Book Review: Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX by Eric Berger

This book is not a complete history of SpaceX. Instead, it focuses on the beginning years of the upstart aerospace company that has now completely redefined the parameters of space travel. Specifically, it describes Musk’s vision to transform the aerospace industry by building a private company that could compete with the federal government and the industry giants, and his company’s first attempts to get a rocket into orbit.

In 2002, flush with money from his PayPal days, Musk decided to invest one hundred million dollars in his dream: to start up his own private aerospace company that would be able to compete for government contracts and eventually send a spaceship with enough personnel and supplies to plant a self-sustaining colony on Mars. Since he had a limited amount of cash and no immediate prospects for more, he worked fast. He hired young, hungry engineers who were willing to put their all into their jobs, spending long hours seven days a week to bring the dream into fruition. They cut corners wherever they could and questioned every tenet and method that the much larger, slow, sedate, self-satisfied, and wealthy companies took for granted. For instance, instead of purchasing parts already developed and ready from other businesses, they would save money by building them in-house.

Some of the finest, most creative young engineers, realizing that this company was different and that Musk was attempting to shake the industry out of its complacency, jumped at the chance to work for SpaceX. They charged in at full speed, gave their all, and invited other top engineers they knew. At speeds that dazzled scoffing onlookers they assembled their first rocket: Falcon1. Thwarted in their attempts to find a site to test it in the United States, they eventually had to move to a remote Army-run atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Kwajalein. They encountered numerous obstacles as they built a launch pad on a tiny islet and transferred rockets there for testing. As the first rocket failed, and then the second, and then the third, Musk and his team became more and more desperate. Musk had said that he would finance three attempts, and those had all failed; but he was unwilling to give up. With about six weeks worth of funding left and enough parts to assemble one more rocket, the SpaceX employees all rallied for a final try. The rest, as they say, is history.

I knew some of this story already from The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos by Christian Davenport, which I read a few years ago. That’s a great book too, but in providing an overview of the entire recent movement to privatize the space industry, it is not able to go into detail about any of the individual stories. Liftoff, on the other hand, focuses on one intensely thrilling adventure: the beginning of the company that jumped out ahead of the pack.

Because of the detail and the in-depth look at the main characters, Liftoff is as exciting as a science fiction novel. It’s a real page-turner, which is unusual in a work of nonfiction. In an epilog, Berger tells what has happened to each of the important characters since the events he focuses on in the narrative, and because he has done such a good job of bringing them to life, I was intensely interested in this section. SpaceX has gone on to even greater innovations and achievements, and the young, eager engineers who helped build it have either grown with the company or gone on to assist other aerospace firms.

All in all, as I mentioned above, Liftoff is a fun, thrilling read. My only objection is that it ended when it did. I would have enjoyed it if the author had gone on to describe the subsequent years as SpaceX went on to become a giant in aerospace. I couldn’t get enough.

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