Elon Musk’s spacecraft went up in flames. This won’t stop him from getting to Mars
The sight of a rocket falling out of the sky and producing a billowing ball of flame does not instil confidence. When virtually the same rocket crashes in a similar manner less than two months later, one is still less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.
After witnessing the back-to-back failures of SpaceX Starship prototypes in December and early February, it seems appropriate to ask if Elon Musk’s vision of sending thousands of humans to Mars aboard these spacecrafts might just be a tad flawed.
During the first failure, there was not enough propellant to feed the Raptor engines for their final burn before touchdown. On the second flight, one of the two engines failed to re-light for a final burn. While it is reasonable to ask whether these are fatal flaws for the future of the company, anyone who understands where Musk and SpaceX came from already knows the answer. These test flight explosions, however sensational, will not stop Musk from reaching Mars.
Elon Musk and SpaceX have already been tested by much more gruelling hardships: the last high-profile failed takeoffs almost killed the company.
The first pivotal moment came in August 2008, after the third failure of the Falcon 1 rocket. Six years had come and gone since he founded SpaceX, and Musk had gone all in on the rocket company, investing time, money, and emotional toil. It had rewarded him with failure after failure, and now his fortune was gone. His other venture, Tesla, was also burning through cash. Beyond his crumbling business empire, Musk’s personal life was falling apart. He and his first wife, Justine, had split that summer.
“At that time I had to allocate a lot of capital to Tesla and SolarCity, so I was out of money,” Musk told me in an interview in the fall of 2019, as we flew on his private jet from the SpaceX factory in California to the Starship launch site in South Texas. “We had three failures under our belt. So it’s pretty hard to go raise money. The recession is starting to hit. The Tesla financing round that we tried to raise that summer had failed. I got divorced. I didn’t even have a house. My ex-wife had the house. So it was a shitty summer.”
Musk has come a long way since. Thanks to bets placed on SpaceX and Tesla then, saving both companies from dire straits, he now ranks among the richest peoplein the world. But at the time he had really achieved nothing with either company. He wasn’t sending rockets into orbits nor selling cars. What he did have then was the same motivational gifts that he uses today to push his teams forward.
The day after the Falcon 1 rocket’s third failed attempt at liftoff, Musk called a staff meeting. Dozens of employees crammed into the Von Braun conference room, located to the immediate left of the new SpaceX factory’s entrance in Southern California. They sat at tables and stood along the walls of the trapezoidal shaped room. Musk took his place at the front, glass walls behind him, trying to find appropriate words for the moment.
Musk had personally hired all of these people, judging them to be smart, innovative, and willing to give their all. They had made mistakes. But they were dedicated, and had put everything into SpaceX. Musk chose not to play the blame game for the third flight’s failure, which happened when the rocket’s main engine burned slightly longer than expected. As badly as the flight had gone, he wanted to give his people one final swing.
Outside that room, in the factory, they had the parts for a final Falcon 1 rocket. Build it, he said. And then fly it. Over the course of eight desperate weeks, that’s exactly what they did, reaching orbit for the first time.
But the path was not year clear for Musk or SpaceX. The company had a second existential problem: just one additional commercial customer was lined up for the Falcon 1 rocket, and it had run out of money. Tesla, too, faced a near continual cash crunch. Musk said he could not even celebrate the first successful launch of the rocket.
“I think my cortisol levels were clinically high, so I wasn’t actually feeling celebratory,” he said. “There was no jubilation or anything. I was just too stressed. It’s like the patient survived. Getting to orbit was just like, ‘Okay, we’re not going to die now. At least we’ll live it a little bit longer’.”
A few months later Nasa would step in with funding for operational flights to the International Space Station. SpaceX had not yet completed the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft that would carry cargo to orbit, but the contract from Nasa saved the company, and propelled it forward. In the dozen years since then, SpaceX has learned to launch and rapidly reuse its rockets, built the world’s largest booster with the Falcon Heavy, flown humans into orbit, and operates more satellites than any other company or nation.
In seeking to design, develop, and fly Starship to ultimately send humans to Mars, Musk and SpaceX are taking on their biggest challenge yet. That is evident both in the recent failures, but also the magnitude of what Starship must become – no one has ever built a fully reusable orbital rocket, and the most humans landed on another world, the Moon, is two. Within the decade, or less, Musk would like to see a fleet of Starships each landing dozens of settlers on the surface of Mars at a time.
So how can SpaceX do something no space agency or company has come close to achieving? One reason is that Musk started SpaceX with the goal of reaching Mars, and has progressed toward it ever since. In interviews with his earliest employees, Musk would lay out his vision of one day settling on Mars as a backup world to Earth.
Gwynne Shotwell, hired as vice president of sales and now the company’s president, vividly recalls her first encounter with Musk in the summer of 2002. “He was compelling – scary, but compelling,” she says. He had the same mania for Mars then that he does today.
Musk had a gift for finding ultra-talented people who would buy into that vision, and help him work toward it. Beyond this, he could identify those who would willingly work demanding schedules to accomplish the goal. “We sometimes joke that SpaceX is like dog years,” says Brian Bjelde, an engineer who ended up becoming head of human resources for SpaceX. “You get like seven years in one, and it’s true.”
With Starship, SpaceX has channeled some of its Falcon 1 mojo. Then, it was a scrappy company few expected to succeed, assembling small rockets on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Now, SpaceX has built a factory beneath tents in South Texas by the Rio Grande river for the massive Starship. In both cases, the goal is to move as fast as possible, with as little interference as possible.
“The development taking place with Starship very much has that spirit,” says Zach Dunn, an engineer who played a key role in finally getting the Falcon 1 into orbit. “And it’s pretty awesome to see. We still have that DNA, when we want to, we can go and move super fast and develop hardware with an iterative approach, just to see what happens. If it screws up, we’ll go try something else.”
Starship’s two recent crash landings could be seen as screwups. But that’s not how Musk sees it. One of the biggest risks in bringing back Starship from orbital velocity is bleeding off all of that energy while using as little mass as possible for a heat shield and landing capability. Over time, engineers devised a unique “belly flop” manoeuvre in which the rocket would tip from nearly vertical position into a horizontal one, and fall very nearly to the surface of the Earth before righting itself and coming to a smooth landing. This was the novel part of the two recent test flights, and Starship nailed the manoeuvre both times. “We retired a lot of risk,” Shotwell said after the first one.
As for sticking the landing, that should be the easy part. It’s a matter of getting the process of relighting the rocket’s Raptor engines just right, and ensuring they have enough fuel to bring the vehicle to a rest. This is something SpaceX will no doubt soon achieve as, after all, it has safely landed more than six dozen Falcon 9 rockets in a vertical position. Musk seems increasingly confident of this, too. When the next Starship prototype, SN10, flies as early as later this month, Musk gave it a 60 per cent chance of success.
And even if it fails, so what? At its South Texas Launch Site, SpaceX is building a new Starship prototype almost every other week. This is the very definition of a “hardware rich” program that follows an iterative design flow, allowing the company to build, test, fly, and learn in rapid succession. There have already been many failures as SpaceX has built increasingly high fidelity Starships, and there will be many more on the path to orbit. This is by design. It is something Musk established early on with SpaceX’s culture and the Falcon 1 rocket.
Back in 2008, with his company hanging on by a thread after three rockets failed to reach orbit, Musk could not afford to fail. Flight Four of the Falcon 1 rocket offered a last chance. Now, with more than 110 successful launches in a little more than a decade, the company is a long way from fly-or-die mode.
The big thing Musk and SpaceX have today, as they seek to put the Starship program into overdrive, is resources. Musk is no longer scrambling to save SpaceX and Tesla. This time, SpaceX can afford to fail, and that’s the price the company is willingly paying to go faster and further than anyone has ever gone before.