History's Middle Children

A review of Eric Berger's Liftoff – the story of SpaceX and the Falcon 1, one of modernity's greatest inventions.

"We are the middle children of history. Born too late to explore earth, born too early to explore the stars.”

FOMO – the fear of missing out – defines the psyche of contemporary life. Like a horrid case of tinnitus, the fact that life may not be an endless, eternal adventure takes a heavy toll on one’s personal and professional life. It’s an uncommon feeling magnified by our uncommon time.

As teenagers, that worry gradually begins with exclusions from parties or with university rejections; as adults, that fear takes the form of closed opportunities – at some age, it becomes impossible to become a professional athlete or win a fields medal. Optionality so often leads to paralysis; instead of doing something, the easy and socially accepted answer is to do nothing and resign.

The overwhelming rise of FOMO on everyone and anyone has only been matched by the breathtaking demand for nostalgic media. We consume TV shows about the 80s, purchase vinyls and cassete tapes in record numbers, and even download apps that nervously make you wait a day to see the picture after it’s taken.

What explains this bizarre phenomenon? Stuck inside the deepest recesses of our minds, people long for a past that is slowly but surely receding out of their reach. The echo of the once-daily commute sounds more like a relic from Victorian England than a fact of life eighteen months ago.

It’s a peculiar sign when everyone is nostalgic, especially about a time that they’ve never personally experienced. In conversation, I’ve asked friends which decade of the last century they would prefer to live in. And in confidence, everyone emphatically said the Roaring 20s, the Nifty 50’s, or even the 1930s; but not one said the early aughts or this past decade. Why is that? Their view was narrowly shaped; they didn’t think progress was happening fast enough, that everything had slowed down and that nobody was working on exciting projects anymore.

More generally, there is a sweet spot of nostalgia – look too far back and you may be depressed that we don’t live in the past, one that has been neatly edited and never worn. But, if you gently peel back the curtain, say to a decade ago, that cynicism may transform into burning optimism. The ship has veered off course, sure, but it’s still possible to change direction; this is especially the case when you witness someone’s glaring success in a field where everyone else had given up.

In other words, instead of worrying about all the opportunities, and believing trite words about accepting failure, there are moments when the right decision is to commit, stick to your decision, and win.

That was one of my many take-aways upon reading Eric Berger’s masterpiece, ‘Liftoff,’ chronicling the early days of SpaceX and the dawn of the Falcon 1 rocket, which made low-cost travel to space a reality. The “preternatural force” of Elon Musk alongside his rag-tag group of scrappy engineers on the Hobbesian island of Kwajalein reshaped the world's perception of the final frontier.

Admittedly, it’s fashionable to eviscerate Musk for shamelessly pumping dogecoin, his brutish workplace remarks, or the never-ending delays on full self-driving. Those critiques, and many others, deserve merit; yet, one can’t help but wonder whether the detractors would prefer to live in a world sans Musk, which is to say one where banal bureaucracies maniacally strangle scrappy upstarts. Like the financial writer Morgan Housel evinces: “People love the visionary genius side of Musk, but want it to come without the side that operates in his distorted I-don’t-care-about-your-customs version of reality.”

Nonetheless, in a tale out of a Shakespearean drama, Berger vividly illustrates that the age of heroic grandeur is far from over – and that our biggest mistake lies in dreaming too small about what we can accomplish.

One grave at a time

After Musk walked away from the Paypal deal, at the peak of the Dotcom bubble, the opportunities were indeed endless. Markets around the world had cratered while Musk was sitting on $165 million in cash after the sale – he could have very well bought his own island and sipped Mai Tais all day as he has alluded to. However, space called to him in a way that was unfathomable for everyone else: Berger recalls a moment from one of the early meetings that ushered in SpaceX. Musk and Mike Griffin, his business early partner who later ran NASA, organized a lunch at the Renaissance hotel in LA:

"In typical Elon-fashion, he kind of showed up a little bit late, which clearly annoyed a lot of the older guard aerospace executives that were in the room…He walks in and basically announces that he wants to start his own rocket company. And I do remember a lot of chuckling, some laughter, people saying things like save your money kid, and go sit on the beach.”

There is a saying that science progresses one grave at a time – Elon, however, didn’t wait for anyone to die. His steadfast vision alongside his substantial capital base was enough for him to convince and hire Tom Mueller, the modern-day godfather of rocket science, and the preeminent mind behind the Merlin engines. Mueller had already been around the block, he’d seen many master-of-the-universe types enter the aerospace industry only to get their egos and bank balances shattered beyond repair.

And, like clockwork, Musk consistently garners all the media attention about both of his companies, which is how he likes it; but, space enthusiasts know that Mueller, until his recent retirement, dominated the technical details better than anyone else. It was his company almost as much as Musk’s.

Even before the remarkable advances in rocketry and materials science, the company captured the industry’s best talent because everyone knew that Elon “just wanted to get shit done.” A superb CEO injects their company with the force of their personality; this is why SpaceX was frugal, fast, and fun all at the same time. Employees would long for Friday afternoon ice-cream runs; in the evenings, the often single and childless team would play Quake, a first-person shooter game, against their boss: even worse, Musk would handily beat most of them.

Nevertheless, a question frequently brought up by veterans of the space industry is how these employees dealt with such a neurotic culture, where the boundaries were ill-defined and the barrier between personal and professional life was a blur? SpaceX’s elite entry requirements helped: In Musk’s view, his employees had to think like special operations forces, think Green Beret rather than entry-level privates. To that end, he personally interviewed the first three thousand employees at the cost of Tesla’s success and his marriage.

In hindsight, that decision to interview everyone may have very well saved the company when it ultimately came time to build and launch the Falcon 1 at Kwajalein Atoll.

Pain, suffering, and survival

Today, it seems positively normal, perhaps even boring, that private companies launch rockets into orbit. However, the story was radically different a decade ago – Russia dominated space flight, a turn of events that started with the end of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency when the money from the Apollo missions shifted into the Vietnam war. Over 30 years passed until SpaceX arrived on the scene, side-stepping the ashes of the giants that came before; from the otherwordly American Rocket Company founded by the polymathic occultist George Koopman to the calculating, but impassionate Beal Aerospace created by the eponymous, billionare banker Andrew Beal.

So after a string of high-profile failures like those of Koopman’s and Beal’s, the government was naturally skeptical when SpaceX asked to utilize the Vandenberg base – the first location of the Falcon 1 launch. More than skepticism, the government actively stone-walled SpaceX and pushed the timeline back in order to support their favorite child, ULA.

“When Elon Musk showed up at Vandenberg a decade later, some of the Air Force graybeards thought they knew pretty much what to expect from this private company. A lot of big talk about revolutionizing the space business. Fancy cars. And ultimately, a flameout…

The Air Force simply did not sign off on the final documents. For the Air Force, it came down to a simple calculation: let the new space company fly its unproven rocket, or protect its hugely valuable national security assets from debris or other hazards should the Falcon 1 launch go awry. The decision was an easy one for the generals.”

At this point, Elon was pumping in millions of dollars a month into the fledgling company. What were they to do?

The answer lay in the offshore military base of Kwaj, an island over two days and two flights away from their headquarters in LA. The continual truth about the success of SpaceX, especially in the early days, is how fast the team was able to pivot and reorient themselves when disaster seemed inevitable. In this case, the Air Force’s procrastination would have destroyed any other company: the time required to ship all the parts to Kwaj by sea and the arduous task to rebuild a launch site after sinking in millions of dollars would have repelled CEOs and investors alike. To their credit, the team accomplished a complete renovation of the island in a matter of months.

Their tempo served them well. From 2002 to late 2005, three-and-a-half years, SpaceX team had constructed two launchpads – one in Vandenburg and the other in Kwaj – and a flight ready rocket. Yet, success was not to be theirs for three more launches: the first launch blew up by way of a fuel leak, the next as a result of excessive fuel sloshing, and the third because of unexpected thrust during stage separation. Each time, the team grew sharper, faster, and more resilient in ways that the industry had hithero never seen. They became capable of fixing the Falcon 1 in mid-flight, developing their own equipment at a hundreth of the cost, all the while generating new discoveries in advanced materials science.

In other words, it took a tremendous amount of complex coordination for the Falcon 1 to reach orbit. By this time, eight years after they had embarked on this mission, Musk had become a de facto rocket scientist and managed the lions share of the technical and financial decisions himself; Mueller pioneered the state-of-the-art Kestrel engines; Gwynne Shotwell, now COO, was closing contracts with the Malaysian government to NASA. And in a turn of events, it was NASA who saved the day – they awarded SpaceX with the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, worth more than a billion dollars for a set number of supply missions; without it, there would be no SpaceX today.

A refounding

The accomplishment is made ever more extraordinary by the fact that it took place during the Great Recession, a time that sullies all the great technical feats from that period. In many ways, the launch of the Falcon 1 reignited the original promise that made America the world’s dominant superpower – the marriage between nascent private industry and government agencies which continues to act as a catalyst for outsized success.

Liftoff, while a nail-biting story of SpaceX, is at its heart an example of benevolent nostalgia – a return to a time when big ideas had merit, and most importantly when solid execution was a prerequisite for success – a skill forgotten in a world awash with cheap money.

Ultimately, I couldn’t help but re-imagine those conversations with friends who romanticized a phantom past; if they knew about SpaceX’s humble beginnings and what they were later able to accomplish, would they still have chosen to live in a different time?

For the most part, their cynicism is accurate, a trap that befalls many smart people – the vistas of the past look much better than those of the present. It was Machiavelli, of course, who proclaimed: “The past could boast of much that was admirable, while the present has nothing that can raise it out of the greatest misery, infamy, and shame, with no observance of religion, laws, or military traditions, and stained by every kind of filth.”

For me, Liftoff convincingly puts this line of thinking to rest. The tirelessness of Musk and the SpaceX team serves as a model for anyone who seeks to realize the entirety of their ambition – simply because they could never imagine the alternative.