In a corner of SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, a small, secretive group called Ad Astra is hard at work. These are not the company’s usual rocket scientists. At the direction of Elon Musk, they are tackling ambitious projects involving flamethrowers, robots, nuclear politics, and defeating evil AIs.
Those at Ad Astra still find time for a quick game of dodgeball at lunch, however, because the average age within this group is just 10 years old.
Ad Astra encompasses students, not employees. For the past four years, this experimental non-profit school has been quietly educating Musk’s sons, the children of select SpaceX employees, and a few high-achievers from nearby Los Angeles. It started back in 2014, when Musk pulled his five young sons out of one of Los Angeles’ most prestigious private schools for gifted children. Hiring one of his sons’ teachers, the CEO founded Ad Astra to “exceed traditional school metrics on all relevant subject matter through unique project-based learning experiences,” according to a previously unreported document filed with the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
“I just didn’t see that the regular schools were doing the things that I thought should be done,” he told a Chinese TV station in 2015. “So I thought, well let’s see what we can do. Maybe creating a school will be better.”
In an atmosphere closer to a venture capital incubator than a traditional school, today’s Ad Astra students undertake challenging technical projects, trade using their own currency, and can opt out of subjects they don’t enjoy. Children from 7 to 14 years old work together in teams, with few formal assessments and no grades handed out.
Ad Astra’s principal hopes that the school will revolutionize education in the same way Tesla has disrupted transportation, and SpaceX the rocket industry. But as Musk’s sons near graduation age, the future of Ad Astra is unclear. Will Musk maintain interest in the school once his children move on? And even if he does, can a school of fewer than 40 students ever be anything more than a high-tech crèche for already-privileged children?
The school’s makeup
Ad Astra has a lower profile than most start-ups in stealth mode. Its website is just a logo and an email address, and the school does not market itself to parents. Musk himself has said virtually nothing about Ad Astra, and both SpaceX and Ad Astra declined our requests for comment. Currently, the only glimpses of Ad Astra available to outsiders come from a 2017 webinar interview with the school’s principal (captured in an unlisted YouTube video) and recent public filings like the IRS document referenced above.
Despite this mystique, demand among families in Los Angeles is astronomical, says Christina Simon, author of Beyond the Brochure, a guide to private elementary schools in the city. “There are people who could afford any of the private schools in LA but want that school in particular,” she says. “It’s very much about Elon Musk and who he is.”
The last admissions cycle in 2017 saw up to 400 families visit in the hope of securing one of just a dozen open spots.
In December, an online application form purportedly for Ad Astra starting popping up in Los Angeles parenting forums and Facebook groups. The form asked for details of grades, test scores, and personal information about families, but it had no affiliation or contact listed.
“I talked to several parents who were going to take a chance and apply, even though it was impossible to verify that it was an Ad Astra application,” says Simon. “That’s the level of interest in this school. I cannot imagine that happening with any other school, public or private.”
The school is even mysterious within SpaceX, Musk’s rocket company that houses Ad Astra on its campus in the industrial neighborhood of Hawthorne. About half Ad Astra’s students are children of SpaceX employees, and the school is touted during recruiting, says Simon. “I’ve heard from various SpaceX families that they have tried and failed to get information about the school, even though they were told it was a benefit during the interview,” she says.
The lucky few who succeed in applying, pass a reasoning test, and are admitted ultimately enter a school quite unlike any other. For a start, Ad Astra’s location inside a working company is unconventional to say the least. “We started with eight kids in a really small conference room with transparent walls,” says Joshua Dahn, head of the school, speaking in conversation with entrepreneur Peter Diamandis last year. “Engineers [would] always come drop by and peek on it.”
That first year, Musk’s children accounted for nearly two thirds of the student body. “It was really small,” remembers Dahn. “Especially when five [students] from the same family… go on vacation and you have three kids [left].”
It is not unusual for parents to have a grassroots effort to build their own school, according to Nancy Hertzog, an educational psychology professor at University of Washington and an expert in gifted education. “But money talks in terms of how that school is directed and supported,” she says. “The worry would be, are these schools preventing kids from other populations getting in? Are there strict test scores, and can they support kids with disabilities?”
A non-discrimination policy quietly published in the Los Angeles Times in 2016 stated that Ad Astra does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin, but the document made no mention of disabilities.
Although Ad Astra now has dedicated classrooms and a chemistry lab at SpaceX, its start-up chic still includes whiteboard walls, a Mac laptop for every student, and food trucks for after-school sessions. These, like everything else at school including tuition, are paid for by Elon Musk. He gave Ad Astra $475,000 in both 2014 and 2015, according to the IRS document, and likely more in recent years as the school grew to 31 students.
“[Elon] is extraordinarily generous,” says Dahn. “And it allows us to take any kid that sort of fits… We don’t have unlimited resources but we have more resources than a traditional school.”