Why The SpaceX Explosion Won't Hold Elon Musk Back

When you start a company, you put your idea out there -- and people think you’re naive. You quit your job and mortgage your house -- and people think you’re crazy. You launch your first product -- and people think it sucks.

That’s the kind of feedback we humans are designed to run away from. We are social animals and have evolved to fit in, with subsequent survival advantages. It takes incredible bravery to buck the trend, day in and day out, until you’re finally successful and everyone wants you back in the fold.

To be an entrepreneur, you basically have to be comfortable with everyone you know thinking you’re a nutjob.

Which brings us to Elon Musk.

If you haven’t yet read Tim Urban’s four-part series on Elon Musk, “The World’s Raddest Man,” do it.

As Urban tells it, to start SpaceX Elon put up $100 million of his own money, giving the company enough “for three or four launches.” In terms of looking like a nutjob, he had hit the mother lode. Even his friends thought he had lost his mind.

“Musk’s friends were worried about him. Wouldn’t you be? Imagine if your friend made a huge amount of money selling an internet business and then told you he was going to spend almost all of it trying to become the first entrepreneur to succeed at building a space launch company—because it was important that human life become multi-planetary. You wouldn’t feel good about this. One of Musk’s friends did his best to talk him out of the insane project by putting together a montage of rockets blowing up and forcing Musk to watch it.”

Swimming against the current as he was, a good outcome for Musk would have been to get an early win on the board and validate himself. But that didn’t happen.

The company’s first launch, in 2006, failed. So did the second one, a year later.

Three or four launches.

On August 2nd, 2008, it tried for the third time… and failed.

Dolly Singh, former head of talent acquisition at SpaceX says that in the immediate aftermath, Elon first talked about how hard they knew it was going to be and assured them he had gotten enough investment to give them not one but two additional launches before they had to close up shop.

And then she recalls Musk’s conclusion: “[W]e need to pick ourselves up, and dust ourselves off, because we have a lot of work to do. Then he said, with as much fortitude and ferocity as he could muster after having been awake for like 20+ hours by this point that, ‘For my part, I will never give up and I mean never,’ and that if we stick with him, we will win.

“I think most of us would have followed him into the gates of hell carrying suntan oil after that.”

That third Falcon 1 failure wasn’t the last. The Falcon 9 family has had two total failures and one partial failure (after the main mission was completed). Attempts to recover the rocket’s first stage have failed 45% of the time. And while yesterday’s explosion may have set them back, it will not hold them back.

Through the many things that have gone wrong, the people at SpaceX have shown us who they are. They are a learning organization. For them, every failure is an opportunity to become stronger. They are, to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, in the arena, with faces marred by dust and sweat and blood, striving valiantly, coming short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.