Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Early Days of SpaceX

Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Early Days of SpaceX

Liftoff shares the story of the early days of SpaceX... and it is a story for the ages. Rockets. Near-death experiences. Explosions. Success.

I'd previously read Ashlee Vance's biography of Musk, and while Elon is a fascinating person to study and learn about, I kept feeling like I wasn't getting the whole story.

Liftoff differs in that author Eric Berger had complete access to Musk and the early SpaceX team. Instead of needing to piece together a narrative from secondhand accounts, he was able to hear the stories directly from teammates.

The result is a rich tapestry woven together from accounts of engineers, executives, and investors backing SpaceX. The whole tale feels much more complete.

Elon was not sufficiently ambitious

I hadn't realized this, but when Elon first started SpaceX, he hadn't planned to start a rocket company at all. He simply wanted to recapture the nation's imagination around space travel and get additional funding for NASA.

His original mission was to set up a webcam and terrarium on Mars. The webcam would live-stream video back to earth of living plants, and inspire humankind to think about colonizing mars.

But as Elon dug into the costs, his plans were immediately derailed. The Russians provided the only option to launch a rocket into space on aging ICBMs... and they charged exorbitant prices.

So on the flight home from Russia, Elon did some quick back-of-the-napkin math around how much it would cost to launch a rocket into space. He came to the conclusion that he could launch rockets for about 10% of the price the Russians were giving him. And that led to the start of SpaceX.

Credit goes to Malcom Handley for this concept, he has a great articulation of it.

Hiring is an incredible superpower

When it comes to building and launching a rocket, the stakes are at all-time highs. Years of design and months of manufacturing eventually come down to a single ten minute window to see whether the launch is successful.

That means that the margin for error is really really slim. While a team made up of the top 1% of engineers might succeed, a team of just the top 5% will fail because botched launches will cause them to run out of capital.

It's drastically different from most software businesses. In enterprise SaaS, great engineering is a huge tailwind (and might make the difference at scale), but typically won't make or break an entire business in the early days.

Reading about the initial SpaceX hires underscores how important hiring is to get right. The early team has some truly incredible people, who both have significant experience, but are also able to invent totally new forms of rocketry.

Elon himself was heavily involved at every step of the hiring process, from doing technical interviews to selling candidates. He was constantly looking for the brightest young minds to devote themselves to the cause. He even traveled to one candidate's home to interview them.

There's a great story where a MechE professor did a behavioral survey of his 10 top students to see what made them great. He published the findings, and found 6/10 of them all went to work at SpaceX. Elon later asked to talk with him, and upon meeting, immediately asked for the names of the other four! He wanted the whole set!

Don't take no for an answer

Throughout the book, I was consistently reminded of how powerful it is simply to not take 'no' for an answer.

Initially, SpaceX tested at Vandenberg Air Force Base just north of Santa Barbara. Vandenberg had two launch sites, but only one of them was fully operational. SpaceX worked with the military to build their rocket and run it through all the required testing plans. They positioned it on the non-operational site, since the working site was currently occupied by a NASA mission.

But when SpaceX had finalized all of the paperwork, it caught the military by surprise! They hadn't had a private company get this far in the process before.

So, the military told SpaceX they could launch only after NASA's own rocket did.

The result was understandably frustrating to Elon and the team. They'd worked for months, had limited runway, and were now being told they had an indefinite timetable until launch.

So the team began looking for other options. They settled on the Kwajalein Atoll (Kwaj). Kwaj is a remote set of islands in the South Pacific that house a U.S. military base, and was previously a testing site for nuclear weapons.

The rocket itself was assembled and launched from Omelek, a tiny island in the chain which basically just has a launchpad and a helipad.

They assembled and launched their first four rockets entirely off Omelek island, which has one round-trip boat per day. The engineering and manufacturing teams would frequently sleep on the island, rather than return to their military cots on Kwaj's primary island. Living conditions were spartan, and the team would work on-site for weeks at a time.

Kwaj is also extremely difficult to get to. So parts were often shipped on Elon's private jet!

In all of those cases, the SpaceX team could have taken "no" as the answer and given up. The fact that they didn't made all the difference.

SpaceX's outcome was wildly improbable

Elon famously told the team that they had enough funding for three attempts of their Falcon 1 rocket... and that was it.

The first launch in March 2006 blew up after 30s. The second launch took place one year later in March 2007, and failed to reach orbit after an engine problem 5 minutes in.

On the last launch in August 2008, SpaceX had months of runway left before the company ran out of money. And Elon was trying to keep both SpaceX and Tesla afloat simultaneously.

And then... the launch blew up due to interactions between the stage 1 and stage 2 rockets. The payloads for their early customers (NASA, the DoD, and one private company) all exploded in transit. The company was basically out of options.

But they decided to give it one more shot. They had a full set of replacement parts for the rocket on-hand, and had just 6 weeks to assemble the rocket directly on Omelek.

They managed to book one C-17 transport to fly both the engineering team and the rocket parts to the island. On the voyage, the rocket nearly imploded on itself due to changes in pressure on the descent.

Against all odds, the rocket managed to fly successfully on that fourth flight. Success here made the difference between SpaceX being able to fly more commercial missions and raise additional funding and failure.

Elon's naming superpower

Throughout the book, I was once again reminded of how good Elon is at naming and branding things. Every one of their pieces of hardware is given its own name: Merlin engine, Falcon rocket, Kestrel (smaller engine).

At scale, the best founders are marketers (though rarely in title).

A tight, hard-working culture is unbeatable

One of my biggest takeaways from the book is just how much fun it is to work as part of a small, elite, team on a focused mission.

The comaradery and force of purpose the early SpaceX team had sounded like an incredible (if slightly grueling) work environment. Years of work would culminate in 10-15 minutes of an intense "do or die" moment.

Reading the book has definitely re-kindled my interest in hardware, and in solving legitimately hard problems. I'd recommend it to anyone else looking to be inspired by what a small group of people can do.