The wild story of Elon Musk's first SpaceX launch – from explosions to orbit

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SpaceX is a company of firsts – it's the first private space company to reach orbit and they're aiming to be the first institution to put a person on Mars.

None of it could've happened without their first successful launch in 2008.

Elon Musk is a planetary thinker but also a degreed, battle-tested engineer.

His grasp of rockets, astrophysics, and their related technologies goes way beyond "rich guy wants to buy his way to Mars".

In a biography of Musk, one of the first books that Musk would participate in willingly, Ashlee Vance wrote that Tesla and his other companies represent something about Musk's outlook, attitudes, and thoughts.

But, Vance wrote, SpaceX is Musk – it's the essence of his being to take on seemingly impossible engineering challenges, reinvent industries and turn millions of dollars of investment into billions of dollars in value.

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SpaceX applied the Silicon Valley model to rocketry: hire the best engineers from the top schools, bang out 90-hour work weeks and block out all the traditionalists saying it can't be done.

The company set up a launch site on the Kwajalein Atoll, just 500 miles from the equator, and sent a team to live there – SpaceX's presence on Kwaj would end up lasting three years.

"It was like Gilligan's Island, except with rockets," a SpaceX engineer told Vance.

When the team first arrived, the toilet was powered by pouring a bucket of seawater into the bowl, according to an excerpt from the book Lift Off, written by Eric Berger, a former SpaceXer.

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Before the first launch attempt, a food shortage on the island pushed overworked employees to their limit, and they refused to work until a supply drop of chicken and cigarettes arrived – morale and living conditions later improved on the tiny island

"Everything was fantastic luxury compared to the first flight, so we loved it,” an engineer told Berger. "The most important thing is that the camaraderie was great.”

The first three SpaceX launches all resulted in catastrophic failures, with explosions caused by human error, a salty ocean, and the unforgiving clutch of gravity.

After three consecutive misses, SpaceX and Musk had financial trouble brewing – the company was spending $100,000 every day, and investors were hesitant.

According to Vance's book, Musk once said "I will spend my last dollar on these companies. If we have to move into Justine's parents' basement, we'll do it."

It never came to that.

SpaceX became the first private company to go off-world on September 28, 2008, when the Falcon 1 reached orbit on its fourth attempt.

The whole thing was almost spoiled by a mindless blunder detailed by Vance – Musk had elected to fly the rocket to Kwaj on a military plane instead of ferrying it by boat.

Because the rocket was sealed so tight, the pressurized cabin of the airplane started to force the rocket to cave in – fortunately, engineers were able to unscrew a few bits and alleviate the pressure.

That day, the Falcon 1 was strapped with a dummy payload – no one was willing to put something of real value in a SpaceX rocket after the first three failures.

Kimbal Musk, Elon's younger brother, told Vance "When the launch was successful, everyone burst into tears. It was one of the most emotional experiences I've had."

With SpaceX employees literally weeping, Musk took center stage and said "There are only a handful of countries on Earth that have done this. It's normally a country thing, not a company thing."

"I am going to have a really great party tonight," Musk added, though he's not much of a drinker.

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“I had so many people try to talk me out of starting a rocket company, it was crazy,” Musk told CBS in 2014.

Years later, SpaceX has completed 165 launches, deposited thousands of satellites, invented the reusable rocket, and is the second most valuable private company in the world.


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