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Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX

By Eric Berger
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  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Liftoff by Eric Berger

Liftoff (2021) tells the story of SpaceX’s beginnings – from the day that Elon Musk resolved to send rockets to Mars, through the first failed launch attempts on the tropical island of Omelek, to the make-or-break fourth flight. From a scrappy new venture to the world-renowned rocket company we know today, Liftoff has the inside scoop on SpaceX.

Key idea 1 of 8

Elon Musk founded SpaceX because he saw that the US space program was in a sorry state.

Elon Musk wants us to inhabit Mars. As global warming threatens life on Earth, he thinks we should leave our planet – or prepare to fail as a species. Out on Mars, we can engineer a new green world, a new Eden. This is what drives Musk’s company, SpaceX, as it pushes to build spacecraft capable of such a long and dangerous journey.

Though SpaceX is still very young, the company already has a long history. Musk felt disenchanted with the lack of ambition he saw in US space exploration. As he looked around in SpaceX’s early days, he saw NASA and some other big aerospace companies – and thought: is this it?

The key message here is: Elon Musk founded SpaceX because he saw that the US space program was in a sorry state.

The story of SpaceX begins back in the year 2000. Musk was cruising down the Long Island Expressway with a fellow entrepreneur called Adeo Ressi. Musk had recently lost his role as chief executive at PayPal – the company he’d cofounded.

As they drove, Ressi asked Musk what he was planning to do next – and the answer was all about space exploration. But Musk had his doubts: could a private individual really succeed in that field? And anyway, why would the world of space exploration need someone like him? Three decades had passed since the US had sent the Apollo astronauts to the moon. By now, surely, NASA must be close to sending humans to Mars?

Later that day Musk checked NASA’s website for news on its Mars missions. But as he scrolled through the website, he couldn’t find any. He was astonished. To understand more, he began attending space conferences in California. And it was there that he found out the truth: NASA wasn’t planning to send people to Mars anytime soon.

So perhaps a private individual like him could actually make a difference after all? If NASA was so unambitious, then maybe it would be down to entrepreneurs to explore space?

Musk started to dream big. He imagined building his own rocket – and, just two years on, things really got moving. He called a meeting of leading aerospace engineers. As they gathered at the Renaissance Hotel in Los Angeles, Musk explained his plans. Their answer was just a chuckle. One even said, “Save your money kid, and go sit on the beach.”

But these engineers, experienced as they were, didn’t know Musk. If anything, he’d become even more determined. He was going to build his rocket.

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