‘Liftoff’ Offers Inside Look Into SpaceX’s Desperate Early Days

A SpaceX Falcon heavy rocket lifts off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, … [+]

Half a century after the last astronauts left the Moon, the idea of sending crews to Mars still seems like some sort of vague space policy notion. After all, crews have yet to revisit the Moon. So, even today, talk of getting astronauts to Mars seems largely confined to PowerPoint presentations.

Thus, it was precisely that sense of inexactitude that prompted a young South African-born entrepreneur named Elon Musk to begin his quest to make the dream of boots on Mars a reality.

It’s a notion that is chronicled with alacrity in Eric Berger’s page-turning new book “Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days that Launched SpaceX.” Berger, senior space editor at Ars Technica, writes with the kind of hard-won insider authority that only comes through covering the nuts and bolts of the commercial space industry for the past twenty years.

In May of 2020, SpaceX become the world’s first private company to send humans into orbit when it carried two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

The inspiration for SpaceX supposedly begins in the second half of 2000, not long after Musk had been booted out as chief executive of PayPal, the company he cofounded. When asked what was next, Musk confided to a friend that he had always been interested in space. But he was unsure how to best actualize that curiosity into something tangible.

Musk assumed NASA must be well on its way to sending astronauts to Mars, Berger notes. But after a cursory look at NASA’s website, to his surprise, NASA had no concrete plans for mounting a crewed mission to Mars. Thus, Musk began attending space conferences in California to learn more. And within a couple of years, he was ready to start his own space company.

Liftoff chronicles SpaceX’s early days.

But from SpaceX’s humble beginnings in El Segundo, California, he and his first few dozen employees began work on the design and construction of the Falcon 1 rocket —- a 68-foot tall, two-stage liquid rocket capable of launching payloads to orbit.

SpaceX picked up its first real commercial customer when in 2003, officials with the Malaysian government offered SpaceX $6 million to lift a four-hundred- pound Earth observation satellite named RazakSAT into a near-equatorial orbit, Berger notes. For Falcon 1 to put that much mass into orbit, the rocket would need to launch very near the equator and piggyback on the planet’s rotation, writes Berger. That’s because as he notes, “A rocket launching from a low latitude can lift more mass than the same rocket from a higher latitude.”

But first SpaceX had to find a launch site near the equator. They settled on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The army had been operating a base there since 1964. The whole facility is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, located in Huntsville, Ala., and at the time was overseen by a lieutenant colonel named Tim Mango. So, Musk rang him up.

And as Mango recounts to Berger, Musk identified himself as a millionaire who had just sold his interest in PayPal and gotten into the space business. “I listened to his pitch for two minutes, and then hung up on him,” Mango said. “I thought he was nuts.”

Yet Mango —- eager for any external revenue to help maintain the army’s salt-ravaged infrastructure on Kwajalein, soon changed his tune and welcomed Musk and the fledgling space company to the islands.

The whole premise of using a federal facility administered by the U.S. Army as a launch pad is simply brilliant. It’s not unlike Pan Am founder Juan Trippe’s innovative use of the U.S. Navy-administrated Wake Island as a way station for the airline’s China Clipper flying boats. In both cases, we see the handiwork of great entrepreneurial thinkers in the process of taking existential risks; risks that could have bankrupted them both.

A mainstay of Musk’s plans to make access to orbit cheaper has been his mantra of booster reuse. That is, the revolutionary practice of reusing the first stage of any given multi-stage rocket.

BERLIN, GERMANY DECEMBER 01: SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk poses on the red carpet of the … [+]

However, as Berger notes, Musk’s argument is simple: “If an airline discarded a 747 jet after every transcontinental flight, passengers would have to pay $1 million for a ticket. Similarly, if every rocket flown into space drops into the ocean, space will remain cost prohibitive for all but a few wealthy nations and a few exclusive astronauts.”

It took a few years of trial and error but SpaceX now routinely recycles its first stage boosters which almost magically return to Earth for controlled landings either on land or at sea.

In addition to its high-profile crewed launch schedule, SpaceX has captured some two-thirds the global commercial satellite launch market by undercutting its competition. A typical satellite launch on a Falcon 9 rocket runs about $60 million.

At the moment, musk’s focus is on his Starship launcher which is a cornerstone of his plan to send enough cargo and people to Mars to begin a self-sustaining colony. Berger notes that Musk thinks he probably needs to ship about one million tons to Mars; which is why he’s focusing on perfecting the massive, fully reusable two-stage to Earth-orbit Starship vehicle.

Some climate change and environmental activists worry that Musk’s singular focus on moving humanity offworld will stymie the impetus to solve pressing problems here on Earth. But even a short flag and footprints mission to Mars might help us address our environmental issues here in ways that we could have never envisioned.

But as Musk told podcaster Joe Rogan, “a species that does not become multiplanetary is simply waiting around until there is some extinction event, either self-inflicted or external.”

Even so, the idea of colonizing Mars is still half a century away or more. By then, we can hope that our climate problems here will be well on the way to being successfully mitigated. Above all, SpaceX and the drive to commercialize space is a natural evolution of global space policy.

What Musk and other space entrepreneurs like him can achieve in this realm will ironically pay great dividends in space science endeavors for generations to come.

I’m a science journalist and host of Cosmic Controversy (brucedorminey.podbean.com) as well as author of “Distant Wanderers: the Search for Planets Beyond the Solar