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Life on Earth is too tame for eccentric American billionaires

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days that Launched SpaceX Eric Berger

William Collins, pp.288, 20

For many of us, Elon Musk is a hard man to like. He’s the richest man in the world (or second richest, as he and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos whirr back and forth in top spot), but acts online like a bratty teenager astonished by his own intelligence.

He proposes underground tunnel networks as a transport solution for Miami (which is a swamp less than 10ft above sea level), moots takeovers of his companies with 420-themed weed jokes and hypes cryptocurrencies. Yet as you read Liftoff you can see what so many people find to admire in the man — at least for a while.

The story of SpaceX’s early days is an extraordinary one, of a company started with $100 million of the money Musk made from his previous start-up, PayPal (from which he had been ousted as CEO), and which everyone wrote off as the vanity project of an eccentric dotcom millionaire. There’s much in the tale of its early days that even a hardened sceptic would find impressive or even admirable: a bid to take on established players charging astronomical amounts for low-orbit space launches.

Feats of engineering, by a team of a few dozen technicians working out of a converted factory in El Segundo in northern Los Angeles, led to the company constructing its own launch site on the unpopulated Hawaiian island of Omelek, one of the most isolated places on the planet. By the time they have built its first rocket — at an astonishing speed of just four years from the company’s founding — and are about to send it to space in a make-or-break launch, you’re rooting for them. Will it work?

This is definitely the strong suit of Eric Berger’s book, which uses unparalleled access to Musk and all of SpaceX’s early staff to place the reader right among them. It is written with verve and polish to keep you turning the pages, despite its Aaron Sorkinesque obsession with recounting the CV of every person mentioned even in passing.

The characters are there, the texture is there, and the colour is certainly there. Anecdotes include the tale of the SpaceX intern who for unknowable reasons thought it would be a good idea to bring a handgun and 100 rounds of ammo on a plane to a military base, and the story of an unfortunate owl caught up in the vent of a launch and dashed off to the medics (and an unknown fate). Everything seems to be in place for a great narrative — until the creeping feeling that something is missing finally catches up with you. This should read like the script of a Frank Capra movie, the little guy taking on the world. Why doesn’t it?

What’s missing is conflict. When staff are working 18-hour days, we are told they shrug it off as the price of contributing to progress. When parents miss their children’s key early years, that’s just the way it goes. Women (with a few exceptions) exist as wives to support their husbands, or subordinate their careers to them, and when marriages break down due to SpaceX stress that’s shrugged off too. On the few occasions that a possible personal failing is seen in Musk himself, it’s immediately dismissed as a small price to pay for the gift of his brilliance. A culture of drinking to excess is celebrated and never questioned.

Liftoff can thus be clearly distinguished from an official corporate history or authorised biography, which might have the sense to admit the possibility of criticism or failure at some point. Instead it feels like a profile by a superfan of the latest teen idol. Ten years ago that would sit it comfortably in the ranks of bestselling business books, and perhaps today it still will. But was it really OK that staffer after staffer burned themselves out for modest reward as Musk became the world’s richest man?

Musk repeatedly says he started SpaceX to save humanity in the long term, to have us colonise Mars. Liftoff never questions whether the future of the species should be left to eccentric billionaires. It also never doubts Musk’s hyperbole. For an accomplished man, he hypes when he doesn’t need to: SpaceX has managed to make refuelling and restocking cheaper and better. Mars is still a long way off.

Jeff Bezos also has his own space company. Is there something in the psyche of billionaires that makes them want to breach the heavens? Answers come there none. Instead, we get an enjoyable ride through a startup’s fun early years. Engineering is cool — as are launch pads, Hawaii, branded T-shirts, SpaceX and Elon Musk. Everything is cool.

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