James Ball

Life on Earth is too tame for eccentric American billionaires

Jeff Bezos has his own space company — and Elon Musk’s plans to colonise Mars are described in heroic terms by Eric Berger

Elon Musk in Berlin in 2020. Credit: Getty Images

For many of us, Elon Musk is a hard man to like. He’s the richest man in the world (or second richest, as he and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos whirr back and forth in top spot), but acts online like a bratty teenager astonished by his own intelligence.

He proposes underground tunnel networks as a transport solution for Miami (which is a swamp less than 10ft above sea level), moots takeovers of his companies with 420-themed weed jokes and hypes cryptocurrencies. Yet as you read Liftoff you can see what so many people find to admire in the man — at least for a while.

The story of SpaceX’s early days is an extraordinary one, of a company started with $100 million of the money Musk made from his previous start-up, PayPal (from which he had been ousted as CEO), and which everyone wrote off as the vanity project of an eccentric dotcom millionaire. There’s much in the tale of its early days that even a hardened sceptic would find impressive or even admirable: a bid to take on established players charging astronomical amounts for low-orbit space launches.

‘Which inquiry are you looking forward to most?’

Feats of engineering, by a team of a few dozen technicians working out of a converted factory in El Segundo in northern Los Angeles, led to the company constructing its own launch site on the unpopulated Hawaiian island of Omelek, one of the most isolated places on the planet. By the time they have built its first rocket — at an astonishing speed of just four years from the company’s founding — and are about to send it to space in a make-or-break launch, you’re rooting for them. Will it work?

This is definitely the strong suit of Eric Berger’s book, which uses unparalleled access to Musk and all of SpaceX’s early staff to place the reader right among them.

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