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How a call made to a rocket scientist helped Elon Musk find SpaceX

The multimillionaire made a few cold calls in his early entrepreneurial life, but this one got him a co-founder.

CEO of Tesla, CEO and founder of SpaceX, co-founder of Neuralink and OpenAI, founder of the Boring Company and Twitterati’s beloved Elon Musk seems to be going great guns by advancing revolutionary technology across various industries. 

However, Musk faced his fair share of challenges before starting SpaceX. At that point in time, he had very restricted knowledge about the domain and had to contact several experts to set up connections and gain more knowledge before starting the venture. His business idea fascinated some experts and didn’t look realistic to many. 

In November 1999, a 28-year-old Musk founded X.com, which a few months later merged with Confinity Inc. and then became PayPal. Three years later, PayPal was sold to eBay for a whopping $1.5 billion and Musk procured $180 million. By this time, Musk was a multimillionaire. However, the business tycoon and philanthropist wanted more, he dreamt of colonising Mars. 

Musk had big dreams but only limited knowledge about rockets, space technology and Mars. So he made a few cold calls, which not only allowed him to see the business potential but also helped him build the network required to operate SpaceX. 

Initially, Musk considered acquiring Russian launch vehicles — the cheapest and the most advanced rockets available at the time. With the assistance of Mars Society, a volunteer-driven non-profit and space advocacy, Musk approached Jim Cantrell, a rocket expert and an aerospace consultant, who had previously worked in the Jet propulsion laboratory for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

“I had the top down on my car, so all I could make out was that some guy named ‘Ian Musk’ was saying that he was an internet billionaire and needed to talk to me,” Cantrell, who was driving home at the time Musk made his cold call, told Esquire

He told Wired that Musk’s pitch was overly prepared and rehearsed and that it was “almost staccato how quickly he spoke”. He did not start with a “Hello, how are you?” or any kind of small talk for that matter and started with his pitch right away, Cantrell was quoted as saying

Cantrell later went on to help Musk in the incorporation of SpaceX. He also became one of the early employees of the company. Musk’s pitch was perhaps so out of the ordinary that even a decade later, Cantrell had no trouble reciting it verbatim to Wired.

I’m Elon Musk, I’m an internet billionaire, I founded PayPal and X.com. I sold X.com to Compaq for 165 million dollars in cash and I could spend the rest of my life on a beach drinking Mai Tais, but I decided that humanity needs to become a multi-planetary species to survive and I want to do something with my money to show that humanity can do that and I need Russian rockets and that’s why I’m calling you.

After the cold call with Cantrell, Musk worked intensively for years. He tried to learn what he needed to know about rockets. He kept borrowing and reading Cantrell’s books on rocketry and continued to make pitches to experts, thereby formulating a network of advisors. He also eventually recruited many of Cantrell’s colleagues to work on rockets and spacecraft.

However, none of Musk’s pitches succeeded. With a view of acquiring repurposed rockets, Musk and Cantrell went to Russia and pitched to a rocket designer. The designer did not quite like the pitch as, in his opinion, the rockets were to be used in wars and not for capitalistic purposes. Experiences like these, however, did not discourage Musk and he continuously strived to learn about rockets. Cantrell wrote on Quora:

In the end, I think that we are seeing a very fundamental shift in the way our world takes on the big challenges facing humanity and Elon’s Way as I call it will be considered the tip of the spear. My hat’s off to the man.

SpaceX’s worth today stands at $46 billion and it is one of the leading players in privatised commercial space programs.


Read More: WireX – September Issue

Muskan Bagrecha
Muskan is an undergraduate student pursuing a Bachelor's in Technology. With a zealous spirit for writing, she finds herself open to the vast realm of learning. She is an avid programmer with a keen interest in technology and science.

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