The twin risks of sclerosis and megalomania

But some observers fear SpaceX is becoming less nimble, losing the advantages it had over the big military-industrial contractors. Musk can no longer interview every employee now that the staff numbers in the thousands. Yes, standards remain high: Almost 400 workers were fired this summer after winding up at the bottom of a performance review, prompting a lawsuit. Nonetheless, towards the end of his time working with SpaceX, Horkachuck fretted that the company itself was starting to behave more and more like the traditional contractors it disdained. Meanwhile, Marty, NASA’s former in-house venture capitalist, fears that the agency is already losing its brief focus on disruption and commercialization to build another large bureaucracy around the commercial crew program.

And then there are the distractions of financing and dealing with investors, which get more complex as the sums increase. The company was reportedly exploring another fundraising round earlier this year that could have valued it at $10 billion, but no deal has materialized. “SpaceX is not currently raising any funding nor has any external valuation of that magnitude or higher been done,” a SpaceX spokesperson says.

Musk is reportedly not done yet. Everyone around him speaks of his single-minded devotion to the company, despite being the CEO of Tesla and chairman of Solar City, and of his single-minded focus on the fantastic long-term goal—Mars. Not long after SpaceX won its first $1.6 billion contract from NASA, he surprised some of the directors during a meeting at the company’s rocket-testing facility in Texas by mentioning, in an aside, that the designs for the Martian vessel were nearly complete. In 2009, he promised tourist trips around the moon by 2014.

While a CEO obsessed with going to Mars might be seen as a detriment, SpaceX’s backers say it protects the company’s culture—and helps its near-term goals. It’s no accident that the data gleaned from rocket-landing experiments is also of interest to scientists thinking about landing cargo on Mars.

Meanwhile, however, the next milestone is a more modest one: To prove that human passengers will be safe in Dragon 2. First, there will be a pad abort test, to prove that if something goes wrong with the rocket before launch, the space capsule can detach, using its own thrusters to fly the crew to safety. If that goes as planned, there will be an in-flight test of the same ability to act as a lifeboat if the rocket breaks up before reaching orbit. These safety measures are a reminder that there will come a point when SpaceX’s rockets could be destroyed while carrying real space engineers, not just the ashes of an actor who pretended to be one.

Rockets are tricky, as Musk says. But this is a man who thinks he’ll own a Martian colony with perhaps thousands of people in 2040, in time for his 70th birthday. You can trust he’ll get you to a space station just 205 miles up, right?

Editor’s note: We’re grateful for the oral history project at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which provided much useful background material and several quotes for this article. 

Image for article titled What it took for Elon Musk’s SpaceX to disrupt Boeing, leapfrog NASA, and become a serious space company
Image: SpaceX

Correction (Oct. 21): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated some technical details about rocket design and performance; these have been corrected.

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