Reviewed by: Casey Suire
Title: Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX
Author: Eric Berger
NSS Amazon link for this book
Publisher: William Morrow
Date: March 2021
Retail price: $27.99/$12.99
Homer Hickam, author of Rocket Boys which became the movie October Sky, summed it up this way: “This is as important a book on space as has ever been written and it’s a riveting page-turner, too.”
On May 30, 2020, a Falcon 9 rocket roared off historic pad 39A in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The mission was the first crewed test flight of the new Crew Dragon spacecraft. After spending two months docked to the International Space Station, the Crew Dragon, carrying two NASA astronauts, returned to Earth on August 2.
In Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, author Eric Berger writes about the early years of the American aerospace company SpaceX. What began as an idea by founder Elon Musk to send a greenhouse to Mars evolved into a company focused on reducing the high costs of rocket launches. Readers will learn, however, that the success of SpaceX was far from certain. Achievements such as the Crew Dragon demonstration mission almost didn’t happen.
There are both similarities and differences between early SpaceX and today’s SpaceX. One thing that never changed is the company’s ability to do things quickly. Some employees joked that they worked in dog years—seven years in one. The first SpaceX rocket, the Falcon 1, went from the drawing board to the launch pad in under four years.
From the beginning, the company adopted an iterative approach to design. Rather than working slowly and cautiously, SpaceX would quickly build and test prototypes until they failed. Afterward, the next prototype would be improved based on the results of the previous test. The cycle continued until the final version of a design was agreed upon. Failure actually was an option. Today, SpaceX is still using the iterative approach for designing the massive Super Heavy/Starship booster.
One difference is how much success SpaceX enjoyed. Musk’s idea of building cheap rockets was nothing new. Berger writes about other space entrepreneurs making the same promise and not succeeding. Why, many wondered, would SpaceX be any different? The first three launches of the Falcon 1 failed for various reasons. A few of the photographs in the book are of wreckage from the rocket’s first flight. This is a far cry from an organization now regularly launching and landing Falcon 9 boosters.
With one last roll of the dice, a nearly bankrupt SpaceX eventually did make it to orbit on Falcon 1’s fourth flight. The dramatic events leading up to this launch read more like a movie than actual real life. Impressed by the launch, NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to send supplies to the International Space Station. It was three days before Christmas 2008.
Also among the differences between early SpaceX and today was Omelek, an island in the Kwajalein Atoll. Long before Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg, or Boca Chica, SpaceX launched rockets from this location. The challenges of traveling, working, and living on the island, located far away from company headquarters in California, provided more than a few entertaining stories in Liftoff.
Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is the emphasis on several early SpaceX employees. Rather than give all the attention to Musk, Berger spends a lot of his book writing about the contributions of many other notable people. Who these people were, how they got hired, and what they did at SpaceX is a major part of Liftoff. Without the dedication and sacrifices of just one key person, spaceflight history might have been a lot different.
Overall, the book is well-researched. It does have an error regarding a Falcon 9 launch on April 8, 2016. The mission, which included the first drone ship landing of a Falcon 9 first stage, was actually a space station resupply mission and not a Thai communications satellite launch as claimed in the book. Other information is already obsolete due to the rapid growth of commercial spaceflight. In the book, Rocket Lab is credited with being the only private company to reach orbit since SpaceX’s 2008 triumph. In January 2021, Virgin Orbit achieved orbit as well. Due to the pioneering work of SpaceX between 2002 and 2008, the number of private companies reaching orbit and beyond will continue to increase.
Liftoff is filled with so much interesting trivia that even loyal space fans might learn something new. How did SpaceX name their first generation of rockets, spacecraft, and engines? How did Musk solve the relocation problem of a prospective hire that was married to a Google employee? Why did Falcon 1 launch from Kwajalein in the first place? What does “always go to eleven” mean? Why do all SpaceX mission patches have a four-leaf clover? What is turkish goulash, and how do you make it? For those interested, an employee’s recipe is even included.
Berger really did a fantastic job writing this one. It is fast-paced, easy to read, and very thrilling. The book has it all: hard work, determination, humor, disappointment, and eventually celebration. In Liftoff, one era of spaceflight ends and another one begins. Required reading for understanding what is currently going on in space. The road to Mars begins here!
© 2021 Casey Suire
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