PAIN, SUFFERING, AND SURVIVAL 3
THE FALCON 9 HAS BECOME SPACEX’S WORKHORSE. The rocket looks—let’s face it—like a giant white phallus. It stands 224.4 feet tall, is 12 feet across, and weighs 1.1 million pounds. The rocket is powered by nine engines arranged in an “octaweb” pattern at its base with one engine in the center and eight others encircling it. The engines connect to the first stage, or the main body of the rocket, which bears the blue SpaceX insignia and an American flag. The shorter second stage of the rocket sits on top of the first and is the one that actually ends up doing things in space. It can be outfitted with a rounded container for carrying satellites or a capsule capable of transporting humans. By design, there’s nothing particularly flashy about the Falcon 9’s outward appearance. It’s the spaceship equivalent of an Apple laptop or a Braun kettle—an elegant, purposeful machine stripped of frivolity and waste.
SpaceX sometimes uses Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California to send up these Falcon 9 rockets. Were it not owned by the military, the base would be a resort. The Pacific Ocean runs for miles along its border, and its grounds have wide-open shrubby fields dotted by green hills. Nestled into one hilly spot just at the ocean’s edge are a handful of launchpads. On launch days, the white Falcon 9 breaks up the blue and green landscape, pointing skyward and leaving no doubt about its intentions.
About four hours before a launch, the Falcon 9 starts getting filled with an immense amount of liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene. Some of the liquid oxygen vents out of the rocket as it awaits launch and is kept so cold that it boils off on contact with the metal and air, forming white plumes that stream down the rocket’s sides. This gives the impression of the Falcon 9 huffing and puffing as it limbers up before the journey. The engineers inside of SpaceX’s mission control monitor these fuel systems and all manner of other items. They chat back and forth through headsets and begin cycling through their launch checklist, consumed by what people in the business call “go fever” as they move from one approval to the next. Ten minutes before launch, the humans step out of the way and leave the remaining processes up to automated machines. Everything goes quiet, and the tension builds until right before the main event. That’s when, out of nowhere, the Falcon 9 breaks the silence by letting out a loud gasp.
A white latticed support structure pulls away from its body. The T-minus-ten-seconds countdown begins. Nothing much happens from ten down to four. At the count of three, however, the engines ignite, and the computers conduct a last, oh-so-rapid, health check. Four enormous metal clamps hold the rocket down, as computing systems evaluate all nine engines and measure if there’s sufficient downward force being produced. By the time zero arrives, the rocket has decided that all is well enough to go through with its mission, and the clamps release. The rocket goes to war with inertia, and then, with flames surrounding its base and snow-thick plumes of the liquid oxygen filling the air, it shoots up. Seeing something so large hold so straight and steady while suspended in midair is hard for the brain to register. It is foreign, inexplicable. About twenty seconds after liftoff, the spectators placed safely a few miles away catch the first faceful of the Falcon 9’s rumble. It’s a distinct sound—a sort of staccato crackling that arises from chemicals whipped into a violent frenzy. Pant legs vibrate from shock waves produced by a stream of sonic booms coming out of the Falcon 9’s exhaust. The white rocket climbs higher and higher with impressive stamina. After about a minute, it’s just a red spot in the sky, and then—poof—it’s gone. Only a cynical dullard could come away from witnessing this feeling anything other than wonder at what man can accomplish.
For Elon Musk, this spectacle has turned into a familiar experience. SpaceX has metamorphosed from the joke of the aeronautics industry into one of its most consistent operators. SpaceX sends a rocket up about once a month, carrying satellites for companies and nations and supplies to the International Space Station. Where the Falcon 1 blasting off from Kwajalein was the work of a start-up, the Falcon 9 taking off from Vandenberg is the work of an aerospace superpower. SpaceX can undercut its U.S. competitors—Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital Sciences—on price by a ridiculous margin. It also offers U.S. customers a peace of mind that its rivals can’t. Where these competitors rely on Russian and other foreign suppliers, SpaceX makes all of its machines from scratch in the United States. Because of its low costs, SpaceX has once again made the United States a player in the worldwide commercial launch market. Its $60 million per launch cost is much less than what Europe and Japan charge and trumps even the relative bargains offered by the Russians and Chinese, who have the added benefit of decades of sunk government investment into their space programs as well as cheap labor.
The United States continues to take great pride in having Boeing compete against Airbus and other foreign aircraft makers. For some reason, though, government leaders and the public have been willing to concede much of the commercial launch market. It’s a disheartening and shortsighted position. The total market for satellites, related services, and the rocket launches needed to carry them to space has exploded over the past decade from about $60 billion per year to more than $200 billion. [http://www.sia.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/2013_SSIR_ Final.pdf] A number of countries pay to send up their own spy, communication, and weather satellites. Companies then turn to space for television, Internet, radio, weather, navigation, and imaging services. The machines in space supply the fabric of modern life, and they’re going to become more capable and interesting at a rapid pace. A whole new breed of satellite makers has just appeared on the scene with the ability to answer Google-like queries about our planet. These satellites can zoom in on Iowa and determine when cornfields are at peak yields and ready to harvest, and they can count cars in Wal-Mart parking lots throughout California to calculate shopping demand during the holiday season. The start-ups making these types of innovative machines must often turn to the Russians to get them into space, but SpaceX intends to change that.
The United States has remained competitive in the most lucrative parts of the space industry, building the actual satellites and complementary systems and services to run them. Each year, the United States makes about one-third of all satellites and takes about 60 percent of the global satellite revenue. The majority of this revenue comes from business done with the U.S. government. China, Europe, and Russia account for almost all of the remaining satellite sales and launches. It’s expected that China’s role in the space industry will increase, while Russia has vowed to spend $50 billion on revitalizing its space program. This leaves the United States dealing with two of its least-favored nations in space matters and doing so without much leverage. Case in point: the retirement of the space shuttle made the United States totally dependent on the Russians to get astronauts to the ISS. Russia gets to charge $70 million per person for the trip and to cut the United States off as it sees fit during political rifts. At present, SpaceX looks like the best hope of breaking this cycle and giving back to America its ability to take people into space.
SpaceX has become the free radical trying to upend everything about this industry. It doesn’t want to handle a few launches per year or to rely on government contracts for survival. Musk’s goal is to use manufacturing breakthroughs and launchpad advances to create a drastic drop in the cost of getting things to space. Most significant, he’s been testing rockets that can push their payload to space and then return to Earth and land with supreme accuracy on a pad floating at sea or even their original launchpad. Instead of having its rockets break apart after crashing into the sea, SpaceX will use reverse thrusters to lower them down softly and reuse them. Within the next few years, SpaceX expects to cut its price to at least one-tenth that of its rivals. Reusing its rockets will drive the bulk of this reduction and SpaceX’s competitive advantage. Imagine one airline that flies the same plane over and over again, competing against others that dispose of their planes after every flight. /It should be noted that there are many people in the space industry who doubt reusable rockets will work, in large part because of the stress the machines and metal go through during launch. It’s not clear that the most prized customers will even consider the reused spacecraft for launches due to their inherent risks. This is a big reason that other countries and companies have not pursued the technology. There’s a camp of space experts who think Musk is flat-out wasting his time, and that engineering calculations already prove the reusable rockets to be a fool’s errand./ Through its cost advantages, SpaceX hopes to take over the majority of the world’s commercial launches, and there’s evidence that the company is on its way toward doing just that. To date, it has flown satellites for Canadian, European, and Asian customers and completed about two dozen launches. Its public launch manifest stretches out for a number of years, and SpaceX has more than fifty flights planned, which are all together worth more than $5 billion. The company remains privately owned with Musk as the largest shareholder alongside outside investors including venture capital firms like the Founders Fund and Draper Fisher Jurvetson, giving it a competitive ethos its rivals lack. Since getting past its near-death experience in 2008, SpaceX has been profitable and is estimated to be worth $12 billion.
Zip2, PayPal, Tesla, SolarCity—they are all expressions of Musk. SpaceX is Musk. Its foibles emanate directly from him, as do its successes. Part of this comes from Musk’s maniacal attention to detail and involvement in every SpaceX endeavor. He’s hands-on to a degree that would make Hugh Hefner feel inadequate. Part of it stems from SpaceX being the apotheosis of the Cult of Musk. Employees fear Musk. They adore Musk. The give up their lives for Musk, and they usually do all of this simultaneously.
Musk’s demanding management style can only flourish because of the otherworldly—in a literal sense—aspirations of the company. While the rest of the aerospace industry has been content to keep sending what look like relics from the 1960s into space, SpaceX has made a point of doing just the opposite. Its reusable rockets and reusable spaceships look like true twenty-first-century machines. The modernization of the equipment is not just for show. It reflects SpaceX’s constant push to advance its technology and change the economics of the industry. Musk does not simply want to lower the cost of deploying satellites and resupplying the space station. He wants to lower the cost of launches to the point that it becomes economical and practical to fly thousands upon thousands of supply trips to Mars and start a colony. Musk wants to conquer the solar system, and, as it stands, there’s just one company where you can work if that sort of quest gets you out of bed in the morning.
It seems unfathomable, but the rest of the space industry has made space boring. The Russians, who dominate much of the business of sending things and people to space, do so with decades-old equipment. The cramped Soyuz capsule that takes people to the space station has mechanical knobs and computer screens that appear unchanged from its inaugural 1966 flight. Countries new to the space race have mimicked the antiquated Russian and American equipment with maddening accuracy. When young people get into the aerospace industry, they’re forced to either laugh or cry at the state of the machines. Nothing sucks the fun out of working on a spaceship like controlling it with mechanisms last seen in a 1960s laundromat. And the actual work environment is as outmoded as the machines. Hotshot college graduates have historically been forced to pick between a variety of slow-moving military contractors and interesting but ineffectual start-ups.
Musk has managed to take these negatives surrounding the aerospace business and turn them into gains for SpaceX. He’s presented the company as anything but another aerospace contractor. SpaceX is the hip, forward-thinking place that’s brought the perks of Silicon Valley—namely frozen yogurt, stock options, speedy decision making, and a flat corporate structure—to a staid industry. People who know Musk well tend to describe him more as a general than a CEO, and this is apt. He’s built an engineering army by having the pick of just about anyone in the business that SpaceX wants.
The SpaceX hiring model places some emphasis on getting top marks at top schools. But most of the attention goes toward spotting engineers who have exhibited type A personality traits over the course of their lives. The company’s recruiters look for people who might excel at robot-building competitions or who are car-racing hobbyists who have built unusual vehicles. The object is to find individuals who ooze passion, can work well as part of a team, and have real-world experience bending metal. “Even if you’re someone who writes code for your job, you need to understand how mechanical things work,” said Dolly Singh, who spent five years as the head of talent acquisition at SpaceX. “We were looking for people that had been building things since they were little.”
Sometimes these people walked through the front door. Other times, Singh relied on a handful of enterprising techniques to find them. She became famous for trawling through academic papers to find engineers with very specific skills, cold-calling researchers at labs and plucking possessed engineers out of college. At trade shows and conferences, SpaceX recruiters wooed interesting candidates they had spotted with a cloak-and-dagger shtick. They would hand out blank envelopes that contained invitations to meet at a specific time and place, usually a bar or restaurant near the event, for an initial interview. The candidates that showed up would discover they were among only a handful of people who been anointed out of all the conference attendees. They were immediately made to feel special and inspired.
Like many tech companies, SpaceX subjects potential hires to a gauntlet of interviews and tests. Some of the interviews are easygoing chats in which both parties get to feel each other out; others are filled with quizzes that can be quite hard. Engineers tend to face the most rigorous interrogations, although business types and salesmen are made to suffer, too. Coders who expect to pass through standard challenges have rude awakenings. Companies will typically challenge software developers on the spot by asking them to solve problems that require a couple of dozen lines of code. The standard SpaceX problem requires five hundred or more lines of code. All potential employees who make their way to the end of the interview process then handle one more task. They’re asked to write an essay for Musk about why they want to work at SpaceX.
The reward for solving the puzzles, acting clever in interviews, and penning up a good essay is a meeting with Musk. He interviewed almost every one of SpaceX’s first one thousand hires, including the janitors and technicians, and has continued to interview the engineers as the company’s workforce swelled. Each employee receives a warning before going to meet with Musk. The interview, he or she is told, could last anywhere from thirty seconds to fifteen minutes. Elon will likely keep on writing e-mails and working during the initial part of the interview and not speak much. Don’t panic. That’s normal. Eventually, he will turn around in his chair to face you. Even then, though, he might not make actual eye contact with you or fully acknowledge your presence. Don’t panic. That’s normal. In due course, he will speak to you. From that point, the tales of engineers who have interviewed with Musk run the gamut from torturous experiences to the sublime. He might ask one question or he might ask several. You can be sure, though, that he will roll out the Riddle: “You’re standing on the surface of the Earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west, and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?” One answer to that is the North Pole, and most of the engineers get it right away. That’s when Musk will follow with “Where else could you be?” The other answer is somewhere close to the South Pole where, if you walk one mile south, the circumference of the Earth becomes one mile. Fewer engineers get this answer, and Musk will happily walk them through that riddle and others and cite any relevant equations during his explanations. He tends to care less about whether or not the person gets the answer than about how they describe the problem and their approach to solving it.
When speaking to potential recruits, Singh tried to energize them and be up front about the demands of SpaceX and of Musk at the same time. “The recruiting pitch was SpaceX is special forces,” she said. “If you want as hard as it gets, then great. If not, then you shouldn’t come here.” Once at SpaceX, the new employees found out very quickly if they were indeed up for the challenge. Many of them would quit within the first few months because of the ninety-plus-hour workweeks. Others quit because they could not handle just how direct Musk and the other executives were during meetings. “Elon doesn’t know about you and he hasn’t thought through whether or not something is going to hurt your feelings,” Singh said. “He just knows what the fuck he wants done. People who did not normalize to his communication style did not do well.”
There’s an impression that SpaceX suffers from incredibly high turnover, and the company has without question churned through a fair number of bodies. Many of the key executives who helped start the company, however, have hung on for a decade or more. Among the rank-and-file engineers, most people stay on for at least five years to have their stock options vest and to see their projects through. This is typical behavior for any technology company. SpaceX and Musk also seem to inspire an unusual level of loyalty. Musk has managed to conjure up that Steve Jobs–like zeal among his troops. “His vision is so clear,” Singh said. “He almost hypnotizes you. He gives you the crazy eye, and it’s like, yes, we can get to Mars.” Take that a bit further and you arrive at a pleasure-pain, sadomasochistic vibe that comes with working for Musk. Numerous people interviewed for this book decried the work hours, Musk’s blunt style, and his sometimes ludicrous expectations. Yet almost every person—even those who had been fired—still worshipped Musk and talked about him in terms usually reserved for superheroes or deities.
SpaceX’s original headquarters in El Segundo were not quite up to the company’s desired image as a place where the cool kids want to work. This is not a problem for SpaceX’s new facility in Hawthorne. The building’s address is 1 Rocket Road, and it has the Hawthorne Municipal Airport and several tooling and manufacturing companies as neighbors. While the SpaceX building resembles the others in size and shape, its all-white color makes it the obvious outlier. The structure looks like a gargantuan, rectangular glacier that’s been planted in the midst of a particularly soulless portion of Los Angeles County’s sprawl.
Visitors to SpaceX have to walk past a security guard and through a small executive parking lot where Musk parks his black Model S, which flanks the building’s entryway. The front doors are reflective and hide what’s on the inside, which is more white. There are white walls in the foyer, a funky white table in the waiting area, and a white check-in desk with a pair of orchids sitting in white pots. After going through the registration process, guests are given a name badge and led into the main SpaceX office space. Musk’s cubicle—a supersize unit—sits to the right where he has a couple of celebratory Aviation Week magazine covers up on the wall, pictures of his boys, next to a huge flat-screen monitor, and various knickknacks on his desk, including a boomerang, some books, a bottle of wine, and a giant samurai sword named Lady Vivamus, which Musk received when he won the Heinlein Prize, an award given for big achievements in commercial space. Hundreds of other people work in cubicles amid the big, wide-open area, most of them executives, engineers, software developers, and salespeople tapping away on their computers. The conference rooms that surround their desks all have space-themed names like Apollo or Wernher von Braun and little nameplates that explain the label’s significance. The largest conference rooms have ultramodern chairs—high-backed, sleek red jobs that surround large glass tables—while panoramic photos of a Falcon 1 taking off from Kwaj or the Dragon capsule docking with the ISS hang on the walls in the background.
Take away the rocket swag and the samurai sword and this central part of the SpaceX office looks just like what you might find at your run-of-the-mill Silicon Valley headquarters. The same thing cannot be said for what visitors encounter as they pass through a pair of double doors into the heart of the SpaceX factory.
The 550,000-square-foot factory floor is difficult to process at first glance. It’s one continuous space with grayish epoxied floors, white walls, and white support columns. A small city’s worth of stuff—people, machines, noise—has been piled into this area. Just near the entryway, one of the Dragon capsules that has gone to the ISS and returned to Earth hangs from the ceiling with black burn marks running down its side. Just under the capsule on the ground are a pair of the twenty-five-foot-long landing legs built by SpaceX to let the Falcon rocket come to a gentle rest on the ground after a flight so it can be flown again. To the left side of this entryway area there’s a kitchen, and to the right side there’s the mission control room. It’s a closed-off area with expansive glass windows and fronted by wall-size screens for tracking a rocket’s progress. It has four rows of desks with about ten computers each for the mission control staff. Step a bit farther into the factory and there are a handful of industrial work areas separated from each other in the most informal of ways. In some spots there are blue lines on the floor to mark off an area and in other spots blue workbenches have been arranged in squares to cordon off the space. It’s a common sight to have one of the Merlin engines raised up in the middle of one of these work areas with a half dozen technicians wiring it up and tuning its bits and pieces.
Just behind these workspaces is a glass-enclosed square big enough to fit two of the Dragon capsules. This is a clean room where people must wear lab coats and hairnets to fiddle with the capsules without contaminating them. About forty feet to the left, there are several Falcon 9 rockets lying next to each other horizontally that have been painted and await transport. There are some areas tucked in between all of this that have blue walls and appear to have been covered by fabric. These are top-secret zones where SpaceX might be working on a fanciful astronaut’s outfit or rocket part that it has to hide from visitors and employees not tied to the projects. There’s a large area off to the side where SpaceX builds all of its electronics, another area for creating specialized composite materials, and another for making the bus-sized fairings that wrap around the satellites. Hundreds of people move about at the same time through the factory—a mix of gritty technicians with tattoos and bandanas, and young, white-collar engineers. The sweaty smell of kids who have just come off the playground permeates the building and hints at its nonstop activity.
Musk has left his personal touches throughout the factory. There are small things like the data center that has been bathed in blue lights to give it a sci-fi feel. The refrigerator-sized computers under the lights have been labeled with big block letters to make it look like they were made by Cyberdyne Systems, the fictional company from the Terminator movie franchise. Near the elevators, Musk has placed a glowing life-size Iron Man figure. Surely the factory’s most Muskian element is the office space that has been built smack-dab in its center. This is a three-story glass structure with meeting rooms and desks that rises up between various welding and construction areas. It looks and feels bizarre to have a see-through office inside this hive of industry. Musk, though, wanted his engineers to watch what was going on with the machines at all times and to make sure they had to walk through the factory and talk to the technicians on the way to their desks.
The factory is a temple devoted to what SpaceX sees as its major weapon in the rocket-building game, in-house manufacturing. SpaceX manufactures between 80 percent and 90 percent of its rockets, engines, electronics, and other parts. It’s a strategy that flat-out dumbfounds SpaceX’s competitors, like United Launch Alliance, or ULA, which openly brags about depending on more than 1,200 suppliers to make its end products. (ULA, a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, sees itself as an engine of job creation rather than a model of inefficiency.)
A typical aerospace company comes up with the list of parts that it needs for a launch system and then hands off their design and specifications to myriad third parties who then actually build the hardware. SpaceX tends to buy as little as possible to save money and because it sees depending on suppliers—especially foreign ones—as a weakness. This approach comes off as excessive at first blush. Companies have made things like radios and power distribution units for decades. Reinventing the wheel for every computer and machine on a rocket could introduce more chances for error and, in general, be a waste of time. But for SpaceX, the strategy works. In addition to building its own engines, rocket bodies, and capsules, SpaceX designs its own motherboards and circuits, sensors to detect vibrations, flight computers, and solar panels. Just by streamlining a radio, for instance, SpaceX’s engineers have found that they can reduce the weight of the device by about 20 percent. And the cost savings for a homemade radio are dramatic, dropping from between $50,000 to $100,000 for the industrial-grade equipment used by aerospace companies to $5,000 for SpaceX’s unit.
It’s hard to believe these kinds of price differentials at first, but there are dozens if not hundreds of places where SpaceX has secured such savings. The equipment at SpaceX tends to be built out of readily available consumer electronics as opposed to “space grade” equipment used by others in the industry. SpaceX has had to work for years to prove to NASA that standard electronics have gotten good enough to compete with the more expensive, specialized gear trusted in years past. “Traditional aerospace has been doing things the same way for a very, very long time,” said Drew Eldeen, a former SpaceX engineer. “The biggest challenge was convincing NASA to give something new a try and building a paper trail that showed the parts were high enough quality.” To prove that it’s making the right choice to NASA and itself, SpaceX will sometimes load a rocket with both the standard equipment and prototypes of its own design for testing during flight. Engineers then compare the performance characteristics of the devices. Once a SpaceX design equals or outperforms the commercial products, it becomes the de facto hardware.
There have also been numerous times when SpaceX has done pioneering work on advancing very complex hardware systems. A classic example of this is one of the factory’s weirder-looking contraptions, a two-story machine designed to perform what’s known as friction stir welding. The machine allows SpaceX to automate the welding process for massive sheets of metal like the ones that make up the bodies of the Falcon rockets. An arm takes one of the rocket’s body panels, lines it up against another body panel, and then joins them together with a weld that could run twenty feet or more. Aerospace companies typically try to avoid welds whenever possible because they create weaknesses in the metal, and that’s limited the size of metal sheets they can use and forced other design constraints. From the early days of SpaceX, Musk pushed the company to master friction stir welding, in which a spinning head is smashed at high speeds into the join between two pieces of metal in a bid to make their crystalline structures merge. It’s as if you heated two sheets of aluminum foil and then joined them by putting your thumb down on the seam and twisting the metal together. This type of welding tends to result in much stronger bonds than traditional welds. Companies had performed friction stir welding before but not on structures as large as a rocket’s body or to the degree to which SpaceX has used the technique. As a result of its trials and errors, SpaceX can now join large, thin sheets of metal and shave hundreds of pounds off the weight of the Falcon rockets, as it’s able to use lighter-weight alloys and avoid using rivets, fasteners, and other support structures. Musk’s competitors in the auto industry might soon need to do the same because SpaceX has transferred some of the equipment and techniques to Tesla. The hope is that Tesla will be able to make lighter, stronger cars.