Tag Archives: Biographies

Liftoff: How Elon Musk Built SpaceX

At 1310 East Grand Avenue in El Segundo, just south of Los Angeles, sits a large white building. In 2002, it housed only about a dozen people. There wasn’t even a receptionist.

Deep in this building was a small group of cubicles, staffed by about a dozen men. This tiny group had an audacious goal: sending the first humans to Mars.

Their leader was a young internet entrepreneur named Elon Musk. He had just made $180 million from the sale of PayPal. Many men in his position would buy an island and relax, or perhaps begin a career in philanthrophy. But Elon toiled away in this nondescript warehouse instead, building the future.

This is the subject of an outstanding new book I just finished called Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX.

From this tiny team, Musk built SpaceX, which now does two thirds of all commercial satellite launches in the world and owns the most powerful rocket on earth, the Falcon Heavy. That small group of employees has mushroomed to nearly 10,000.

To go so far so fast, Musk needed the best people in the business, and he focused like a laser on finding them. One engineer’s wife got a job at Google in the Bay Area, which meant he couldn’t accept Musk’s offer to work at SpaceX. Undeterred, Musk called the CEO of Google and got the engineer’s wife a transfer to Los Angeles. Sure enough, he got the engineer he wanted.

Musk went so far as to personally interview the first 3000 people SpaceX hired. Musk paid less and his company was unproven, but he excelled at inspiring people to join him to revolutionize space travel.

Even with Musk’s drive and a superb team, SpaceX faced many struggles. By 2008, they had three failed flights and barely a month’s worth of cash left. Even Elon’s considerable fortune had run dry supporting both SpaceX and Tesla. But Musk and his team stayed focused and successfully launched a rocket into orbit in the nick of time. This achievement won them a NASA contract that kept the company alive.

SpaceX questioned everything about how business is normally done in aerospace. Most companies buy parts from established suppliers, but SpaceX built almost everything itself, substantially lowering its costs. For the parts it did buy elsewhere, SpaceX ignored common practice as well. Instead of paying in 30 days, SpaceX paid in as little as 24 hours. This got their orders prioritized, which helped them move faster than other rocket companies.

Today, only one other private company, Rocket Lab, has reached orbit. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, despite all his money, has never reached orbit. Indeed, SpaceX is so dominant that customers sometimes spread around a few of their orders, just to make sure its competitors don’t all go out of business.

If I had seen Musk in that empty warehouse twenty years ago, I would never have believed what SpaceX would become. But Musk saw it, and stopped at nothing to get there.

When the first man steps on Mars, will it be Musk?

Dig into these posts for more on Elon Musk and space:

Photo: “SpaceX Dragon Propulsive Descent Landing Test” by NASAKennedy is marked with CC PDM 1.0

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