“Liftoff” Showcases the Game-Changing the Early Days of SpaceX (Book Review)

Eric Berger’s new book gives me a whole new appreciation for what Elon Musk and all of the talented engineers at SpaceX have managed to achieve.

The commercial space landscape has come a long way in the past decade. Ten years ago, SpaceX barely had any successful launches under their belt. The Space Shuttle was about to retire, and I doubt anyone around at the time would have guessed that the next time humans launched into space from American soil would be aboard a SpaceX rocket, inside a SpaceX crew capsule, only nine years later. Booster landings only existed in the imaginations of engineers, but are now so routinely successful that it’s almost jarring when a SpaceX launch doesn’t have (or attempt) a booster landing.

Eric Berger’s new book Liftoff provides a fascinating and extremely detailed account of the earliest days of SpaceX straight from the mouths of the people that were there. He interviews not only Elon himself, but many of the first cohort of employees. You get insight into how much talent, time, and sacrifice from everyone on the team went into every aspect of getting Falcon 1 to eventually reach orbit. You gain an appreciation for just how good Elon was at recognizing the right people when he saw them, and how critical that was for the company to eventually become successful. And while I’m pretty sure everyone in the space industry recognizes that current SpaceX COO and President, Gwynne Shotwell, is amazing, her story in Eric’s account really emphasizes how much she brought to the company. Team members describe the rushes of success, and the utter heartbreak and depression of failures, putting human emotion to these technical endeavours.

Getting a brand new rocket into orbit is a tumultuous journey.

It’s easy for SpaceX to be painted as “all Elon all the time” by hardcore enthusiasts. Getting to see the rest of the cast in Liftoff shows just how important every single person was in the early days. Despite the ridiculously long hours and demanding work required, I must admit it made me feel sad that I didn’t come into a space company in similarly early, exciting days when things were scrappy and perhaps anything felt possible.

From the trials and tribulations of launching from a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, to a particularly harrowing C-17 flight involving precious cargo (avoiding too many spoilers here), the stories in this book kept me engaged enough to tear through the whole thing in only a few days. I’d love to see Netflix pick this up as a limited run series—it’s that exciting. If you want to gain a whole new appreciation for just how much SpaceX disrupted an entire industry, this is the book for you.

Professional Martian. PhD Geoscientist at Planet Labs. Former operations team member for Opportunity, Curiosity, & the Mars Recon. Orbiter. Views = my own.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store