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Musk is neither shy nor boastful about being self-taught in a field he means to lead. Rather, spelunking for knowledge on his own seems to be a matter of mere efficiency. "I find universities a very slow place to learn things," he says. Born in South Africa, he moved to Canada--his mother's home country--when he was in his teens. He attended Queen's University before switching to Penn in 1992 and graduating with his double major. Unmoved by the undergraduate experience, he gave formal education a last chance in 1995, enrolling in a Stanford University Ph.D. program in physics and materials sciences. He dropped out after two days.
Musk's taste for learning things independently has been a pattern since way back. Like innumerable small boys, he first got bitten by the space bug when he built and launched model rockets. Unlike most boys, he did not build them from kits. Instead he designed his rockets from the fins up and powered them with fuel of his own devising.
He grew up with a respect--sometimes grudging--for Russia's and America's historic lineups of rockets and can tick them off with a sommelier's familiarity. "The Saturn 5 is hard to beat," he says. "The Titan 2 is impressive from a mass-fraction point of view. The Soyuz is not a great design, but it's been around a long time and they've optimized the heck out of it."
But his talent with computers, including writing code, is a far easier skill to monetize, and he became caught up in the dotcom boom--a move that would, in its own way, lead him back to space. In 1999 he founded X.com a little-known online-payment company that, after some acquisitions and expansions, became PayPal, a very well-known online-payment company. In 2002 he sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in stock, and in the years that followed he rolled his fortune into three other start-ups: SpaceX in 2002; Tesla Motors, which manufactures electric cars, in 2003; and SolarCity, which markets solar-energy systems, in 2006. All three are going concerns, but it was SpaceX that was destined to become a game changer, thanks in part to NASA's well-documented woes.
Barely a year after SpaceX was founded, the shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, eliminating any doubt that the shuttles, while beautiful, were a fragile, rococo, temperamental mess. In early 2004, President George W. Bush announced that the remaining fleet would be retired by 2010 and that NASA would return to its Apollo roots, building old-style expendable spacecraft. But the new program would have to be implemented by the same ossified NASA bureaucracy and funded by the same obstreperous bunch in Congress, and the whole enterprise soon fell back into the familiar lather-rinse-repeat pattern of overpromising and underdelivering, too little funding and too much infighting.
By 2006, the space agency had faced reality and announced that it was establishing the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, under which it would let the private sector take over the business of making taxi runs to low Earth orbit, freeing NASA to focus on missions to the moon, asteroids or Mars.