Not a month goes by without news of some new futuristic venture that Elon Musk kicks off. But one of his biggest achievements is undoubtedly SpaceX, whose rockets are now regularly launching commercial satellites and taking humans to the International Space Station. How did SpaceX succeed where so many commercial rocket companies failed? In the book Liftoff we get an insider view of the first few years of SpaceX, while they were struggling to get that first successful rocket launch. Specifically, the book covers the creation of SpaceX and their first four launches of the Falcon 1 rocket. The first two launches failed, the third one got them to space and the fourth got them to orbit. The author Eric Berger was given exclusive access to Musk, his employees and the company, so we get a pretty intimate look at everything.
Elon Musk is a well known sci-fi fan and has always been vocal that humans should be settle on Mars as a backup in case Earth is destroyed or becomes inhabitable. After convincing some experienced rocket folks to join him, he put down $100 million of his Paypal money and created SpaceX in May 2002. Though the eventual goal was Mars, the first goal was to build a small rocket that could reach orbit and launch satellites, so that they could become self-sustaining by disrupting the commercial satellite launch market. And what would SpaceX do differently from all the other rocket startups that failed? The idea was to focus on one design, iterate quickly on the design-build-test process, essentially “move fast and break things”.
The first rocket was christened Falcon 1 and it had a pretty well-known and common design - a first-stage engine (named Merlin) to get to space and a small second-stage engine (named Kestrel) to orbit and place the payload. The early hires had prior experience in building engines and rockets, but now they had to design fast, think innovatively about sourcing and manufacturing and build it more quickly than ever done before. By 2005, the rocket shell was ready, Merlin and Kestrel engines had been tested and a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base had been readied.
But SpaceX was forced to look for a launch site closer to the Equator and chose a small island (called Omelek) in the Kwajalein atoll where the US Army had a base. SpaceX employees used a mix of Elon’s private jet, passenger planes and sea transport to ship themselves and their precious cargo to Omelek and started a skunkworks project of building a launch pad there for all their Falcon 1 launches.
Flight 1 of Falcon 1 failed in 2006 when the Merlin engine exploded. Later analysis showed that the cause was a fuel leak due to a nut on the fuel line not being tightened to the right torque. Flight 2 came in 2007 and failed because they had not put baffles in the second-stage to prevent sloshing of fuel. During flight 3 (2008) the first stage did its job and separated, but leftover fuel in the first-stage boosted it to smash into the second-stage, destroying it.
After three close, but failed flights SpaceX was on its last legs. They had one last rocket left and Musk gave the team 8 weeks to finish and launch it. Instead of using the slower sea transport, they used the army’s C-17 transport plane, even repairing the rocket in flight when it started to implode due to air pressure differences. After all these hijinks, SpaceX finally succeeded on Flight 4, just over 6 years after its inception. The final chapter also shows how, thanks to Musk’s singular vision, SpaceX was able to quickly create Falcon 9 (by slapping on 9 Merlin engines) and later Falcon Heavy (strapping together three Falcon 9s).
To my eyes, Musk essentially disrupted the rocket space by bringing in concepts from software engineering. The traditional rocket companies like Boeing and Lockheed had grown fat on creating new, costly and time-consuming rocket designs for each new application, and also currying favor with politicians who try to get manufacturing jobs for their own constituencies. What is also clear in the book is that Musk gets involved in all the engineering details, and is able to make decisions or change course for the company in an instant, instead of waiting for slow bureaucratic procedures. The epilogue of the book also shows the downside of working for Musk - pretty much every early employee learnt a lot at SpaceX, but were pushed so hard by him, not having any personal life, not seeing their spouse or kids for days and weeks that they all moved on to have a better work-life balance. Also, though the commercial success of SpaceX in this space is to be commended, from the book it is clearly visible that all commercial rocket companies in the US get tremendous support from NASA (funding and expert guidance) and the Army and Air Force (transportation, stay, launch pads).
This book was a fast and thrilling read. It goes into all the details of how SpaceX was created, how it was run by Musk, the main people involved and all the gritty engineering details of bringing that first rocket to life. A must read for every engineer.
If you loved this and are looking for another similar read, check out Silicon Sky, that covers the early days of the Orbital Sciences team that struggled through several engineering challenges to design and launch the Orbcomm satellites.