In August of 2008, Elon Musk watched with delight and then horror as the Falcon 1 rocket built by his company SpaceX launched from an atoll in the Pacific and then, just after the first stage separated, tumbled out of control. Its payload, including a United States Air Force satellite and the remains of the late actor James Doohan, who had played Scotty on Star Trek, crashed into the ocean. It was the third failed attempt by SpaceX to launch a satellite into orbit. Musk had not budgeted for another. “I thought that if we couldn’t get this thing to orbit in three failures, we deserved to die,” he later said.
A few weeks later, he gathered the top executives of Tesla, his troubled electric car company, and said they were about to run out of money. They had burned through much of the millions of dollars of deposits that customers had paid to get in line for the high-end Roadster the company had promised but not yet delivered. Musk fired the CEO, appointed himself to the role, and launched a plan to cut 25 percent of his workforce. Over dinner with one of his investors at a Beverly Hills steakhouse, he confided that the company had only three weeks of cash left. Then he pulled out his BlackBerry and showed the investor a picture of a mockup of the luxury sedan that he planned for Tesla to build next.
It was a bad time for SpaceX and Tesla to be going broke. Lehman Brothers had just collapsed and the global financial system was spiraling toward a crash. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler were headed toward bankruptcy. Musk’s ex-wife was attacking him relentlessly in the press, and his new girlfriend, the actress Talulah Riley, said that he was waking up in the middle of the night screaming from nightmares and physical pain.
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The agonies and ecstasies of Elon Musk have been amply chronicled over the years, including in Ashlee Vance’s 2015 biography as well as books on the race to privatize space travel by Christian Davenport and Tim Fernholz. Two new books, both written with Musk’s cooperation, now deepen our appreciation of his achievements by showing how Musk’s success comes from his profound understanding of the physics and technology underlying his products. “Liftoff,” by Ars Technica space writer Eric Berger, is a colorful page-turner that focuses on the downs and ups of the early years of SpaceX. “Power Play,” by Wall Street Journal reporter Tim Higgins, is a deeply reported and business-savvy chronicle of Tesla’s wild ride from the launch of the high-end Roadster in 2009 to the Model S luxury sedan and then the Model 3, which is now the world’s best-selling electric car. Musk’s fanboys as well as his growing legion of grudging admirers should read the books in tandem, because the parallel tales combine to convey the depths of Musk’s interwoven passions to save the planet and colonize Mars.
At the height of Tesla’s financial problems at the end of 2008, Musk decided that he would double down. He personally borrowed money to keep the company afloat and pushed his investors to match him. When they reluctantly agreed, he broke down in tears. “All of his fortune was now on the line,” Higgins writes. “From the depths of the Great Recession, he’d done something that other U.S. automakers were unable to do: avoid bankruptcy.”
At the same time, he decided to forge ahead at SpaceX. He gathered the company’s employees and said they had the components for a fourth attempt. “We have another rocket,“ he told them. “Go back to the island and launch it in six weeks.”
On the morning of September 28, 2008, Musk went with his brother and their children to Disneyland, where they rode, in an apt metaphor, the Space Mountain roller coaster. Then he raced back to SpaceX headquarters to take his seat in the command van. For more than nine minutes, he and his team watched on monitors as the rocket lifted off flawlessly, the second stage detached without a hitch, and finally the payload went into orbit. On the factory floor, more than 100 employees started jumping and screaming for joy. Their company had been saved, and private space flight was going to be a reality. Then Musk stepped forward and reminded them there was more work to do. “This is just the first step of many,” he said.
At the same time, Musk’s chief car designer was preparing to go to work in a corner of SpaceX’s factory, beneath a white tent that was designated as the Tesla area. Musk had ordered him to produce a prototype of the Model S, an all-electric luxury sedan that would make or break his company. In March 2009, Musk was able to drive the sleek prototype onto the SpaceX factory floor at a celebrity-packed gala launch party. As the crowd cheered and music boomed, Musk announced, “You’re looking at what will be the world’s first mass manufactured electric car.”
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Miraculously, Musk had survived what seemed like two certain flameouts. “It felt like I had been taken out to the firing squad, and been blindfolded,” he said. “Then they fired the guns, which went click. No bullets came out. And then they let you free. Sure, it feels great. But you’re pretty [expletive] nervous.”
In his famous “Think Different” ad for Apple in 1997, Steve Jobs saluted people like himself: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels… Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” Musk is in some ways the current incarnation of Jobs. As these two books show in vivid detail, Musk can drive people hard. He can drive them to distraction. But he can also drive them to do things they never dreamed were possible. “Please prepare yourself for a level of intensity that is greater than anything most of you have experienced before,” he wrote in one staff memo. “Revolutionizing industries is not for the faint of heart.”
Like Jobs, Musk has a reality distortion field. “In meetings, Musk might ask his engineers to do something that, on the face of it, seemed absurd,” Berger writes. But unlike Jobs, Musk has an understanding of physics and thermodynamics that has helped him know what boundaries could be successfully pushed. “When they protested that it was impossible, Musk would respond with a question designed to open their minds to the problem, and potential solutions. He would ask, ‘What would it take?’”
By drilling down to fundamental principles and the underlying science, he has built the globally dominant private rocket company whose Starship vehicle might lead the way in bringing humans to Mars, and Tesla has become the world’s most valuable auto company, one that will help wean humanity from fossil-fuel cars.
That is especially impressive in a country where much of the tech innovation over the past 50 years has been confined to digital products that can be concocted in dorm rooms and garages. As Peter Thiel famously lamented, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Musk’s innovation has been in tangible things, such as batteries and cars and rockets, that are harder to make in a risk-averse and heavily-regulated environment, and he has shown that they can be manufactured in the United States. Each step of the way, critics dismissed him as crazy. But he has ended up illustrating Jobs’s maxim that the people who are crazy enough to change the world are the ones who do – especially when they combine a deep understanding of technology with a passion that is connected to a higher mission and purpose.