The inspiration for the big-screen character of Tony Stark, alter ego of Iron Man, is our 2012 Achiever of the Year, Elon Musk, a self-made superhero doing more to preserve humankind than all 'The Avengers' combined.Chris Raymond
When you work on an epic scale, tossing out huge ideas as if they were pennies aimed at a wishing well, you get used to hearing the word crazy. For Elon Musk, the term springs up so frequently, he might as well print it on his business card—right in front of his name. Crazy Elon Musk. Who else would have the audacity to plan a privately funded mission to Mars?
That’s right, Mars. Take a moment to think about that vision, because it’s how all this crazy business began: with a madcap scheme to draw attention to the lack of ambition in America’s space program.
A lifetime before he aimed at distant planets, Musk was a driving force behind two of the most successful startups the digital world had ever known. Zip2, the Internet services provider he co-founded with his younger brother, Kimbal, at age 24, was purchased by Compaq for $307 million. PayPal, the online payment system he developed with Peter Thiel and Max Levchin, was scooped up by eBay for $1.5 billion. After all his shares were added up, Musk was worth $180 million.
It takes a certain measure of savvy to pull off deals like those, and you’ve got to respect a man who assembles such a private fortune in only seven years’ time. So when Musk decided, after a soul-searching car ride with a college friend on the Long Island Expressway, that he should aspire to put life on Mars by rocketing a miniature greenhouse there, people humored him. And when he flew off to Moscow to talk with the Russians about purchasing two intercontinental ballistic missiles, they smiled. But when he announced that he was going to start yet another company—one that would build its very own rockets—they concluded he was nuts.
“The public tends to respond to precedents and superlatives, ” Musk said in a commencement speech at Cal Tech last June. That’s why the notion of sending that greenhouse into space held so much appeal for him. Not only would it bring life to Mars, the first tiptoe for what will be a marathon colonization effort, but it would also be the greatest distance life from Earth had ever traveled. NASA has sent rovers to the Red Planet before, most recently last year, to take photos and collect samples, but the idea of sending living organisms has been only vaguely conceptualized. Musk believes a permanent human base on Mars is attainable sooner than even the foremost stargazers can fathom, though tremendous advancements must first be made in rocket propulsion.
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