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Elon Musk reigns over an entrepreneurial landscape of epic proportions: With Tesla Motors, the cherub-faced CEO wants to wean us off fossil fuels with electric cars for the masses. With SolarCity, he envisions panels blooming on a million rooftops. And while those companies soared, Musk was laying the groundwork for the world’s biggest battery factory.

Yet this 42-year-old big-dreaming engineer has his sights on a celestial prize: Mars.

Through a potent combination of vision, determination and attention to detail, Musk has accomplished two tasks widely thought impossible: creating a viable new American car company with Tesla, and a successful private space venture with SpaceX. His vision springs from a childhood in South Africa, where he devoured comics and science fiction, and flew with his swashbuckling dad in a small plane over the African bush. Now, thanks to the fortune he amassed co-founding PayPal and the risk he took on rockets, Musk has a shot at opening up the universe.

Musk studied finance and entrepreneurial management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, as well as physics before heading to Silicon Valley in 1995. He had a summer internship at Pinnacle Research, a Los Gatos energy storage startup. He planned to pursue graduate work in applied physics at Stanford University but instead joined the Internet boom.

Entrepreneurial successes soon followed. Musk co-founded Zip2, which was sold to Compaq in 1999, then launched financial services startup X.com, which morphed into PayPal. He sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002, enabling him to embrace his true love – space travel. He left Silicon Valley for Los Angeles, an epicenter of the aerospace industry, and started SpaceX, where he is CEO and chief technology officer.