SpaceX and its CEO, Elon Musk, hit a home run last week by launching the first commercial mission to service the International Space Station. This has led some to ask if Musk might be the "next Steve Jobs" — a technological and cultural visionary who unites people across a wide range of experiences and backgrounds.
It's a tempting question to ask. I've seen it pop up on Quora, the startup question-and-answer site where I've been spending a lot of time lately hanging out and...well, answering questions (just not yet ones about whether Musk is the new Jobs). It's cropped up since Jobs' death last year and has been discussed more recently in the context of what the two men have in common.
A few months back, in connection with an article I wrote for Pasadena magazine about Musk's other company, Tesla Motors, I asked him what he thought. He was gracious, praising Jobs, but also careful to make a distinction about what he does (sorry, no link):
"I'm a huge admirer of Jobs," [Musk] remarked in an email. "He was incredibly unique and no one will ever really take up his mantle. Also, we are quite different people qualitatively. I do believe strongly in the value of design esthetics, but am much more of a hardcore engineer and technologist." [my emphasis]
There you have it. What's interesting about this is that Musk's own view of himself puts him on a trajectory to serve an entirely different customer than Jobs ever did: the U.S. government. Jobs and Apple had the consumer market. Right now, both SpaceX and Tesla are reliant on the government to keep them going. This should change very soon with Tesla, which is slated to deliver its first "practical" electric car in June, the Model S, a luxury sedan that will compete with BMW and Mercedes. (Up to this point, Tesla has only been selling its high-end, $100,000-plus Roadster — which, as it happens, I've taken for a spin.)
Tesla will also reportedly begin paying off loans that it received as the result of an early 2010 loan guarantee from the Department of Energy.
Tesla is of course now a public company; it staged an IPO in 2010. So it's farther outside the government-funding bubble than SpaceX, which is looking at NASA as its primary customer.
Musk might be somewhat torn about this — he indicated as much in March of this year at a conference in Santa Barbara — but he's a pragmatist, in addition to being an engineer and a technologist. The DOE loan guarantee for Tesla was a means to an end, that end being the purchase of NUMMI, an auto factory in Fremont, Calif. that was the site of an influential partnership between General Motors and Toyota.
Taking up the slack for NASA post-Space Shuttle, and doing so on NASA's dime, also provides SpaceX with the valuable experience and vital cash-flow it needs to get to its own IPO and realize Musk's ultimate ambition, which is to go to Mars. And retire there. Seriously.
When you do what Musk does — cars, rockets — you're going to be enmeshed with the government far more than if you do music players and phones. (And by the way, he's involved with yet another company, SolarCity, just not as CEO.)
Not a bad thing. But something that suggests we should let Jobs be Jobs, R.I.P., and Musk be Musk. And for what it's worth, Musk will soon get the chance to distinguish his own vision even more clearly, when he delivers the commencement address to a whole bunch of hardcore engineers and technologists at Caltech on June 15. Memories of Steve Jobs' famous 2005 Stanford address will certainly be on the minds of many — including grads who may soon be Musk employees.