the room. Most of the time he is—but not all of the time. His mistakes come from this.

A former executive of one of Musk’s companies

Like President Donald Trump, Musk has used the social media site as his own personal megaphone to the world, with mixed results. He is both prolific and unfiltered with his more than 40 million followers, subjecting them to his bold and often bizarre musings, his spats with competitors and Tesla skeptics, and his declarations of often unrealistic and unmet timelines for product deliveries. “It’s interesting, as an engineer, to find out about a new deadline via a late-night tweet,” says one former Tesla executive.

Musk has had to pay a heavy price—in some cases literally—for his social media rants. In May of this year, he took to Twitter to proclaim that Tesla’s stock price was “too high imo [an acronym for “in my opinion”].” This short string of words managed to shave an impressive $14 billion off Tesla’s market cap, including $3 billion from Musk’s own stake in the company. And who can forget his debacle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission? In August 2018, Musk tweeted that he was considering taking Tesla private. “Funding secured,” he wrote. The SEC moved quickly, charging the CEO with securities fraud for his “misleading tweets.” The two sides reached a settlement, which included a $20 million fine, and forced Musk to step down from his position as the chairman of Tesla’s board, at least for three years.

It’s not clear whether there is a method to Musk’s tweet storms—or if he just can’t help himself. “I think he probably does care about his brand and reputation,” says Judy Smith, the renowned crisis management expert and CEO of Smith & Co. “But what one person wants to be known for and the way they want to be portrayed is different for the next person.”

Whatever his intentions may be, it’s clear that Musk’s public persona is uncensored to a level very few public-company CEOs allow themselves to reach. Internally, within his companies, he is also known for his candor—for better or worse. That brutal honesty, coupled with a demanding and fast-paced atmosphere that former employees say they have yet to experience anywhere else, has made it hard for many execs to stick around for too long.

Especially at Tesla, Musk has cycled through an alarming number of executives. The departures aren’t always voluntary. “There was a culture of fear,” says one former human resources staffer from Tesla who did not want to be named. “Anyone could get fired at any point. He [Musk] is ultimately the man at top. He is the king. He can fire, behead anyone he wants. He holds all the cards.” Musk owns some 20% of Tesla’s shares, and the company’s board is stacked with loyalists.

Of the five men who made up the original executive team at Tesla, only Musk remains. (JB Straubel, Tesla’s former chief technology officer, departed in July 2019 after 15 years with the automaker.) Many other key people have left, too—from George Blankenship, the VP of worldwide retail, to Greg Reichow, the former VP of operations and production. With every departure, there is presumably a loss of institutional knowledge. And perhaps there is also a ding to the company’s ability to attract yet another round of seasoned executives. One of Tesla’s most recent general counsels (three departed in a 12-month period), Todd Maron, was previously also Musk’s divorce attorney. That’s not to say Maron wasn’t qualified. But it does raise some questions about how wide a pool of A-list candidates Musk is fishing from these days as Tesla’s growth accelerates.  

And yet: In interview after interview with employees who used to work for Musk, not one said they regretted having joined any of his companies. “For me, it was like getting a gig with Eddie Van Halen,” says Rik Avalos, a former recruiter at Tesla and ex-head of talent at Neuralink, the A.I. startup cofounded by Musk (Avalos is also a longtime musician). “But it takes a lot of mental toughness to be part of an Elon Musk company.”

Shea, the Wharton professor, says that Musk’s propensity to cycle through executives may actually have some positive by-products. He brings up a term called “creative abrasion,” coined by Jerry Hirshberg, who, apropos of Tesla, was an automotive designer. The concept is that creativity flourishes when ideas are constantly challenged and people clash, albeit in a productive way. “One of the things that characterizes people who are creative over time is that they end up with a creative network around them,” says the professor. Perhaps Musk’s way of staying innovative is to not just come up with new ideas but to introduce new people into the mix—and exit some of those who have been around for a while.

Whatever the strategy, or lack of one, Musk’s drive for creative undertakings is relentless, and he seems to approach virtually everything in his life with the same level of tenacity, whether he’s right or wrong. That has certainly created detractors along the way. But it’s also spawned loyal fanboys and fangirls.

The devotion to Musk is particularly strong among some Tesla owners, who watch for any signs of new product developments with Apple-like fervor. (Even a line of Tesla-branded tequila, which started out as a practical joke on—where else?—Musk’s Twitter account, sold out within hours in early November.)

Indeed, one of Tesla’s biggest challenges to date has been for supply to meet demand; the company has been plagued by production delays for years. To that end, the automaker has invested heavily in new manufacturing plants, including in China and Europe, where customers are waiting up to four months for new vehicles to be delivered. “Moving beyond, we believe that 2021 is shaping out to be a pivotal year for Tesla as it begins production at two new facilities and launches a number of new products in the lineup,” a trio of Deutsche Bank analysts wrote in a recent report.

Musk has said that he expects Tesla to hit its production target for 2020, delivering 500,000 cars. And Wall Street analysts seem to agree that it’s plausible. In the third quarter of 2020, even as COVID-19 raged, Tesla delivered 139,300 vehicles, an all-time record. (True to form, Musk defied a California order and restarted production at the company’s Fremont plant before a stay-at-home order was officially lifted. “If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me,” he tweeted on May 11. No one was arrested, but several workers later tested positive for the virus.)

Tesla still has a lot to prove—not just its capacity to significantly ramp up production, but also its ability to deliver on promises of fully self-driving vehicles, which have also faced delays. And yet, these aspirations are exactly why the 17-year-old company has quickly surpassed traditional carmakers in the eyes of investors. And that’s just the mark Musk is leaving on terra firma.

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Elon the Businessperson of the Year.

In 2012, Musk appeared on 60 Minutes to talk about his vision for commercial space travel. Correspondent Scott Pelley asked the entrepreneur how he felt about criticism from astronauts Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, who had gone before Congress to protest the commercialization of space, arguing that the American government’s reliance on private space vehicles could threaten U.S. space dominance.

“I was very sad to see that,” Musk responded as his eyes teared up and his voice trembled. “Those guys are heroes of mine, so it’s really tough. I wish they would come and visit … see the hard work that we’re doing here, and I think that it would change their mind.”

Fast-forward to 2020 and it’s clear that NASA’s launchpads are busier than ever, in large part thanks to SpaceX. Musk may not have had time to change the astronauts’ minds—Armstrong died later in 2012, and Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, died in 2017—but it is clear that he successfully sold his vision to the space agency that made them famous.

In a statement celebrating the Resilience mission and the milestone that it represents for SpaceX and NASA, Musk, perhaps expectedly, set his sights even higher: “This is a great honor that inspires confidence in our endeavor to return to the Moon, travel to Mars, and ultimately help humanity become multi-planetary.”

Sound far-fetched? Undoubtedly. But a controversial businessman who made electric cars cool and turned reusable rockets into reality is not to be underestimated. Even with so many critics rooting for him to fail, it’s hard to bet against Elon Musk and his out-of-this-world ambition. And if Musk gets his way—as he so often does—he will not only leave his mark on earth. His legacy, warts and all, will be multi-planetary.

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How to lead like Elon: 4 Key lessons

We asked business experts, Musk-watchers, and former colleagues what makes him such an effective, if unconventional, executive.

1. Never innovate from the status quo.

To solve the biggest problems, don’t start with existing infrastructure—throw everything out the door and begin anew. True moonshots rethink the problem, not the solution. Everything else follows.

2. Hire brilliant people—then challenge them to shine.

When you work for Musk, you embrace the notion that creative engineers can solve anything and nothing is impossible. The executive has been known to give young engineers tremendous responsibility to solve problems, leaving them overnight in airplane hangars, for example, to tackle a complex technical challenge on a rocket.

3. Understand your customers’ problems.

Musk’s candid, quippy tweets often trigger news headlines for all the wrong reasons—“Area Executive Says Impolitic Thing”—but closer inspection of his communications reveals a rambling, unfiltered conversation between a CEO and his customers. That two-way street drives both Musk’s popular appeal and his occasionally unorthodox solutions.

4. Manners matter.

Despite the brash reputation he has on the Internet, people who know Musk best say he is extraordinarily polite and well-mannered, even under great pressure—“a credit to his parents,” one longtime colleague says—and an unheralded superpower when it comes to negotiating deals.

A version of this article appears in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Fortune with the headline, “Businessperson of the Year: Elon the Bold.”