Failure Is an Option

REVIEW: 'Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX'

February 28, 2021

A new space age began in, of all places, a car on the Long Island expressway. Barely pushing 28 years old, Elon Musk had just departed PayPal with little notion of what he would do next. Driving through the drab urban sprawl of a New York highway, Musk told his former coworker he wanted to go to space.

Along the way, Musk passed Jeff Bezos as the richest man in the world. The South African immigrant oversees two highly successful companies, dabbles in tearing the stock market asunder, and in his free time makes himself into viral memes with Joe Rogan. But his success in redefining the entire space industry was never a certainty. At times, it appeared an abject disaster.

Eric Berger’s Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX covers this wild ride between fortune and failure. With his front row seat to exploding rockets, stiff government negotiations, and desperate, last-minute flights across the world, Berger offers a lively account of how a polymath billionaire not only built a commercial empire in space but also restored America as the space capital of the world. He managed this by doing one thing different: making failure an option.

The nature of rocket launches necessitates several successful tests and demonstrated effectiveness to win government contracts. A group of major contractors known as the United Launch Alliance stand among the few companies with the capital available and retain strong enough relationships with the government to develop and test new technologies while still turning a profit.

To break through this entry barrier, Musk dumped millions of his own savings into his company before securing its first government contracts.

"We weren’t trying to break apart the old boys club; what we were trying to do was to have fair access to competition," said Gwynne Shotwell, the current CEO of SpaceX. "That’s what it was all about. Just be fair."

Critics, on the other hand, maintain the issue wasn't fairness but, rather, safety. The speeds at which Musk and his team pursued their goals left government officials worried that the company would flout safety protocols to compete, potentially delivering faulty products. This inevitably led to a clash in the early 2000s between the upstart SpaceX and the institutional culture of the United Launch Alliance, NASA, and American military space apparatus.

In the end, SpaceX won out, with NASA taking a chance on Musk and his stalwart team. And it was Musk's embrace of failure that made all the difference. Failure, and the instruction it brought engineers, proved integral to the SpaceX business model.

"At most other aerospace companies, no employee wanted to make a mistake, lest it reflect badly on an annual performance review," Berger writes. "Musk, by contrast, used his team to move fast, build things, and break things. At some government labs and large aerospace firms, an engineer may devote a career to creating stacks of paperwork without ever touching hardware. The engineers designing the Falcon 1 rocket spent much of their time on the factory floor, testing ideas rather than debating them. Talk less, do more."

This approach resulted in several catastrophic failures that nearly brought an end to the company but also some of the space industry’s most important new creations. Musk’s engines quickly ranked among the most efficient and powerful, while eventually developing capabilities for reuse. As a result, private industry brought down costs dramatically for defense agencies in putting satellites into outer space—a huge win for Musk and his team.

Such victories are no mere exercise in hoarding profit, though it is a princely sum—Morgan Stanley valued the company at more than $100 billion just last year. As the 2020 book Winning Space points out, China and Russia are aiming to develop lethal capabilities in space with the intent to disrupt the American economy and way of life. Without the asymmetric advantage provided by SpaceX and other free market innovators, America would be several critical steps behind this new space race.

It's your quintessential American story: An enterprising businessman risked more than most could afford not just for the sake of commerce, but a greater mission. Due to fine management and an unrelenting passion, he made money doing so and fundamentally changed an entire industry along the way.

Granted, Musk’s swaggering braggadocio often borders on parody—the venture capitalist believes that humans will colonize Mars by the millions before the end of his lifetime.

But such a cavalier disposition may be the answer to concerns about American decline. The Apollo age and American leadership in space came about because astronauts and policymakers were unafraid to take risks in the service of building something great, no matter the cost. If Americans want to lead once again, they could do well to take a page from Berger's book and follow Musk's lead: "Move fast, build things, break things."