One stormy afternoon in August 2008, a Falcon 1 rocket momentarily flirted with space before breaking up and plummeting back to Earth. So ended months of sweaty engineering work on the remote Pacific atoll of Kwajalein, the hopes of the late Star Trek actor James “Scotty” Doohan of having his onboard ashes float eternally through space and the dreams of the then six-year-old SpaceX start-up run by Elon Musk.
The South African-born entrepreneur had sunk a big chunk of his earnings from PayPal into his seemingly quixotic quest to launch a private space company. But Musk had only budgeted for three rocket launches and had seen them all fail. “I thought that if we couldn’t get this thing to orbit in three failures, we deserved to die,” Musk said.
But somehow in that moment of extreme duress, in the middle of the global financial crisis, a venture capital drought that was threatening two of his other businesses, Tesla and SolarCity, and a divorce from his first wife, Justine, Musk rallied his dispirited team and scraped together just enough money to stage a fourth attempt. As one of SpaceX’s employees recalled: “He collected everyone in the room and said we have another rocket, get your shit together, and go back to the island and launch it in six weeks.” It was SpaceX’s “fly or die” moment.
The scrambled success of that fourth flight saved SpaceX and enabled it to emerge as one of the world’s most innovative and valuable private space companies. It has since launched hundreds of satellites, pioneered the use of reusable rockets and flown astronauts to the International Space Station. Space exploration used to be the focus of superpower rivalry between the Soviet Union and the US. But it is increasingly becoming a battle between billionaires as Musk vies with Jeff Bezos, the Amazon boss and founder of the Blue Origin space company, for technological prestige.
At its latest fundraising in February, SpaceX was valued at about $74bn. But small rocket launches and Nasa-style “flag and footprint” missions have for Musk only ever been the first steps in his extraordinary personal ambition to colonise Mars and turn Homo sapiens into a multi-planetary species.
Eric Berger, senior space editor at the Ars Technica website, does a fine job of telling the white-knuckle story of how SpaceX was created in 2002 and came close to collapse several times. Although Liftoff recounts the experiences of many of SpaceX’s brilliant engineers, the near-maniacal Musk is almost always at the heart of the story. His obsession with even the smallest technical details meant he spent up to 90 per cent of his time at SpaceX dealing with precise engineering questions, enabling him to take operational and financial decisions with in-depth knowledge and startling speed.
“He offered an intoxicating brew of vision, charisma, audacious goals, resources and free lattes and Cokes,” Berger writes. While the hit TV show of the time Survivor used the tagline “Outwit. Outplay. Outlast”, SpaceX’s printed T-shirt motto was: “Outsweat. Outdrink. Outlaunch.”
The margin between triumph and catastrophe in the space business has always been perilously thin. Just one wrong line of computer code can doom a multimillion-dollar rocket launch. The singular feature of the SpaceX story was the astonishing pace at which the company developed, opting for a high-risk iterative approach rather than the linear method traditionally favoured by the industry. In the words of one academic who studied SpaceX: “In the long run, talent wins over experience, and an entrepreneurial culture over heritage.”
Within three and a half years of being founded, SpaceX had built two launch pads and a flight-ready rocket. Although the company was driven by Musk’s entrepreneurialism, it also depended critically on state support. Darpa, the fabled US research agency, facilitated SpaceX’s move to its Kwajalein base and helped swing funding for satellite launches its way.
SpaceX’s subsequent success also owed much to the commercial acumen of Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and chief operating officer, who became expert at wrangling contracts for satellite launches from Nasa officials and corporate executives. In the early 2000s, SpaceX offered satellite launches for $6m compared with a minimum of $26m for the rival air-launched Pegasus vehicle now owned by Northrop Grumman.
In spite of SpaceX’s remarkable success, Musk remains frustrated and fixated on reaching Mars. As Musk has famously said, he wants to die on Mars, just not on impact. When Berger interviewed him 19 years after SpaceX’s foundation and pointed out that he was not even close to his ambition, Musk replied: “Yeah. Not even close. It’s a goddamn outrage.”
Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days that Launched SpaceX by Eric Berger, William Morrow $27.99/ William Collins, £20, 288 pages
John Thornhill is the FT’s innovation editor
Graphic timeline by Ian Bott
The graphic in this article has been amended since original publication to clarify the size and nature of SpaceX’s 2006 contract to serve the ISS
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café
Get alerts on Biography and memoir when a new story is published