After netting millions from his first two companies, PayPal and Zip2, Musk decided to dream bigger.
Fascinated by space and the potential for colonization on Mars, he founded SpaceX.
A new book written by technology reporter Ashlee Vance, “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” is filled with anecdotes about Musk’s life, as well as his endeavours with companies like SpaceX, PayPal, and Tesla Motors.
From the beginning, SpaceX was quite different from other companies looking at space exploration. For one, its offices were a dusty old warehouse in a Los Angeles suburb. SpaceX was committed to building as much of its rockets as it could in-house, including launchpads and rocket engines.
They also planned to do it cheaper than its competitors. Musk promised to send a 1,400-pound payload into orbit at a low cost of $US6.9 million, when its competitors spent $US30 million to send a 550-pound rocket into orbit.
SpaceX decided to use Kwajalein Island, located between Guam and Hawaii and owned by the US Army to test missiles, as its launch site. In March 2006, SpaceX launched the Falcon 1 — named after the Millennium Falcon in “Star Wars” — in March 2006. The launch was a bust, and the rocket “ended up falling directly onto the launch site,” Vance says in his book.
But if Musk was disappointed, he didn’t let on to his growing team. “Elon did a great job of not burdening people with those worries,” Branden Spikes, head of IT for SpaceX, said in the book. “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.”
After months of tireless, nonstop work by the SpaceX team, the Falcon 1 was finally prepared for what was possibly its last launch ever on September 28, 2008. From Vance’s book:
“In the late afternoon, the SpaceX team raised the Falcon 1 to its launch position. It stood tall, looking like a bizarre artifact from the future as palm trees swayed beside it and a smattering of clouds crossed through the spectacular blue sky. By this time, SpaceX had turned each launch into a major Web production, so there was a worldwide audience. The Falcon 1 was not carrying real cargo this time; neither the company nor the military nor NASA wanted to see something else blow up or get lost at sea, so the rocket held a 360-pound dummy payload.”
Musk went to Disneyland with his brother and their kids to distract himself from the launch, but he still ended up back in the control room by 4 pm. The launch was imperative for many reasons, among them the fact that a successful launch would prove SpaceX’s legitimacy, and make it a contender to become a government contractor:
“As the rocket rumbled and then climbed higher, the employees inside SpaceX’s headquarters let out raucous cheers. Each milestone that followed — clearing the island, engine checks coming back good — was again met with whistles and shouts. After the first stage fell away, the second stage fired up about 90 seconds into the flight and the employees turned downright rapturous, filling the webcast with their ecstatic hollering. “Perfect,” said one of the talking heads. The Kestrel engine glowed red and started its six-minute burn. “When the second stage cleared, I could finally start breathing again and my knees stopped buckling,” said James McLaury, a machinist at SpaceX.”
Six years after SpaceX was founded, the Falcon 1 — the world’s first privately-built rocket — had successfully launched and reached orbit.
“Everyone burst into tears,” Elon Musk’s brother Kimbal said in the book. “It was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had.”
When Musk left the control room after the launch, he said: “Well, that was freaking awesome. As the saying goes, ‘The fourth time is the charm,’ right?”