Science and Exploration

Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX – Book Review

By Keith Cowing
April 1, 2021
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Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX – Book Review
Eric Berger

When I was growing up in the 1960s they’d show those old sci fi films from the 1950s on TV as an example of what the post-Apollo future would be like. People would climb into silvery rockets with fins and then they’d blast off – and land somewhere – in the same rocket.
Sometimes landing legs and a ladder would appear. Oftentimes they’d recycle V-2 footage and play it backward for the landing scene. Or they’d build models hanging from wires with small blow torches in the bottom with flames shooting out sideways. We’d also see replays of rockets blowing up and crashing a lot. The future was going to be shiny and exciting.

But then the silvery rockets with their big fins disappeared. Instead the NASA rockets we saw were large, used once, and for the most part did not explode. Then we added wings and aside from several fatal accidents, these rockets came home and landed like airplanes. Since this was all rather expensive we did not see more than a couple of launches a year. So much for the Buck Rogers weekly episodes from NASA.

Now here we are at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century. And it is back to the future. The big white NASA rockets were retired. The new one is a decade late and is still not flying and if it does it will only fly once every several years. But fear not: the rockets with fins and landing legs are back – with a vengeance.

This retro future we are now witnessing is happening in many companies in many countries. But it can be traced back to one company – and one person: SpaceX, the brainchild of Elon Musk. With the notion of reusing rockets now accepted fact due to the Falcon 9, Musk is now building shiny stainless steel rockets in the middle of nowhere in Texas and blowing them up on a regular basis. And as soon as he can he plans to send people around the Moon and then to the surface of Mars. And when he does it will be in shiny aerodynamically-shaped spaceships from more than half a century ago.

The story of SpaceX – utterly synonymous with the story of Elon Musk – is the subject of Eric Berger’s marvelous book “Liftoff”. In a nutshell this book is a day-to-day diary of frequent near death corporate experiences, world-class MacGyvering, and engineers propelled by one part caffeine, one part RP-1, and one part dreams. This is all mixed in with in-your-face political jockeying, and a child-like drive on the part of Musk who read far too much science fiction as a kid and has the means to make it become reality. So he does.

I have known Elon for more than 20 years. I met him when he was in his 20s. Billionaire lifestyle aside, he has changed little since I first met him. To me that is a double edged sword for Musk. He has an inexhaustible supply of motivation that is constantly slamming into the reality of how the world works plus the whole rocket science thing. So far, Musk seems to be winning the battle.

This book aptly describes the challenges that Musk faced when he went up against the orthodoxy of the military industrial complex of Big Aerospace and NASA. I can recall senior aerospace executives openly referring to him as “that boy and his rocket”. Nonplussed, Musk and the team he recruited – often by sheer force of personality – often saw this resistance as a power source. Indeed they often embraced the absurdity of what they were doing so long as Elon gave them free meals and a place to crash after working 18 hour days.

There is one story in the book that is only partially told by Berger: that time when SpaceX brought a Falcon 1 to Washington DC. Back in those days Elon made his first hire in Washington DC – Frank Sietzen, a veteran space journalist and frequent collaborator of mine. I recommended Frank to Elon since Frank knew everyone in DC and Elon did not. One day Frank and I were talking and he mentioned that he was making progress in getting Elon to wear a suit and tie when he visited with members of Congress. But Elon was frustrated that SpaceX was not being taken seriously. I honestly do not recall who uttered the words first but Frank and I both hit on the idea of bringing a Falcon 1 to Washington. Frank and I had both rented large venues in town over the years for receptions. So Frank pitched the idea to Elon. It only took seconds to approve.

A few months later I was standing on a podium in the middle of Independence Avenue across from the National Air and Space Museum introducing Elon and the Falcon 1 which I referred to as “not our fathers rocket.” Flash forward a decade or so and Frank’s ashes were launched into space on a Falcon 9. Elon and I swapped emails at the time about how it is sad to see more and more people who have left us.

I bring this up for a reason. One of the things that echoes throughout the book is Berger’s description of how people joined Musk and the SpaceX family. This whole SpaceX thing is not everyone’s cup of tea. But for those who can resonate and thrive with the crazy hours, relentless work, and caffeine there is a camaraderie and sense of purpose that is legendary in the industry. SpaceX not only does the impossible and improbable on a daily basis, those very same people who talked about “that boy and his rocket” are either retired or are now feverishly copying the success paradigms that SpaceX pioneered.

When SpaceX was getting ready to try its first launch of a Falcon 1 Elon asked me about PR and doing things live. I told him that he might as well do everything live. Since everyone expected things to blow up – by showing things blow up live they’d simply get that news faster. BUT if he did things live and was successful then people would admire the plucky audacity and buzz that goes with live high wire acts. And when you are begging for money you need all the buzz you can muster. I can recall an email from Elon with a Quicktime video link – directly to Kwajalein. Not cheap to do. He had 2 links – one for his staff and one for me to to watch. I gave him advice on camera placement etc. At one point a camera on a mast seemed shaky so I sent him an email. Not 5 minutes later, on the other side of the world, on a tiny coral atoll, someone climbed up the tower to bolt the camera down. I saw a face flash by – I swear it was Elon’s brother Kimball. This was an utterly bare bones endeavor. And they knew it. And it eventually paid off. And they never forgot it.

Lessons learned the hard way like this can often have a lasting effect on a company in the future. As Berger notes SpaceX had many challenges like this and oftentimes the experience on Kwajalein with Falcon 1 was something they leaned back upon – with a smile.

As you read through the challenges that presented themselves, Berger relays endless stories about how Musk and his merry band of rocketeers derived inspiration from flops. Other companies would have PR people jump in front of any news of accidents or mishaps. Musk put together a blooper reel set to Monty Python music of all of the times that Falcon 9 first stages “rapidly disassembled” as they tried to land. And when it came time to show how insane the Falcon Heavy is he launched his electric car with a David Bowie soundtrack. If it blew up? Oh well, it was an old used car anyway.

But yes, you are about to remind me, this is a book about a company that builds sophisticated rockets to launch commercial, scientific, and human payloads into space. This is serious stuff. People have to grow up eventually. So all the Hawaiian shirts and fun and games need to end at some point, right? Not at all. I do not think that they will. Much lies ahead for SpaceX – and the companies that some employees have left to found – and the other companies – backed by zillionaires – who have derived lessons learned from the SpaceX experience.

Berger’s insane tales regale us with the diving catches on Kwajalein, battles with big aerospace on Capitol Hill, and the lure of becoming a multi-planet species – all led by a guy who relished posing as a James Bond millionaire with a stuffed white cat on his private jet. If all of this is what you get paid to do everyday when you show up for work in Hawthorne or Boca Chica, then it should be abundantly clear why SpaceX is not afraid to get dirty, blow things up, produce a gag reel, hire run of the mill welders, and build rockets in tents in a seaside desert town.

Speaking from personal experience having built a space research facility on a desert island near the North Pole it is precisely this sort of managerial flexibility, creativity, and plain old moxie that someone will need to live and thrive on another world – like Mars.

This book lays out the process whereby SpaceX has developed such expertise. Only time will tell if they manage to pull it off – and whether they do it on Mars.

Highly recommended.

Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, Eric Berger

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.