Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX – Eric Berger

Given unprecedented access to the current and former employees of SpaceX, including Elon Musk, Mr. Berger of Ars Technica tells the story of the first years of SpaceX. The company was a maverick startup that few people in the industry took seriously. A team of scrappy engineers taking on seemingly impossible challenges, unhampered by the bureacratic trappings of established companies. If you needed something done, you did it. If you needed a piece of kit, you bought it. In classic Silicon Valley fashion, Elon Musk hired people he trusted to work hard and get things done, and then let them get on with it, supporting them as needed. Certainly, there were clashes, and setbacks, and mistakes, but the job did indeed get done, and how!

Even knowing much of the story beforehand, reading about the hardships of the early days was fascinating. Reading the words of those actually involved in working insane hours, overcoming monumental challenges, and suffering through long months far from home at the remote Pacific atoll of Kwajalein, makes the story come to life. I had no idea of exactly how tough conditions were, and how many hair-raising situations were dealt with. The fact that SpaceX survived those early years, and went on to become the industry leader it is today, is a testament to power of ideas, and how motivated people can make the seemingly impossible happen.

How Apollo Flew to the Moon – W. David Wood

A technical overview of the Apollo program, from hardware to missions, set at a level suitable for the interested layman. The author wisely starts discussions from first principles, from a basic explanation of orbits to the intricacies of stellar navigation.

The book is extremely well researched and clearly written. Mr. Wood has sprinkled the text with actual radio chatter and interviews with the protagonists. This elevates the chapters from a dry, textbook style discussion into something far more real.

A must read for any space program enthusiast.

Elon Musk: Inventing the Future – Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk is looking more and more like the real life Tony Stark, minus the super-powered metal suit. Self-made billionaire, innovating industrialist, visionary and working hard to save the future of the human race. Mr. Vance’s biography draws on thousands of hours of interviews with Musk, his family, his friends, his colleagues and his peers. It takes the reader from Mr. Musk’s beginnings as an awkward wunderkind to the not so distant past of early 2015. Since then, SpaceX has gone from triumph to triumph with ever increasing ambition, and Tesla seems on the verge of following.

The biography gets up close and personal with Musk, declining to gloss over the man’s less pleasant character traits. By all accounts he can lack empathy and is not overly concerned with coddling people. His goals are overarching and he has little patience with people who get in his way.

Even before reading this book, I had noticed a disconnect between how normal people in industry try to analyse Musk and how he actually behaves. Musk’s goals are far more long term than building successful companies. His business empire is a means to an end, not the vehicle of his chosen legacy. It is somewhat baffling that he has repeatedly and clearly stated his goals (most notably removing dependency on fossil fuels and colonising Mars to ensure humanity’s long term survival) but most people either don’t take him seriously (he’s dead serious) or try to judge him as if he were a normal person (he isn’t).

As recently as yesterday, Mr. Musk outlined his refined vision for Mars colonisation. What was interesting is that the competition is now starting to pay attention, coming up with (rather staid) ideas of its own. Ten or fifteen years ago, Musk was a weird guy with weird ideas whom the establishment could ignore. Today, his continued success at delivering on his spectacular promises has already engendered deep shifts in the areas of energy production, the automotive industry and the space launch industry. The competition is imitating and scrambling to catch up, but this was Musk’s goal all along. He always knew that Tesla wouldn’t kill all the other car manufacturers. His goal was to make all cars electric, not to have them all branded Tesla.

For the reader who wants to delve deeper into the thinking behind Musk’s ideas, I highly recommend Wait But Why’s series of excellent in depth articles.

Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants – John D. Clark

Ignition was written by one of the scientists working on rocket propellants from the 1940s to the 1970s. Back when there was a Cold War on, meaning missiles of various varieties, and a Space Race on, meaning rockets of various varieties.

The text stretched my high school chemistry to its breaking point, and then broke it. While I won’t pretend to understand much of the actual science, I was drawn in by Dr. Clark’s bone-dry prose and hilariously understated anecdotes, as well as his humourously cynical view of government research projects. When asked how to handle a certain unstable explosive compound, he writes “I recommend a good pair of running shoes”. The period described was a golden age for propellant research, and government agencies were throwing around silly money to projects with little or no chance of success, in the hope that something would stick. In that way it is very much a sideline commentary on a time where mankind went from Earthbound to Spacebound; a time when science and technology were the answer. Just a bit more research and we can crack just about anything.