Yet, in the early part of 2012, the cynics like me had to take notice of what Musk was actually accomplishing. His once-beleaguered companies were succeeding at unprecedented things. SpaceX flew a supply capsule to the International Space Station and brought it safely back to Earth. Tesla Motors delivered the Model S, a beautiful, all-electric sedan that took the automotive industry’s breath away and slapped Detroit sober. These two feats elevated Musk to the rarest heights among business titans. Only Steve Jobs could claim similar achievements in two such different industries, sometimes putting out a new Apple product and a blockbuster Pixar movie in the same year. And yet, Musk was not done. He was also the chairman and largest shareholder of SolarCity, a booming solar energy company poised to file for an initial public offering. Musk had somehow delivered the biggest advances the space, automotive, and energy industries had seen in decades in what felt like one fell swoop.
It was in 2012 that I decided to see what Musk was like first-hand and to write a cover story about him for Bloomberg Businessweek . At this point in Musk’s life, everything ran through his assistant/loyal appendage Mary Beth Brown. She invited me to visit what I’ve come to refer to as Musk Land.
Anyone arriving at Musk Land for the first time will have the same head-scratching experience. You’re told to park at One Rocket Road in Hawthorne, where SpaceX has its HQ. It seems impossible that anything good could call Hawthorne home. It’s a bleak part of Los Angeles County in which groupings of run-down houses, run-down shops, and run-down eateries surround huge, industrial complexes that appear to have been built during some kind of architectural Boring Rectangle movement. Did Elon Musk really stick his company in the middle of this dreck? Then, okay, things start to make more sense when you see one 550,000-square-foot rectangle painted an ostentatious hue of “Unity of Body, Soul, and Mind” white. This is the main SpaceX building.
It was only after going through the front doors of SpaceX that the grandeur of what this man had done became apparent. Musk had built an honest-to-God rocket factory in the middle of Los Angeles. And this factory was not making one rocket at a time. No. It was making many rockets—from scratch. The factory was a giant, shared work area. Near the back were massive delivery bays that allowed for the arrival of hunks of metal, which were transported to two-story-high welding machines. Over to one side were technicians in white coats making motherboards, radios, and other electronics. Other people were in a special, airtight glass chamber, building the capsules that rockets would take to the Space Station. Tattooed men in bandanas were blasting Van Halen and threading wires around rocket engines. There were completed bodies of rockets lined up one after the other ready to be placed on trucks. Still more rockets, in another part of the building, awaited coats of white paint. It was difficult to take in the entire factory at once. There were hundreds of bodies in constant motion whirring around a variety of bizarre machines.