In 2006, SpaceX — a brand-new venture with fewer than 200 employees — rolled its first, single-engine rocket onto a launch pad at Kwajalein Atoll. After a groundbreaking launch from the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Falcon 1 rocket designed by Elon Musk’s engineers rose in the air for approximately thirty seconds. Then, its engine flamed out, and the rocket crashed back into the ocean.
When he founded SpaceX, Elon Musk had only budgeted for three launches. After two more failed flight tests, and with only one Falcon 1 rocket left in its factory, SpaceX decided to try one last, dramatic launch. Over eight weeks, engineers worked furiously to prepare this final rocket. If it crashed and burned, so would SpaceX. In September 2008, SpaceX’s last chance for success lifted off …and accelerated like a dream, soaring into orbit flawlessly.
That success would launch a miraculous decade for the company, in which SpaceX grew from building a single-engine rocket to one with a staggering 27 engines; created two different spacecraft, and mastered reusable-rocket descents using mobile drone ships on the open seas. But these achievements would not have been possible without SpaceX’s first four flight tests.
Drawing on unparalleled access and exclusive interviews with dozens of former and current employees—engineers, designers, mechanics, and executives, including Elon Musk—Eric Berger tells the complete story of this foundational generation that transformed SpaceX into the world’s leading space company.