ELON MUSK – X like SpaceX – in to the space

ELON MUSK TURNED THIRTY IN JUNE 2001, and the birthday hit him hard. “I’m no longer a
child prodigy,” he told Justine, only half joking. That same month X.com officially changed its name
to PayPal, providing a harsh reminder that the company had been ripped away from Musk and given
to someone else to run. The start-up life, which Musk described as akin to “eating glass and staring
into the abyss,”
4 had gotten old and so had Silicon Valley. It felt like Musk was living inside a trade
show where everyone worked in the technology industry and talked all the time about funding, IPOs,
and chasing big paydays. People liked to brag about the crazy hours they worked, and Justine would
just laugh, knowing Musk had lived a more extreme version of the Silicon Valley lifestyle than they
could imagine. “I had friends who complained that their husbands came home at seven or eight,” she
said. “Elon would come home at eleven and work some more. People didn’t always get the sacrifice
he made in order to be where he was.”
The idea of escaping this incredibly lucrative rat race started to grow more and more appealing.
Musk’s entire life had been about chasing a bigger stage, and Palo Alto seemed more like a steppingstone than a final destination. The couple decided to move south and begin their family and the next
chapter of their lives in Los Angeles.
“There’s an element to him that likes the style and the excitement and color of a place like L.A.,”
said Justine. “Elon likes to be where the action is.” A small group of Musk’s friends who felt
similarly had also decamped to Los Angeles for what would be a wild couple of years.
It wasn’t just Los Angeles’s glitz and grandeur that attracted Musk. It was also the call of space.
After being pushed out of PayPal, Musk had started to revisit his childhood fantasies around rocket
ships and space travel and to think that he might have a greater calling than creating Internet services.
The changes in his attitude and thinking soon became obvious to his friends, including a group of
PayPal executives who had gathered in Las Vegas one weekend to celebrate the company’s success.
“We’re all hanging out in this cabana at the Hard Rock Cafe, and Elon is there reading some obscure
Soviet rocket manual that was all moldy and looked like it had been bought on eBay,” said Kevin
Hartz, an early PayPal investor. “He was studying it and talking openly about space travel and
changing the world.”
Musk had picked Los Angeles with intent. It gave him access to space or at least the space
industry. Southern California’s mild, consistent weather had made it a favored city of the aeronautics
industry since the 1920s, when the Lockheed Aircraft Company set up shop in Hollywood. Howard
Hughes, the U.S. Air Force, NASA, Boeing, and myriad other people and organizations have
performed much of their manufacturing and cutting-edge experimentation in and around Los Angeles.
Today the city remains a major hub for the military’s aeronautics work and commercial activity.
While Musk didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do in space, he realized that just by being in Los
Angeles he would be surrounded by the world’s top aeronautics thinkers. They could help him refine
any ideas, and there would be plenty of recruits to join his next venture.
Musk’s first interactions with the aeronautics community were with an eclectic collection of
space enthusiasts, members of a nonprofit group called the Mars Society. Dedicated to exploring and
settling the Red Planet, the Mars Society planned to hold a fund-raiser in mid-2001. The $500-perplate event was to take place at the house of one of the well-off Mars Society members, and
invitations to the usual characters had been mailed out. What stunned Robert Zubrin, the head of the
group, was the reply from someone named Elon Musk, whom no one could remember inviting. “He
gave us a check for five thousand dollars,” Zubrin said. “That made everyone take notice.” Zubrin
began researching Musk, determined he was rich, and invited him for coffee ahead of the dinner. “I
wanted to make sure he knew the projects we had under way,” Zubrin said. He proceeded to regale
Musk with tales of the research center the society had built in the Arctic to mimic the tough conditions
of Mars and the experiments they had been running for something called the Translife Mission, in
which there would be a spinning capsule orbiting Earth that was piloted by a crew of mice. “It would
spin to give them one-third gravity—the same you would have on Mars—and they would live there
and reproduce,” Zubrin told Musk.
When it was time for dinner, Zubrin placed Musk at the VIP table next to himself, the director and
space buff James Cameron, and Carol Stoker, a planetary scientist for NASA with a deep interest in
Mars. “Elon is so youthful-looking and at that time he looked like a little boy,” Stoker said. “Cameron
was chatting him up right away to invest in his next movie, and Zubrin was trying to get him to make a
big donation to the Mars Society.” In return for being hounded for cash, Musk probed about for ideas
and contacts. Stoker’s husband was an aerospace engineer at NASA working on a concept for an
airplane that would glide over Mars looking for water. Musk loved that. “He was much more intense
than some of the other millionaires,” Zubrin said. “He didn’t know a lot about space, but he had a
scientific mind. He wanted to know exactly what was being planned in regards to Mars and what the
significance would be.” Musk took to the Mars Society right away and joined its board of directors.
He donated another $100,000 to fund a research station in the desert as well.
Musk’s friends were not entirely sure what to make of his mental state. He’d lost a tremendous
amount of weight fighting off malaria and looked almost skeletal. With little prompting, Musk would
start expounding on his desire to do something meaningful with his life—something lasting. His next
move had to be either in solar or in space. “He said, ‘The logical thing to happen next is solar, but I
can’t figure out how to make any money out of it,’” said George Zachary, the investor and close friend
of Musk’s, recalling a lunch date at the time. “Then he started talking about space, and I thought he
meant office space like a real estate play.” Musk had actually started thinking bigger than the Mars
Society. Rather than send a few mice into Earth’s orbit, Musk wanted to send them to Mars. Some
very rough calculations done at the time suggested that the journey would cost $15 million. “He asked
if I thought that was crazy,” Zachary said. “I asked, ‘Do the mice come back? Because, if they don’t,
yeah, most people will think that’s crazy.’” As it turned out, the mice were not only meant to go to
Mars and come back but were also meant to procreate along the way, during a journey that would take
months. Jeff Skoll, another one of Musk’s friends who made a fortune at eBay, pointed out that the
fornicating mice would need a hell of a lot of cheese and bought Musk a giant wheel of Le Brouère, a
type of Gruyère.
Musk did not mind becoming the butt of cheese jokes. The more he thought about space, the more
important its exploration seemed to him. He felt as if the public had lost some of its ambition and
hope for the future. The average person might see space exploration as a waste of time and effort and
rib him for talking about the subject, but Musk thought about interplanetary travel in a very earnest
way. He wanted to inspire the masses and reinvigorate their passion for science, conquest, and the
promise of technology.
His fears that mankind had lost much of its will to push the boundaries were reinforced one day
when Musk went to the NASA website. He’d expected to find a detailed plan for exploring Mars and
instead found bupkis. “At first I thought, jeez, maybe I’m just looking in the wrong place,” Musk once
told Wired. “Why was there no plan, no schedule? There was nothing. It seemed crazy.” Musk
believed that the very idea of America was intertwined with humanity’s desire to explore. He found it
sad that the American agency tasked with doing audacious things in space and exploring new frontiers
as its mission seemed to have no serious interest in investigating Mars at all. The spirit of Manifest
Destiny had been deflated or maybe even come to a depressing end, and hardly anyone seemed to
Like so many quests to revitalize America’s soul and bring hope to all of mankind, Musk’s
journey began in a hotel conference room. By this time, Musk had built up a decent network of
contacts in the space industry, and he brought the best of them together at a series of salons—
sometimes at the Renaissance hotel at the Los Angeles airport and sometimes at the Sheraton hotel in
Palo Alto. Musk had no formal business plan for these people to debate. He mostly wanted them to
help him develop the mice-to-Mars idea or at least to come up with something comparable. Musk
hoped to hit on a grand gesture for mankind—some type of event that would capture the world’s
attention, get people thinking about Mars again, and have them reflect on man’s potential. The
scientists and luminaries at the meetings were to figure out a spectacle that would be technically
feasible at a price tag of approximately $20 million. Musk resigned from his position as a director of
the Mars Society and announced his own organization—the Life to Mars Foundation.
The collection of talent attending these sessions in 2001 was impressive. Scientists showed up
from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL. James Cameron appeared, lending some celebrity to
the affair. Also attending was Michael Griffin, whose academic credentials were spectacular and
included degrees in aerospace engineering, electrical engineering, civil engineering, and applied
physics. Griffin had worked for the CIA’s venture capital arm called In-Q-Tel, at NASA, and at JPL
and was just in the process of leaving Orbital Sciences Corporation, a maker of satellites and
spacecraft, where he had been chief technical officer and the general manager of the space systems
group. It could be argued that no one on the planet knew more about the realities of getting things into
space than Griffin, and he was working for Musk as space thinker in chief. (Four years later, in 2005,
Griffin took over as head of NASA.)
The experts were thrilled to have another rich guy appear who was willing to fund something
interesting in space. They happily debated the merits and feasibility of sending up rodents and
watching them hump. But, as the discussion wore on, a consensus started to build around pursuing a
different project—something called “Mars Oasis.” Under this plan, Musk would buy a rocket and use
it to shoot what amounted to a robotic greenhouse to Mars. A group of researchers had already been
working on a space-ready growth chamber for plants. The idea was to modify their structure, so that it
could open up briefly and suck in some of the Martian regolith, or soil, and then use it to grow a plant,
which would in turn produce the first oxygen on Mars. Much to Musk’s liking, this new plan seemed
both ostentatious and feasible.
Musk wanted the structure to have a window and a way to send a video feedback to Earth, so that
people could watch the plant grow. The group also talked about sending out kits to students around the
country who would grow their own plants simultaneously and take notice, for example, that the
Martian plant could grow twice as high as its Earth-bound counterpart in the same amount of time.
“This concept had been floating around in various forms for a while,” said Dave Bearden, a space
industry veteran who attended the meetings. “It would be, yes, there is life on Mars, and we put it
there. The hope was that it might turn on a light for thousands of kids that this place is not that hostile.
Then they might start thinking, Maybe we should go there.” Musk’s enthusiasm for the idea started to
inspire the group, many of whom had grown cynical about anything novel happening in space again.
“He’s a very smart, very driven guy with a huge ego,” Bearden said. “At one point someone
mentioned that he might become Time magazine’s Man of the Year, and you could see him light up. He
has this belief that he is the guy who can change the world.”
The main thing troubling the space experts was Musk’s budget. Following the salons, it seemed
like Musk wanted to spend somewhere between $20 million and $30 million on the stunt, and
everyone knew that the cost of a rocket launch alone would eat up that money and then some. “In my
mind, you needed two hundred million dollars to do it right,” Bearden said. “But people were
reluctant to bring too much reality into the situation too early and just get the whole idea killed.” Then
there were the immense engineering challenges that would need solving. “To have a big window on
this thing was a real thermal problem,” Bearden said. “You could not keep the container warm enough
to keep anything alive.” Scooping Martian soil into the structure seemed not only hard to do
physically but also like a flat-out bad idea since the regolith would be toxic. For a while, the
scientists debated growing the plant in a nutrient-rich gel instead, but that felt like cheating and like it
might undermine the whole point of the endeavor. Even the optimistic moments were awash in
unknowns. One scientist found some very resilient mustard seeds and thought they could possibly
survive a treated version of the Martian soil. “There was a pretty big downside if the plant didn’t
survive,” Bearden said. “You have this dead garden on Mars that ends up giving off the opposite of
the intended effect.”*
Musk never flinched. He turned some of the volunteer thinkers into consultants, and put them to
work on the plant machine’s design. He also plotted a trip to Russia to find out exactly how much a
launch would cost. Musk intended to buy a refurbished intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM,
from the Russians and use that as his launch vehicle. For help with this, Musk reached out to Jim
Cantrell, an unusual fellow who had done a mix of classified and unclassified work for the United
States and other governments. Among other claims to fame, Cantrell had been accused of espionage
and placed under house arrest in 1996 by the Russians after a satellite deal went awry. “After a
couple of weeks, Al Gore made some calls, and it got worked out,” Cantrell said. “I didn’t want
anything to do with the Russians again—ever.” Musk had other ideas.
Cantrell was driving his convertible on a hot July evening in Utah when a call came in. “This guy
in a funny accent said, ‘I really need to talk to you. I am a billionaire. I am going to start a space
program.’” Cantrell could not hear Musk well—he thought his name was Ian Musk—and said he
would call back once he got home. The two men didn’t exactly trust each other at the outset. Musk
refused to give Cantrell his cell phone number and made the call from his fax machine. Cantrell found
Musk both intriguing and all too eager. “He asked if there was an airport near me and if I could meet
the next day,” Cantrell said. “My red flags started going off.” Fearing one of his enemies was trying to
orchestrate an elaborate setup, Cantrell told Musk to meet him at the Salt Lake City airport, where he
would rent a conference room near the Delta lounge. “I wanted him to meet me behind security so he
couldn’t pack a gun,” Cantrell said. When the meeting finally took place, Musk and Cantrell hit it off.
Musk rolled out his “humans need to become a multiplanetary species” speech, and Cantrell said that
if Musk was really serious, he’d be willing to go to Russia—again—and help buy a rocket.
In late October 2001, Musk, Cantrell, and Adeo Ressi, Musk’s friend from college, boarded a
commercial flight to Moscow. Ressi had been playing the role of Musk’s guardian and trying to
ascertain whether his best friend had started to lose his mind. Compilation videos of rockets
exploding were made, and interventions were held with Musk’s friends trying to talk him out of
wasting his money. While these measures failed, Adeo went along to Russia to try to contain Musk as
best as he could. “Adeo would call me to the side and say, ‘What Elon is doing is insane. A
philanthropic gesture? That’s crazy,’” Cantrell said. “He was seriously worried but was down with
the trip.” And why not? The men were heading to Russia at the height of its freewheeling post-Soviet
days when rich guys could apparently buy space missiles on the open market.
Team Musk would grow to include Mike Griffin, and meet with the Russians three times over a
period of four months.* The group set up a few meetings with companies like NPO Lavochkin, which
had made probes intended for Mars and Venus for the Russian Federal Space Agency, and Kosmotras,
a commercial rocket launcher. The appointments all seemed to go the same way, following Russian
decorum. The Russians, who often skip breakfast, would ask to meet around 11 A.M. at their offices
for an early lunch. Then there would be small talk for an hour or more as the meeting attendees picked
over a spread of sandwiches, sausages, and, of course, vodka. At some point during this process,
Griffin usually started to lose his patience. “He suffers fools very poorly,” Cantrell said. “He’s
looking around and wondering when we’re going to get down to fucking business.” The answer was
not soon. After lunch came a lengthy smoking and coffee-drinking period. Once all of the tables were
cleared, the Russian in charge would turn to Musk and ask, “What is it you’re interested in buying?”
The big windup may not have bothered Musk as much if the Russians had taken him more seriously.
“They looked at us like we were not credible people,” Cantrell said. “One of their chief designers
spit on me and Elon because he thought we were full of shit.”
The most intense meeting occurred in an ornate, neglected, prerevolutionary building near
downtown Moscow. The vodka shots started—“To space!” “To America!”—while Musk sat on $20
million, which he hoped would be enough to buy three ICBMs that could be retooled to go to space.
Buzzed from the vodka, Musk asked point-blank how much a missile would cost. The reply: $8
million each. Musk countered, offering $8 million for two. “They sat there and looked at him,”
Cantrell said. “And said something like, ‘Young boy. No.’ They also intimated that he didn’t have the
money.” At this point, Musk had decided the Russians were either not serious about doing business or
determined to part a dot-com millionaire from as much of his money as possible. He stormed out of
the meeting.
The Team Musk mood could not have been worse. It was near the end of February 2002, and they
went outside to hail a cab and drove straight to the airport surrounded by the snow and dreck of the
Moscow winter. Inside the cab, no one talked. Musk had come to Russia filled with optimism about
putting on a great show for mankind and was now leaving exasperated and disappointed by human
nature. The Russians were the only ones with rockets that could possibly fit within Musk’s budget. “It
was a long drive,” Cantrell said. “We sat there in silence looking at the Russian peasants shopping in
the snow.” The somber mood lingered all the way to the plane, until the drink cart arrived. “You
always feel particularly good when the wheels lift off in Moscow,” Cantrell said. “It’s like, ‘My God.
I made it.’ So, Griffin and I got drinks and clinked our glasses.” Musk sat in the row in front of them,
typing on his computer. “We’re thinking, Fucking nerd. What can he be doing now?” At which point
Musk wheeled around and flashed a spreadsheet he’d created. “Hey, guys,” he said, “I think we can
build this rocket ourselves.”
Griffin and Cantrell had downed a couple of drinks by this time and were too deflated to entertain
a fantasy. They knew all too well the stories of gung-ho millionaires who thought they could conquer
space only to lose their fortunes. Just the year before, Andrew Beal, a real estate and finance whiz in
Texas, folded his aerospace company after having poured millions into a massive test site. “We’re
thinking, Yeah, you and whose fucking army,” Cantrell said. “But, Elon says, ‘No, I’m serious. I have
this spreadsheet.’” Musk passed his laptop over to Griffin and Cantrell, and they were dumbfounded.
The document detailed the costs of the materials needed to build, assemble, and launch a rocket.
According to Musk’s calculations, he could undercut existing launch companies by building a modestsized rocket that would cater to a part of the market that specialized in carrying smaller satellites and
research payloads to space. The spreadsheet also laid out the hypothetical performance
characteristics of the rocket in fairly impressive detail. “I said, ‘Elon, where did you get this?’”
Cantrell said.
Musk had spent months studying the aerospace industry and the physics behind it. From Cantrell
and others, he’d borrowed Rocket Propulsion Elements, Fundamentals of Astrodynamics, and
Aerothermodynamics of Gas Turbine and Rocket Propulsion, along with several more seminal texts.
Musk had reverted to his childhood state as a devourer of information and had emerged from this
meditative process with the realization that rockets could and should be made much cheaper than
what the Russians were offering. Forget the mice. Forget the plant with its own video feed growing—
or possibly dying—on Mars. Musk would inspire people to think about exploring space again by
making it cheaper to explore space.
As word traveled around the space community about Musk’s plans, there was a collective hohum. People like Zubrin had seen this show many times before. “There was a string of zillionaires
that got sold a good story by an engineer,” Zubrin said. “Combine my brains and your money, and we
can build a rocket ship that will be profitable and open up the space frontier. The techies usually
ended up spending the rich guy’s money for two years, and then the rich guy gets bored and shuts the
thing down. With Elon, everyone gave a sigh and said, ‘Oh well. He could have spent ten million
dollars to send up the mice, but instead he’ll spend hundreds of millions and probably fail like all the
others that proceeded him.’”
While well aware of the risks tied to starting a rocket company, Musk had at least one reason to
think he might succeed where others had failed. That reason’s name was Tom Mueller.
Mueller grew up the son of a logger in the tidy Idaho town of St. Maries, where he developed a
reputation as an oddball. While the rest of the kids were outside exploring the woods in winter,
Mueller stayed warm in the library reading books or watching Star Trek at his house. He also
tinkered. Walking to grade school one day, Mueller discovered a smashed clock in an alley and turned
it into a pet project. Each day, he fixed some part of the clock—a gear, a spring—until he got it
working. A similar thing happened with the family’s lawn mower, which Mueller disassembled one
afternoon on the front lawn for fun. “My dad came home and was so mad because he thought he’d
have to buy a new mower,” Mueller said. “But I put it back together, and it ran.” Mueller then got
stuck on rockets. He started buying mail order kits and following the instructions to build small
rockets. Rather quickly, Mueller graduated to constructing his own devices. At the age of twelve, he
crafted a mock-up space shuttle that could be attached to a rocket, sent up into the air, and then glide
back to the ground. For a science project a couple of years later, Mueller borrowed his dad’s
oxyacetylene welding equipment to make a rocket engine prototype. Mueller cooled the device by
placing it upside down in a coffee can full of water—“I could run it like that all day long”—and
invented equally creative ways to measure its performance. The machine was good enough for
Mueller to win a couple of regional science fair competitions and end up at an international event.
“That’s where I promptly got my ass kicked,” Mueller said.
Tall, lanky, and with a rectangular face, Mueller is an easygoing sort who muddled through
college for a bit, teaching his friends how to make smoke bombs, and then eventually settled down
and did well as a mechanical engineering student. Fresh out of college, he worked for Hughes
Aircraft on satellites—“It wasn’t rockets, but it was close”—and then went to TRW Space &
Electronics. It was the latter half of the 1980s, and Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program had the space
gearheads dreaming about kinetic weapons and all sorts of mayhem. At TRW, Mueller experimented
with crazy types of propellants and oversaw the development of the company’s TR-106 engine, a
giant machine fueled by liquid oxygen and hydrogen. As a hobby, Mueller hung out with a couple
hundred amateur rocketry buffs in the Reaction Research Society, a group formed in 1943 to
encourage the building and firing of rockets. On the weekends, Mueller traveled out to the Mojave
Desert with the other RRS members to push the limits of amateur machines. Mueller was one of the
club’s standouts, able to build things that actually worked, and could experiment with some of the
more radical concepts that were quashed by his conservative bosses at TRW. His crowning
achievement was an eighty-pound engine that could produce thirteen thousand pounds of thrust and
earned accolades as the world’s largest liquid-fuel rocket engine built by an amateur. “I still keep the
rockets hanging in my garage,” Mueller said.
In January 2002, Mueller was hanging out in the workshop of John Garvey, who had left a job at
the aerospace company McDonnell Douglas to start building his own rockets. Garvey’s facility was
in Huntington Beach, where he rented an industrial space about the size of a six-car garage. The two
men were fiddling around with the eighty-pound engine when Garvey mentioned that a guy named
Elon Musk might be stopping by. The amateur rocketry scene is tight, and it was Cantrell who
recommended that Musk check out Garvey’s workshop and see Mueller’s designs. On a Sunday, Musk
arrived with a pregnant Justine, wearing a stylish black leather trench coat and looking like a highpaid assassin. Mueller had the eighty-pound engine on his shoulder and was trying to bolt it to a
support structure when Musk began peppering him with questions. “He asked me how much thrust it
had,” Mueller said. “He wanted to know if I had ever worked on anything bigger. I told him that yeah,
I’d worked on a 650,000-pound thrust engine at TRW and knew every part of it.” Mueller set the
engine down and tried to keep up with Musk’s interrogation. “How much would that big engine cost?”
Musk asked. Mueller told him TRW built it for about $12 million. Musk shot back, “Yeah, but how
much could you really do it for?”
Mueller ended up chatting with Musk for hours. The next weekend, Mueller invited Musk to his
house to continue their discussion. Musk knew he had found someone who really knew the ins and
outs of making rockets. After that, Musk introduced Mueller to the rest of his roundtable of space
experts and their stealthy meetings. The caliber of the people impressed Mueller, who had turned
down past job offers from Beal and other budding space magnates because of their borderline insane
ideas. Musk, by contrast, seemed to know what he was doing, weeding out the naysayers meeting by
meeting and forming a crew of bright, committed engineers.
Mueller had helped Musk fill out that spreadsheet around the performance and cost metrics of a
new, low-cost rocket, and, along with the rest of Team Musk, had subsequently refined the idea. The
rocket would not carry truck-sized satellites like some of the monster rockets flown by Boeing,
Lockheed, the Russians, and others countries. Instead, Musk’s rocket would be aimed at the lower end
of the satellite market, and it could end up as ideal for an emerging class of smaller payloads that
capitalized on the massive advances that had taken place in recent years in computing and electronics
technology. The rocket would cater directly to a theory in the space industry that a whole new market
might open for both commercial and research payloads if a company could drastically lower the price
per launch and perform launches on a regular schedule. Musk relished the idea of being at the
forefront of this trend and developing the workhorse of a new era in space. Of course, all of this was
theoretical—and then, suddenly, it wasn’t. PayPal had gone public in February with its shares
shooting up 55 percent, and Musk knew that eBay wanted to buy the company as well. While noodling
on the rocket idea, Musk’s net worth had increased from tens of millions to hundreds of millions. In
April 2002, Musk fully abandoned the publicity-stunt idea and committed to building a commercial
space venture. He pulled aside Cantrell, Griffin, Mueller, and Chris Thompson, an aerospace
engineer at Boeing, and told the group, “I want to do this company. If you guys are in, let’s do it.”
(Griffin wanted to join but ended up declining when Musk rebuffed his request to live on the East
Coast, and Cantrell only stuck around for a few months after this meeting, seeing the venture as too
Founded in June 2002, Space Exploration Technologies came to life in humble settings. Musk
acquired an old warehouse at 1310 East Grand Avenue in El Segundo, a suburb of Los Angeles
humming with the activity of the aerospace industry. The previous tenant of the 75,000-square-foot
building had done lots of shipping and had used the south side of the facility as a logistics depot,
outfitting it with several receiving bays for delivery trucks. This allowed Musk to drive his silver
McLaren right into the building. Beyond that the surroundings were sparse—just a dusty floor and a
forty-foot-high ceiling with its wooden beams and insulation exposed and which curved at the top to
give the place a hangarlike feel. The north side of the building was an office space with cubicles and
room for about fifty people. During the first week of SpaceX’s operations, delivery trucks showed up
packed full of Dell laptops and printers and folding tables that would serve as the first desks. Musk
walked over to one of the loading docks, rolled up the door, and off-loaded the equipment himself.
Musk had soon transformed the SpaceX office with what has become his signature factory
aesthetic: a glossy epoxy coating applied over concrete on the floors, and a fresh coat of white paint
slathered onto the walls. The white color scheme was intended to make the factory look clean and
feel cheerful. Desks were interspersed around the factory so that Ivy League computer scientists and
engineers designing the machines could sit with the welders and machinists building the hardware.
This approach stood as SpaceX’s first major break with traditional aerospace companies that prefer
to cordon different engineering groups off from each other and typically separate engineers and
machinists by thousands of miles by placing their factories in locations where real estate and labor
run cheap.
As the first dozen or so employees came to the offices, they were told that SpaceX’s mission
would be to emerge as the “Southwest Airlines of Space.” SpaceX would build its own engines and
then contract with suppliers for the other components of the rocket. The company would gain an edge
over the competition by building a better, cheaper engine and by fine-tuning the assembly process to
make rockets faster and cheaper than anyone else. This vision included the construction of a type of
mobile launch vehicle that could travel to various sites, take the rocket from a horizontal to vertical
position, and send it off to space—no muss, no fuss. SpaceX was meant to get so good at this process
that it could do multiple launches a month, make money off each one, and never need to become a
huge contractor dependent on government funds.
SpaceX was to be America’s attempt at a clean slate in the rocket business, a modernized reset.
Musk felt that the space industry had not really evolved in about fifty years. The aerospace companies
had little competition and tended to make supremely expensive products that achieved maximum
performance. They were building a Ferrari for every launch, when it was possible that a Honda
Accord might do the trick. Musk, by contrast, would apply some of the start-up techniques he’d
learned in Silicon Valley to run SpaceX lean and fast and capitalize on the huge advances in
computing power and materials that had taken place over the past couple of decades. As a private
company, SpaceX would also avoid the waste and cost overruns associated with government
contractors. Musk declared that SpaceX’s first rocket would be called the Falcon 1, a nod to Star
Wars’ Millennium Falcon and his role as the architect of an exciting future. At a time when the cost of
sending a 550-pound payload started at $30 million, he promised that the Falcon 1 would be able to
carry a 1,400-pound payload for $6.9 million.
Bowing to his nature, Musk set an insanely ambitious timeline for all of this. One of the earliest
SpaceX presentations suggested that the company would complete its first engine in May 2003, a
second engine in June, the body of the rocket in July, and have everything assembled in August. A
launchpad would then be prepared by September, and the first launch would take place in November
2003, or about fifteen months after the company started. A trip to Mars was naturally slated for
somewhere near the end of the decade. This was Musk the logical, naïve optimist tabulating how long
it should take people physically to perform all of this work. It’s the baseline he expects of himself and
one that his employees, with their human foibles, are in a never-ending struggle to match.
As space enthusiasts started to learn about the new company, they didn’t really obsess over
whether Musk’s delivery schedule sounded realistic or not. They were just thrilled that someone had
decided to take the cheap and fast approach. Some members of the military had already been
promoting the idea of giving the armed forces more aggressive space capabilities, or what they called
“responsive space.” If a conflict broke out, the military wanted the ability to respond with purposebuilt satellites for that mission. This would mean moving away from a model where it takes ten years
to build and deploy a satellite for a specific job. Instead, the military desired cheaper, smaller
satellites that could be reconfigured through software and sent up on short notice, almost like
disposable satellites. “If we could pull that off, it would be really game-changing,” said Pete Worden,
a retired air force general, who met with Musk while serving as a consultant to the Defense
Department. “It could make our response in space similar to what we do on land, sea and in the air.”
Worden’s job required him to look at radical technologies. While many of the people he encountered
came off as eccentric dreamers, Musk seemed grounded, knowledgeable, and capable. “I talked to
people building ray guns and things in their garages. It was clear that Elon was different. He was a
visionary who really understood the rocket technology, and I was impressed with him.”
Like the military, scientists wanted cheap, quick access to space and the ability to send up
experiments and get data back on a regular basis. Some companies in the medical and consumergoods industries were also interested in rides to space to study how a lack of gravity affected the
properties of their products.
As good as a cheap launch vehicle sounded, the odds of a private citizen building one that worked
were beyond remote. A quick search on YouTube for “rocket explosions” turns up thousands of
compilation videos documenting U.S. and Soviet launch disasters that have occurred over the
decades. From 1957 to 1966, the United States alone tried to blast more than 400 rockets into orbit
and about 100 of them crashed and burned.
5 The rockets used to transport things to space are mostly
modified missiles developed through all of this trial and error and funded by billions upon billions of
government dollars. SpaceX had the advantage of being able to learn from this past work and having
a few people on staff that had overseen rocket projects at companies like Boeing and TRW. That said,
the start-up did not have a budget that could support a string of explosions. At best, SpaceX would
have three or four shots at making the Falcon 1 work. “People thought we were just crazy,” Mueller
said. “At TRW, I had an army of people and government funding. Now we were going to make a lowcost rocket from scratch with a small team. People just didn’t think it could be done.”
In July 2002, Musk was gripped by the excitement of this daring enterprise, and eBay made its
aggressive move to buy PayPal for $1.5 billion. This deal gave Musk some liquidity and supplied him
with more than $100 million to throw at SpaceX. With such a massive up-front investment, no one
would be able to wrestle control of SpaceX away from Musk as they had done at Zip2 and PayPal.
For the employees who had agreed to accompany Musk on this seemingly impossible journey, the
windfall provided at least a couple of years of job security. The acquisition also upped Musk’s
profile and celebrity, which he could leverage to score meetings with top government officials and to
sway suppliers.
And then all of a sudden none of this seemed to matter. Justine had given birth to a son—Nevada
Alexander Musk. He was ten weeks old when, just as the eBay deal was announced, he died. The
Musks had tucked Nevada in for a nap and placed the boy on his back as parents are taught to do.
When they returned to check on him, he was no longer breathing and had suffered from what the
doctors would term a sudden infant death syndrome–related incident. “By the time the paramedics
resuscitated him, he had been deprived of oxygen for so long that he was brain-dead,” Justine wrote
in her article for Marie Claire. “He spent three days on life support in a hospital in Orange County
before we made the decision to take him off it. I held him in my arms when he died. Elon made it
clear that he did not want to talk about Nevada’s death. I didn’t understand this, just as he didn’t
understand why I grieved openly, which he regarded as ‘emotionally manipulative.’ I buried my
feelings instead, coping with Nevada’s death by making my first visit to an IVF clinic less than two
months later. Elon and I planned to get pregnant again as swiftly as possible. Within the next five
years, I gave birth to twins, then triplets.” Later, Justine chalked up Musk’s reaction to a defense
mechanism that he’d learned from years of suffering as a kid. “He doesn’t do well in dark places,”
she told Esquire magazine. “He’s forward-moving, and I think it’s a survival thing with him.”
Musk did open up to a couple of close friends and expressed the depth of his misery. But for the
most part, Justine read her husband right. He didn’t see the value in grieving publicly. “It made me
extremely sad to talk about it,” Musk said. “I’m not sure why I’d want to talk about extremely sad
events. It does no good for the future. If you’ve got other kids and obligations, then wallowing in
sadness does no good for anyone around you. I’m not sure what should be done in such situations.”
Following Nevada’s death, Musk threw himself at SpaceX and rapidly expanded the company’s
goals. His conversations with aerospace contractors around possible work for SpaceX left Musk
disenchanted. It sounded like they all charged a lot of money and worked slowly. The plan to integrate
components made by these types of companies gave way to the decision to make as much as practical
right at SpaceX. “While drawing upon the ideas of many prior launch vehicle programs from Apollo
to the X-34/Fastrac, SpaceX is privately developing the entire Falcon rocket from the ground up,
including both engines, the turbo-pump, the cryogenic tank structure and the guidance system,” the
company announced on its website. “A ground up internal development increases difficulty and the
required investment, but no other path will achieve the needed improvement in the cost of access to
The SpaceX executives Musk hired were an all-star crew. Mueller set to work right away
building the two engines—Merlin and Kestrel, named after two types of falcons. Chris Thompson, a
onetime marine who had managed the production of the Delta and Titan rockets at Boeing, joined as
the vice president of operations. Tim Buzza also came from Boeing, where he’d earned a reputation
as one of the world’s leading rocket testers. Steve Johnson, who had worked at JPL and at two
commercial space companies, was tapped as the senior mechanical engineer. The aerospace engineer
Hans Koenigsmann came on to develop the avionics, guidance, and control systems. Musk also
recruited Gwynne Shotwell, an aerospace veteran who started as SpaceX’s first salesperson and rose
in the years that followed to be president and Musk’s right-hand woman.
These early days also marked the arrival of Mary Beth Brown, a now-legendary character in the
lore of both SpaceX and Tesla. Brown—or MB, as everyone called her—became Musk’s loyal
assistant, establishing a real-life version of the relationship between Iron Man’s Tony Stark and
Pepper Potts. If Musk worked a twenty-hour day, so too did Brown. Over the years, she brought Musk
meals, set up his business appointments, arranged time with his children, picked out his clothes, dealt
with press requests, and when necessary yanked Musk out of meetings to keep him on schedule. She
would emerge as the only bridge between Musk and all of his interests and was an invaluable asset to
the companies’ employees.
Brown played a key role in developing SpaceX’s early culture. She paid attention to small details
like the office’s red spaceship trash cans and helped balance the vibe around the office. When it came
to matters related directly to Musk, Brown put on her firm countenance and no-nonsense attitude. The
rest of the time she usually had a warm, broad smile and a disarming charm. “It was always, ‘Oh,
dear. How are you, dear?’” recalled a SpaceX technician. Brown collected the weird e-mails that
arrived for Musk and sent them out as “Kook of the Week” missives to make people laugh. One of the
better entries included a pencil sketch of a lunar spacecraft that had a red spot on the page. The
person who sent in the letter had circled the spot on his own drawing and then written “What is that?
Blood?” next to it. In other letters there were plans for a perpetual motion machine and a proposal for
a giant inflatable rabbit that could be used to plug oil spills. For a short time, Brown’s duties
extended to managing SpaceX’s books and handling the flow of business in Musk’s absence. “She
pretty much called the shots,” the technician said. “She would say, ‘This is what Elon would want.’”
Her greatest gift, though, may have been reading Musk’s moods. At both SpaceX and Tesla,
Brown placed her desk a few feet in front of Musk’s, so that people had to pass her before having a
meeting with him. If someone needed to request permission to buy a big-ticket item, they would stop
for a moment in front of Brown and wait for a nod to go see Musk or the shake-off to go away
because Musk was having a bad day. This system of nods and shakes became particularly important
during periods of romantic strife for Musk, when his nerves were on edge more than usual.
The rank-and-file engineers at SpaceX tended to be young, male overachievers. Musk would
personally reach out to the aerospace departments of top colleges and inquire about the students who
had finished with the best marks on their exams. It was not unusual for him to call the students in their
dorm rooms and recruit them over the phone. “I thought it was a prank call,” said Michael Colonno,
who heard from Musk while attending Stanford. “I did not believe for a minute that he had a rocket
company.” Once the students looked Musk up on the Internet, selling them on SpaceX was easy. For
the first time in years if not decades, young aeronautics whizzes who pined to explore space had a
really exciting company to latch on to and a path toward designing a rocket or even becoming an
astronaut that did not require them to join a bureaucratic government contractor. As word of SpaceX’s
ambitions spread, top engineers from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital Sciences with a high
tolerance for risk fled to the upstart, too.
Throughout the first year at SpaceX, one or two new employees joined almost every week. Kevin
Brogan was employee No. 23 and came from TRW, where he’d been used to various internal policies
blocking him from doing work. “I called it the country club,” he said. “Nobody did anything.” Brogan
started at SpaceX the day after his interview and was told to go hunting in the office for a computer to
use. “It was go to Fry’s and get whatever you need and go to Staples and get a chair,” Brogan said. He
immediately felt in over his head and would work for twelve hours, drive home, sleep for ten hours,
and then head right back to the factory. “I was exhausted and out of shape mentally,” he said. “But
soon I loved it and got totally hooked.”
One of the first projects SpaceX decided to tackle was the construction of a gas generator, a
machine not unlike a small rocket engine that produces hot gas. Mueller, Buzza, and a couple of young
engineers assembled the generator in Los Angeles and then packed it into the back of a pickup truck
and drove it out to Mojave, California, to test it. A desert town about one hundred miles from Los
Angeles, Mojave had become a hub for aerospace companies like Scaled Composites and XCOR. A
lot of the aerospace projects were based out of the Mojave airport, where companies had their
workshops and sent up all manner of cutting-edge airplanes and rockets. The SpaceX team fit right
into this environment and borrowed a test stand from XCOR that was just about the perfect size to
hold the gas generator. The first ignition run took place at 11 A.M. and lasted ninety seconds. The gas
generator worked, but it had let out a billowing black smoke cloud that on this windless day parked
right over the airport tower. The airport manager came down to the test area and lit into Mueller and
Buzza. The airport official and some of the guys from XCOR who had been helping out urged the
SpaceX engineers to take it easy and wait until the next day to run another test. Instead, Buzza a strong
leader ready to put SpaceX’s relentless ethos into play, coordinated a couple of trucks to pick up
more fuel, talked the airport manager down, and got the test stand ready for another fire. In the days
that followed, SpaceX’s engineers perfected a routine that let them do multiple tests a day—an
unheard-of practice at the airport—and had the gas generator tuned to their liking after two weeks of
They made a few more trips to Mojave and some other spots, including a test stand at Edwards
Air Force Base and another in Mississippi. While on this countrywide rocketry tour, the SpaceX
engineers came across a three-hundred-acre test site in McGregor, Texas, a small city near the center
of the state. They really liked this spot, and talked Musk into buying it. The navy had tested rockets on
the land years before and so too had Andrew Beal before his aerospace company collapsed. “After
Beal saw it was going to cost him $300 million to develop a rocket capable of sending sizeable
satellites into orbit, he called it quits, leaving behind a lot of useful infrastructure for SpaceX,
including a three-story concrete tripod with legs as big around as redwood tree trunks,” wrote
journalist Michael Belfiore in Rocketeers, a book that captured the rise of a handful of private space
Jeremy Hollman was one of the young engineers who soon found himself living in Texas and
customizing the test site to SpaceX’s needs. Hollman exemplified the kind of recruit Musk wanted:
he’d earned an aerospace engineering degree from Iowa State University and a master’s in
astronautical engineering from the University of Southern California. He’d spent a couple of years
working as a test engineer at Boeing dealing with jets, rockets, and spacecraft.*
The stint at Boeing had left Hollman unimpressed with big aerospace. His first day on the job
came right as Boeing completed its merger with McDonnell Douglas. The resultant mammoth
government contractor held a picnic to boost morale but ended up failing at even this simple exercise.
“The head of one of the departments gave a speech about it being one company with one vision and
then added that the company was very cost constrained,” Hollman said. “He asked that everyone limit
themselves to one piece of chicken.” Things didn’t improve much from there. Every project at Boeing
felt large, cumbersome, and costly. So, when Musk came along selling radical change, Hollman bit. “I
thought it was an opportunity I could not pass up,” he said. At twenty-three, Hollman was young,
single, and willing to give up any semblance of having a life in favor of working at SpaceX nonstop,
and he became Mueller’s second in command.
Mueller had developed a pair of three-dimensional computer models of the two engines he
wanted to build. Merlin would be the engine for the first stage of the Falcon 1, which lifted it off the
ground, and Kestrel would be the smaller engine used to power the upper, second stage of the rocket
and guide it in space. Together, Hollman and Mueller figured out which parts of the engines SpaceX
would build at the factory and which parts it would try to buy. For the purchased parts, Hollman had
to head out to various machine shops and get quotes and delivery dates for the hardware. Quite often,
the machinists told Hollman that SpaceX’s timelines were nuts. Others were more accommodating
and would try to bend an existing product to SpaceX’s needs instead of building something from
scratch. Hollman also found that creativity got him a long way. He discovered, for example, that
changing the seals on some readily available car wash valves made them good enough to be used with
rocket fuel.
After SpaceX completed its first engine at the factory in California, Hollman loaded it and
mounds of other equipment into a U-Haul trailer. He hitched the U-Haul to the back of a white
Hummer H2 and drove four thousand pounds of gear* across Interstate 10 from Los Angeles to Texas
and the test site. The arrival of the engine in Texas kicked off one of the great bonding exercises in
SpaceX’s history. Amid rattlesnakes, fire ants, isolation, and searing heat, the group led by Buzza and
Mueller began the process of exploring every intricacy of the engines. It was a high-pressure slog full
of explosions—or what the engineers politely called “rapid unscheduled disassemblies”—that would
determine whether a small band of engineers really could match the effort and skill of nation-states.
The SpaceX employees christened the site in fitting fashion, downing a $1,200 bottle of Rémy Martin
cognac out of paper cups and passing a sobriety test on the drive back to the company apartments in
the Hummer. From that point on, the trek from California to the test site became known as the Texas
Cattle Haul. The SpaceX engineers would work for ten days straight, come back to California for a
weekend, and then head back. To ease the burden of travel, Musk sometimes let them use his private
jet. “It carried six people,” Mueller said. “Well, seven if someone sat in the toilet, which happened
all the time.”
While the navy and Beal had left some testing apparatus, SpaceX had to build a large amount of
custom gear. One of the largest of these structures was a horizontal test stand about 30 feet long, 15
feet wide, and 15 feet tall. Then there was the complementary vertical test stand that stood two stories
high. When an engine needed to be fired, it would be fastened to one of the test stands, outfitted with
sensors to collect data, and monitored via several cameras. The engineers took shelter in a bunker
protected on one side by a dirt embankment. If something went wrong, they would look at feeds from
the webcams or slowly lift one of the bunker’s hatches to listen for any clues. The locals in town
rarely complained about the noise, although the animals on nearby farms seemed less impressed.
“Cows have this natural defense mechanism where they gather and start running in a circle,” Hollman
said. “Every time we fired an engine, the cows scattered and then got in that circle with the younger
ones placed in the middle. We set up a cow cam to watch them.”
Both Kestrel and Merlin came with challenges, and they were treated as alternating engineering
exercises. “We would run Merlin until we ran out of hardware or did something bad,” Mueller said.
“Then we’d run Kestrel and there was never a shortage of things to do.” For months, the SpaceX
engineers arrived at the site at 8 A.M. and spent twelve hours there working on the engines before
retiring to the Outback Steakhouse for dinner. Mueller had a particular knack for looking over test
data and spotting some place where the engine ran hot or cold or had another flaw. He would call
California and prescribe hardware changes, and engineers would refashion parts and send them off to
Texas. Often the workers in Texas modified parts themselves using a mill and lathe that Mueller had
brought out. “Kestrel started out as a real dog, and one of my proudest moments was taking it from
terrible to great performance with stuff we bought online and did in the machine shop,” Mueller said.
Some members of the Texas crew honed their skills to the point that they could build a test-worthy
engine in three days. These same people were required to be adept at software. They’d pull an allnighter building a turbo pump for the engine and then dig in the next night to retool a suite of
applications used to control the engines. Hollman did this type of work all the time and was an allstar, but he was not alone among this group of young, nimble engineers who crossed disciplines out of
necessity and the spirit of adventure. “There was an almost addictive quality to the experience,”
Hollman said. “You’re twenty-four or twenty-five, and they’re trusting you with so much. It was very
To get to space, the Merlin engine would need to burn for 180 seconds. That seemed like an
eternity for the engineers at the outset of their stint in Texas, when the engine would burn for only a
half second before it conked out. Sometimes Merlin vibrated too much during the tests. Sometimes it
responded badly to a new material. Sometimes it cracked and needed major part upgrades, like
moving from an aluminum manifold to a manifold made out of the more exotic Inconel, an alloy suited
to extreme temperatures. On one occasion, a fuel valve refused to open properly and caused the
whole engine to blow up. Another test gone wrong ended up with the whole test stand burning down.
It usually came to Buzza and Mueller to make the unpleasant call back to Musk and recap the day’s
foibles. “Elon had pretty good patience,” Mueller said. “I remember one time we had two test stands
running and blew up two things in one day. I told Elon we could put another engine on there, but I was
really, really frustrated and just tired and mad and was kinda short with Elon. I said, ‘We can put
another fucking thing on there, …

To get to space, the Merlin engine would need to burn for 180 seconds. That seemed like an
eternity for the engineers at the outset of their stint in Texas, when the engine would burn for only a
half second before it conked out. Sometimes Merlin vibrated too much during the tests. Sometimes it
responded badly to a new material. Sometimes it cracked and needed major part upgrades, like
moving from an aluminum manifold to a manifold made out of the more exotic Inconel, an alloy suited
to extreme temperatures. On one occasion, a fuel valve refused to open properly and caused the
whole engine to blow up. Another test gone wrong ended up with the whole test stand burning down.
It usually came to Buzza and Mueller to make the unpleasant call back to Musk and recap the day’s
foibles. “Elon had pretty good patience,” Mueller said. “I remember one time we had two test stands
running and blew up two things in one day. I told Elon we could put another engine on there, but I was
really, really frustrated and just tired and mad and was kinda short with Elon. I said, ‘We can put
another fucking thing on there, but I’ve blown up enough shit today.’ He said, ‘Okay, all right, that’s
fine. Just calm down. We’ll do it again tomorrow.’” Coworkers in El Segundo later reported that
Musk had been near tears during this call after hearing the frustration and agony in Mueller’s voice.
What Musk would not tolerate were excuses or the lack of a clear plan of attack. Hollman was
one of many engineers who arrived at this realization after facing one of Musk’s trademark grillings.
“The worst call was the first one,” Hollman said. “Something had gone wrong, and Elon asked me
how long it would take to be operational again, and I didn’t have an immediate answer. He said, ‘You
need to. This is important to the company. Everything is riding on this. Why don’t you have an
answer?’ He kept hitting me with pointed, direct questions. I thought it was more important to let him
know quickly what happened, but I learned it was more important to have all the information.”
From time to time, Musk participated in the testing process firsthand. One of the more memorable
examples of this came as SpaceX tried to perfect a cooling chamber for its engines. The company had
bought several of these chambers at $75,000 a pop and needed to put them under pressure with water
to gauge their ability to handle stress. During the initial test, one of the pricey chambers cracked. Then
the second one broke in the same place. Musk ordered a third test, as the engineers looked on in
horror. They thought the test might be putting the chamber under undue stress and that Musk was
burning through essential equipment. When the third chamber cracked, Musk flew the hardware back
to California, took it to the factory floor, and, with the help of some engineers, started to fill the
chambers with an epoxy to see if it would seal them. “He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty,” Mueller
said. “He’s out there with his nice Italian shoes and clothes and has epoxy all over him. They were
there all night and tested it again and it broke anyway.” Musk, clothes ruined, had decided the
hardware was flawed, tested his hypothesis, and moved on quickly, asking the engineers to come up
with a new solution.
These incidents were all part of a trying but productive process. SpaceX had developed the
feeling of a small, tight-knit family up against the world. In late 2002, the company had an empty
warehouse. One year later, the facility looked like a real rocket factory. Working Merlin engines were
arriving back from Texas, and being fed into an assembly line where machinists could connect them to
the main body, or first stage, of the rocket. More stations were set up to link the first stage with the
upper stage of the rocket. Cranes were placed on the floor to handle the heavy lifting of components,
and blue metal transport tracks were positioned to guide the rocket’s body through the factory from
station to station. SpaceX had also started to build the fairing, or case, that protects payloads atop the
rocket during launch and then opens up like a clam in space to let out the cargo.
SpaceX had picked up a customer as well. According to Musk, its first rocket would launch in
“early 2004” from Vandenberg Air Force Base, carrying a satellite called TacSat-1 for the
Department of Defense. With this goal looming, twelve-hour days, six days a week were considered
the norm, although many people worked longer than that for extended periods of time. Respites, as far
as they existed, came around 8 P.M. on some weeknights when Musk would allow everyone to use
their work computers to play first-person-shooter video games like Quake III Arena and CounterStrike against each other. At the appointed hour, the sound of guns loading would cascade throughout
the office as close to twenty people armed themselves for battle. Musk—playing under the handle
Random9—often won the games, talking trash and blasting away his employees without mercy. “The
CEO is there shooting at us with rockets and plasma guns,” said Colonno. “Worse, he’s almost
alarmingly good at these games and has insanely fast reactions. He knew all the tricks and how to
sneak up on people.”
The pending launch ignited Musk’s salesman instincts. He wanted to show the public what his
tireless workers had accomplished and drum up some excitement around SpaceX. Musk decided to
unveil a prototype of Falcon 1 to the public in December 2003. The company would haul the sevenstory-high Falcon 1 across the country on a specially built rig and leave it—and the SpaceX mobile
launch system—outside of the Federal Aviation Administration’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
An accompanying press conference would make it clear to Washington that a modern, smarter,
cheaper rocket maker had arrived.
This marketing song and dance didn’t sound sensible to SpaceX’s engineers. They were working
more than one hundred hours per week to make the actual rocket that SpaceX would need to be in
business. Musk wanted them to do that and build a slick-looking mock-up. Engineers were called
back from Texas and assigned another ulcer-inducing deadline to craft this prop. “In my mind, it was
a boondoggle,” Hollman said. “It wasn’t advancing anything. In Elon’s mind, it would get us a lot of
backing from important people in the government.”
While making the prototype for the event, Hollman experienced the full spectrum of highs and
lows that came with working for Musk. The engineer had lost his regular glasses weeks earlier when
they slipped off his face and fell down a flame duct at the Texas test site. Hollman had since made do
by wearing an old pair of prescription safety glasses,* but they too were ruined when he scratched the
lenses while trying to duck under an engine at the SpaceX factory. Without a spare moment to visit an
optometrist, Hollman started to feel his sanity fray. The long hours, the scratch, the publicity stunt—
they were all too much.
He vented about this in the factory one night, unaware that Musk stood nearby and could hear
everything. Two hours later, Mary Beth Brown appeared with an appointment card to see a Lasik eye
surgery specialist. When Hollman visited the doctor, he discovered that Musk had already agreed to
pay for the surgery. “Elon can be very demanding, but he’ll make sure the obstacles in your way are
removed,” Hollman said. Upon reflection, he also warmed to the long-term thinking behind Musk’s
Washington plan. “I think he wanted to add an element of realism to SpaceX, and if you park a rocket
in someone’s front yard, it’s hard to deny it,” Hollman said.
The event in Washington ended up being well received, and just a few weeks after it took place,
SpaceX made another astonishing announcement. Despite not having even flown a rocket yet, SpaceX
revealed plans for a second rocket. Along with the Falcon 1, it would build the Falcon 5. Per the
name, this rocket would have five engines and could carry more weight—9,200 pounds—to low orbit
around Earth. Crucially, the Falcon 5 could also theoretically reach the International Space Station for
resupply missions—a capability that would open up SpaceX for some large NASA contracts. And, in
a nod to Musk’s obsession with safety, the rocket was said to be able to complete its missions even if
three of the five engines failed, which was a level of added reliability that had not been seen in the
market in decades.
The only way to keep up with all of this work was to do what SpaceX had promised from the
beginning: operate in the spirit of a Silicon Valley start-up. Musk was always looking for brainy
engineers who had not just done well at school but had done something exceptional with their talents.
When he found someone good, Musk was relentless in courting him or her to come to SpaceX. Bryan
Gardner, for example, first met Musk at a space rave in the hangars at the Mojave airport and a short
while later started talking about a job. Gardner was having some of his academic work sponsored by
Northrop Grumman. “Elon said, ‘We’ll buy them out,’” Gardner said. “So, I e-mailed him my resume
at two thirty A.M., and he replied back in thirty minutes addressing everything I put in there point by
point. He said, ‘When you interview make sure you can talk concretely about what you do rather than
use buzzwords.’ It floored me that he would take the time to do this.” After being hired, Gardner was
tasked with improving the system for testing the valves on the Merlin engine. There were dozens of
valves, and it took three to five hours to manually test each one. Six months later, Gardner had built an
automated system for testing the valves in minutes. The testing machine tracked the valves
individually, so that an engineer in Texas could request what the metrics had been on a specific part.
“I had been handed this redheaded stepchild that no one else wanted to deal with and established my
engineering credibility,” Gardner said.
As the new hires arrived, SpaceX moved beyond its original building to fill up several buildings
in the El Segundo complex. The engineers were running demanding software and rendering large
graphics files and needed high-speed connections between all of these offices. But SpaceX had
neighbors who were blocking an initiative to connect all of its buildings via fiber optic lines. Instead
of taking the time to haggle with the other companies for right of way, the IT chief Branden Spikes,
who had worked with Musk at Zip2 and PayPal, came up with a quicker, more devious solution. A
friend of his worked for the phone company and drew a diagram that demonstrated a way to squeeze a
networking cable safely between the electricity, cable, and phone wires on a telephone pole. At 2
A.M., an off-the-books crew showed up with a cherry picker and ran fiber to the telephone poles and
then ran cables straight to the SpaceX buildings. “We did that over a weekend instead of taking
months to get permits,” Spikes said. “There was always this feeling that we were facing a sort of
insurmountable challenge and that we had to band together to fight the good fight.” SpaceX’s landlord,
Alex Lidow, chuckled when thinking back to all of the antics of Musk’s team. “I know they did a lot of
hanky stuff at night,” he said. “They were smart, needed to get things done, and didn’t always have
time to wait for things like city permits.”
Musk never relented in asking his employees to do more and be better, whether it was at the office
or during extracurricular activities. Part of Spikes’s duties included building custom gaming PCs for
Musk’s home that pushed their computational power to the limits and needed to be cooled with water
running through a series of tubes inside the machines. When one of these gaming rigs kept breaking,
Spikes figured out that Musk’s mansion had dirty power lines and had a second, dedicated power
circuit built for the gaming room to correct the problem. Doing this favor bought Spikes no special
treatment. “SpaceX’s mail server crashed one time, and Elon word for word said, ‘Don’t ever
fucking let that happen again,’” Spikes said. “He had a way of looking at you—a glare—and would
keep looking at you until you understood him.”
Musk had tried to find contractors that could keep up with SpaceX’s creativity and pace. Instead
of always hitting up aerospace guys, for example, he located suppliers with similar experience from
different fields. Early on, SpaceX needed someone to build the fuel tanks, essentially the main body
of the rocket, and Musk ended up in the Midwest talking to companies that had made large, metal
agricultural tanks used in the dairy and food processing businesses. These suppliers also struggled to
keep up with SpaceX’s schedule, and Musk found himself flying across the country to pay visits—
sometimes surprise ones—on the contractors to check on their progress. One such inspection took
place at a company in Wisconsin called Spincraft. Musk and a couple of SpaceX employees flew his
jet across the country and arrived late at night expecting to see a shift of workers doing extra duty to
get the fuel tanks completed. When Musk discovered that Spincraft was well behind schedule, he
turned to a Spincraft employee and informed him, “You’re fucking us up the ass, and it doesn’t feel
good.” David Schmitz was a general manager at Spincraft and said Musk earned a reputation as a
fearsome negotiator who did indeed follow up on things personally. “If Elon was not happy, you knew
it,” Schmitz said. “Things could get nasty.” In the months that followed that meeting, SpaceX
increased its internal welding capabilities so that it could make the fuel tanks in El Segundo and ditch
Another salesman flew down to SpaceX to sell the company on some technology infrastructure
equipment. He was doing the standard relationship-building exercise practiced by salespeople for
centuries. Show up. Speak for a while. Feel each other out. Then, start doing business down the road.
Musk was having none of it. “The guy comes in, and Elon asks him why they’re meeting,” Spikes
said. “He said, ‘To develop a relationship.’ Elon replied, ‘Okay. Nice to meet you,’ which basically
meant, ‘Get the fuck out of my office.’ This guy had spent four hours traveling for what ended up as a
two-minute meeting. Elon just has no tolerance for that kind of stuff.” Musk could be equally brisk
with employees who were not hitting his standards. “He would often say, ‘The longer you wait to fire
someone the longer it has been since you should have fired them,’” Spikes said.
Most of the SpaceX employees were thrilled to be part of the company’s adventure and tried not
to let Musk’s grueling demands and harsh behavior get to them. But there were some moments where
Musk went too far. The engineering corps flew into a collective rage every time they caught Musk in
the press claiming to have designed the Falcon rocket more or less by himself. Musk also hired a
documentary crew to follow him around for a while. This audacious gesture really grated on the
people toiling away in the SpaceX factory. They felt like Musk’s ego had gotten the best of him and
that he was presenting SpaceX as the conqueror of the aerospace industry when the company had yet
to launch successfully. Employees who made detailed cases around what they saw as flaws in the
Falcon 5 design or presented practical suggestions to get the Falcon 1 out the door more quickly were
often ignored or worse. “The treatment of staff was not good for long stretches of this era,” said one
engineer. “Many good engineers, who everyone beside ‘management’ felt were assets to the company,
were forced out or simply fired outright after being blamed for things they hadn’t done. The kiss of
death was proving Elon wrong about something.”
Early 2004, when SpaceX had hoped to launch its rocket, came and went. The Merlin engine that
Mueller and his team had built appeared to be among the most efficient rocket engines ever made. It
was just taking longer than Musk had expected to pass tests needed to clear the engine for a launch.
Finally, in the fall of 2004, the engines were burning consistently and meeting all their requirements.
This meant that Mueller and his team could breathe easy and that everyone else at SpaceX should
prepare to suffer. Mueller had spent SpaceX’s entire existence as the “critical path”—the person
holding up the company from achieving its next steps—working under Musk’s scrutiny. “With the
engine ready, it was time for mass panic,” Mueller said. “No one else knew what it was like to be on
critical path.”
Lots of people soon found out, as major problems abounded. The avionics, which included the
electronics for the navigation, communication, and overall management of the rocket, turned into a
nightmare. Seemingly trivial things like getting a flash storage drive to talk to the rocket’s main
computer failed for undetectable reasons. The software needed to manage the rocket also became a
major burden. “It’s like anything else where you find out that the last ten percent is where all the
integration happens and things don’t play together,” Mueller said. “This process went on for six
months.” Finally, in May 2005, SpaceX transported the rocket 180 miles north to Vandenberg Air
Force Base for a test fire and completed a five-second burn on the launchpad.
Launching from Vandenberg would have been very convenient for SpaceX. The site is close to
Los Angeles and has several launchpads to pick from. SpaceX, though, became an unwelcome guest.
The air force gave the newcomer a cool welcome, and the people assigned to manage the launch sites
did not go out of their way help SpaceX. Lockheed and Boeing, which fly $1 billion spy satellites for
the military from Vandenberg, didn’t care for SpaceX’s presence, either—in part because SpaceX
represented a threat to their business and in part because this startup was mucking around near their
precious cargo. As SpaceX started to move from the testing phase to the launch, it was told to get in
line. They would have to wait months to launch. “Even though they said we could fly, it was clear that
we would not,” said Gwynne Shotwell.
Searching for a new site, Shotwell and Hans Koenigsmann put a Mercator projection of the world
up on the wall and looked for a name they recognized along the equator, where the planet spins faster
and gives rockets an added boost. The first name that jumped out was Kwajalein Island—or Kwaj—
the largest island in an atoll between Guam and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean and part of the Republic
of the Marshall Islands. This spot registered with Shotwell because the U.S. Army had used it for
decades as a missile test site. Shotwell looked up the name of a colonel at the test site and sent him an
e-mail, and three weeks later got a call back with the army saying they would love to have SpaceX fly
from the islands. In June 2005, SpaceX’s engineers began to fill containers with their equipment to
ship them to Kwaj.
About one hundred islands make up the Kwajalein Atoll. Many of them stretch for just a few
hundred yards and are much longer than they are wide. “From the air, the place looks like these
beautiful beads on a string,” said Pete Worden, who visited the site in his capacity as a Defense
Department consultant. Most of the people in the area live on an island called Ebeye, while the U.S.
military has taken over Kwajalein, the southernmost island, and turned it into part tropical paradise
and part Dr. Evil’s secret lair. The United States spent years lobbing its ICBMs from California at
Kwaj and used the island to run experiments on its space weapons during the “Star Wars” period.
Laser beams would be aimed at Kwaj from space in a bid to see if they were accurate and responsive
enough to take out an ICBM hurtling toward the islands. The military presence resulted in a weird
array of buildings including hulking, windowless trapezoidal concrete structures clearly conceived by
someone who deals with death for a living.
To get to Kwaj, the SpaceX employees either flew on Musk’s jet or took commercial flights
through Hawaii. The main accommodations were two-bedroom affairs on Kwajalein Island that
looked more like dormitories than hotel rooms, with their military-issued dressers and desks. Any
materials that the engineers needed had to be flown in on Musk’s plane or were more often brought by
boat from Hawaii or the mainland United States. Each day, the SpaceX crew gathered their gear and
took a forty-five-minute boat ride to Omelek, a seven-acre, palm-tree-and vegetation-covered island
that would be transformed into their launchpad. Over the course of several months, a small team of
people cleared the brush, poured concrete to support the launchpad, and converted a double-wide
trailer into offices. The work was grueling and took place in soul-sapping humidity under a sun
powerful enough to burn the skin through a T-shirt. Eventually, some of the workers preferred to
spend the night on Omelek rather than make the journey through rough waters back to the main island.
“Some of the offices were turned into bedrooms with mattresses and cots,” Hollman said. “Then we
shipped over a very nice refrigerator and a good grill and plumbed in a shower. We tried to make it
less like camping and more like living.”
The sun rose at 7 A.M. each day, and that’s when the SpaceX team got to work. A series of
meetings would take place with people listing what needed to get done, and debating solutions to
lingering problems. As the large structures arrived, the workers placed the body of the rocket
horizontally in a makeshift hangar and spent hours melding together all of its parts. “There was
always something to do,” Hollman said. “If the engine wasn’t a problem, then there was an avionics
problem or a software problem.” By 7 P.M., the engineers wound down their work. “One or two
people would decide it was their night to cook, and they would make steak and potatoes and pasta,”
Hollman said. “We had a bunch of movies and a DVD player, and some of us did a lot of fishing off
the docks.” For many of the engineers, this was both a torturous and magical experience. “At Boeing
you could be comfortable, but that wasn’t going to happen at SpaceX,” said Walter Sims, a SpaceX
tech expert who found time to get certified to dive while on Kwaj. “Every person on that island was a
fucking star, and they were always holding seminars on radios or the engine. It was such an
invigorating place.”
The engineers were constantly baffled by what Musk would fund and what he wouldn’t. Back at
headquarters, someone would ask to buy a $200,000 machine or a pricey part that they deemed
essential to Falcon 1’s success, and Musk would deny the request. And yet he was totally comfortable
paying a similar amount to put a shiny surface on the factory floor to make it look nice. On Omelek,
the workers wanted to pave a two-hundred-yard pathway between the hangar and the launchpad to
make it easier to transport the rocket. Musk refused. This left the engineers moving the rocket and its
wheeled support structure in the fashion of the ancient Egyptians. They laid down a series of wooden
planks and rolled the rocket across them, grabbing the last piece of wood from the back and running it
forward in a continuous cycle.
The whole situation was ludicrous. A start-up rocket company had ended up in the middle of
nowhere trying to pull off one of the most difficult feats known to man, and, truth be told, only a
handful of the SpaceX team had any idea how to make a launch happen. Time and again, the rocket
would get marched out to the launchpad and hoisted vertical for a couple of days, while technical and
safety checks would reveal a litany of new problems. The engineers worked on the rocket for as long
as they could before laying it horizontal and marching it back to the hangar to avoid damage from the
salty air. Teams that had worked separately for months back at the SpaceX factory—propulsion,
avionics, software—were thrust together on the island and forced to become an interdisciplinary
whole. The sum total was an extreme learning and bonding exercise that played like a comedy of
errors. “It was like Gilligan’s Island except with rockets,” Hollman said.
In November 2005, about six months after they had first gotten to the island, the SpaceX team felt
ready to give launching a shot. Musk flew in with his brother, Kimbal, and joined the majority of the
SpaceX team in the barracks on Kwaj. On November 26, a handful of people woke up at 3 A.M. and
filled the rocket with liquid oxygen. They then scampered off to an island about three miles away for
protection, while the rest of the SpaceX team monitored the launch systems from a control room
twenty-six miles away on Kwaj. The military gave SpaceX a six-hour launch window. Everyone was
hoping to see the first stage take off and reach about 6,850 miles per hour before giving way to the
second stage, which would ignite up in the air and reach 17,000 miles per hour. But, while going
through the pre-launch checks, the engineers detected a major problem: a valve on a liquid oxygen
tank would not close, and the LOX was boiling off into the air at 500 gallons per hour. SpaceX
scrambled to fix the issue but lost too much of its fuel to launch before the window closed.
With that mission aborted, SpaceX ordered major LOX reinforcements from Hawaii and prepared
for another attempt in mid-December. High winds, faulty valves, and other errors thwarted that launch
attempt. Before another attempt could be made, SpaceX discovered on a Saturday night that the
rocket’s power distribution systems had started malfunctioning and would need new capacitors. On
Sunday morning, the rocket was lowered and split into its two stages so that a technician could slide
in and remove the electrical boards. Someone found an electronics supplier that was open on Sunday
in Minnesota, and off a SpaceX employee flew to get some fresh capacitors. By Monday he was in
California and testing the parts at SpaceX’s headquarters to make sure they passed various heat and
vibration checks, then on a plane again back to the islands. In under eighty hours, the electronics had
been returned in working order and installed in the rocket. The dash to the United States and back
showed that SpaceX’s thirty-person team had real pluck in the face of adversity and inspired
everyone on the island. A traditional three-hundred-person-strong aerospace launch crew would
never have tried to fix a rocket like that on the fly. But the energy, smarts, and resourcefulness of the
SpaceX team still could not overcome their inexperience or the difficult conditions. More problems
arose and blocked any thoughts of a launch.
Finally, on March 24, 2006, it was all systems go. The Falcon 1 stood on its square launchpad
and ignited. It soared into the sky, turning the island below it into a green spec amid a vast, blue
expanse. In the control room, Musk paced as he watched the action, wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a
T-shirt. Then, about twenty-five seconds in, it became clear that all was not well. A fire broke out
above the Merlin engine and suddenly this machine that had been flying straight and true started to
spin and then tumble uncontrollably back to Earth. The Falcon 1 ended up falling directly down onto
the launch site. Most of the debris went into a reef 250 feet from the launchpad, and the satellite cargo
smashed through SpaceX’s machine shop roof and landed more or less intact on the floor. Some of the
engineers put on their snorkeling and scuba gear and recovered the pieces, fitting all of the rocket’s
remnants into two refrigerator-sized crates. “It is perhaps worth noting that those launch companies
that succeeded also took their lumps along the way,” Musk wrote in a postmortem. “A friend of mine
wrote to remind me that only 5 of the first 9 Pegasus launches succeeded; 3 of 5 for Ariane; 9 of 20
for Atlas; 9 of 21 for Soyuz; and 9 of 18 for Proton. Having experienced firsthand how hard it is to
reach orbit, I have a lot of respect for those that persevered to produce the vehicles that are mainstays
of space launch today.” Musk closed the letter writing, “SpaceX is in this for the long haul and, come
hell or high water, we are going to make this work.”
Musk and other SpaceX executives blamed the crash on an unnamed technician. They said this
technician had done some work on the rocket one day before the launch and failed to properly tighten
a fitting on a fuel pipe, which caused the fitting to crack. The fitting in question was something basic
—an aluminum b-nut that’s often used to connect a pair of tubes. The technician was Hollman. In the
aftermath of the rocket crash, Hollman flew to Los Angeles to confront Musk directly. He’d spent
years working day and night on the Falcon 1 and felt enraged that Musk had called out him and his
team in public. Hollman knew that he’d fastened the b-nut correctly and that observers from NASA
had been looking over his shoulder to check the work. When Hollman charged into SpaceX’s
headquarters with a head full of fury, Mary Beth Brown tried to calm him and stop him from seeing
Musk. Hollman kept going anyway, and the two of them proceeded to have a shouting match at Musk’s
After all the debris was analyzed, it turned out that the b-nut had almost certainly cracked due to
corrosion from the months in Kwaj’s salty atmosphere. “The rocket was literally crusted with salt on
one side, and you had to scrape it off,” Mueller said. “But we had done a static fire three days earlier,
and everything was fine.” SpaceX had tried to save about fifty pounds of weight by using aluminum
components instead of stainless steel. Thompson, the former marine, had seen the aluminum parts
work just fine in helicopters that sat on aircraft carriers, and Mueller had seen aircraft resting outside
of Cape Canaveral for forty years with aluminum b-nuts in fine condition. Years later, a number of
SpaceX’s executives still agonize over the way Hollman and his team were treated. “They were our
best guys, and they kind of got blamed to get an answer out to the world,” Mueller said. “That was
really bad. We found out later that it was dumb luck.”*
After the crash, there was a lot of drinking at a bar on the main island. Musk wanted to launch
again within six months, but putting together a new machine would again require an immense amount
of work. SpaceX had some pieces for the vehicle ready in El Segundo but certainly not a ready-tofire rocket. As they downed drinks, the engineers vowed to take a more disciplined approach with
their next craft and to work better as a collective. Worden hoped the SpaceX engineers would raise
their game as well. He’d been observing them for the Defense Department and loved the energy of the
young engineers but not their methodology. “It was being done like a bunch of kids in Silicon Valley
would do software,” Worden said. “They would stay up all night and try this and try that. I’d seen
hundreds of these types of operations, and it struck me that it wouldn’t work.” Leading up to the first
launch, Worden tried to caution Musk, sending a letter to him and the director of DARPA, the research
arm of the Defense Department, that made his views clear. “Elon didn’t react well. He said, ‘What do
you know? You’re just an astronomer,’” Worden said. But, after the rocket blew up, Musk
recommended that Worden perform an investigation for the government. “I give Elon huge credit for
that,” Worden said.
Almost exactly a year later, SpaceX was ready to try another launch. On March 15, 2007, a
successful test fire took place. Then, on March 21, the Falcon 1 finally behaved. From its launchpad
surrounded by palm trees, the Falcon 1 surged up and toward space. It flew for a couple of minutes
with engineers now and again reporting that the systems were “nominal,” or in good shape. At three
minutes into the flight, the first stage of the rocket separated and fell back to Earth, and the Kestrel
engine kicked in as planned to carry the second stage into orbit. Ecstatic cheers went out in the
control room. Next, at the four-minute mark, the fairing atop the rocket separated as planned. “It was
doing exactly what it was supposed to do,” said Mueller. “I was sitting next to Elon and looked at him
and said, ‘We’ve made it.’ We’re hugging and believe it’s going to make it to orbit. Then, it starts to
wiggle.” For more than five glorious minutes, the SpaceX engineers got to feel like they had done
everything right. A camera on board the Falcon 1 pointed down and showed Earth getting smaller and
smaller as the rocket made its way methodically into space. But then that wiggle that Mueller noticed
turned into flailing, and the machine swooned, started to break apart, and then blew up. This time the
SpaceX engineers were quick to figure out what went wrong. As the propellant was consumed, what
was left started to move around the tank and slosh against the sides, much like wine spinning around a
glass. The sloshing propellant triggered the wobbling, and at one point it sloshed enough to leave an
opening to the engine exposed. When the engine sucked in a big breath of air, it flamed out.
The failure was another crushing blow to SpaceX’s engineers. Some of them had spent close to
two years shuffling back and forth between California, Hawaii, and Kwaj. By the time SpaceX could
attempt another launch, it would be about four years after Musk’s original target, and the company had
been chewing through his Internet fortune at a worrying rate. Musk had vowed publicly that he would
see this thing through to the end, but people inside and outside the company were doing back-of-theenvelope math and could tell that SpaceX likely could only afford one more attempt—maybe two. To
the extent that the financial situation unnerved Musk, he rarely if ever let it show to employees. “Elon
did a great job of not burdening people with those worries,” said Spikes. “He always communicated
the importance of being lean and of success, but it was never ‘if we fail, we’re done for.’ He was
very optimistic.”
The failures seemed to do little to curtail Musk’s vision for the future or raise doubts about his
capabilities. In the midst of the chaos, he took a tour of the islands with Worden. Musk began thinking
aloud about how the islands could be unified into one landmass. He suggested that walls could be
built through the small channels between the islands, and the water could be pumped out in the spirit
of the manmade systems in the Netherlands. Worden, also known for his out-there ideas, was attracted
to Musk’s bravado. “That he is thinking of this stuff is kind of cool,” Worden said. “From that point
on, he and I discussed settling Mars. It really impressed me that this is a guy that thinks big.”

Published by turkishinvest

professional agent from turkey for help and guide of turkish investments on property sectors for business and citizenships..

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