Next Wednesday, May 27, 2020, is a big day. For the first time since July 8, 2011, American astronauts will be launched on an American spaceship from American soil.
When NASA grounded the space shuttle fleet in 2011, I didn’t think it was a good idea, and I never would have thought that for almost 10 years America would not have the capacity to launch humans into space. Of course, I also didn’t think in 1973 that we would not return to the moon for another at least 50 years.
On May 6, 2002, a 29-year-old South African immigrant named Elon Musk started a little company called SpaceX in Hawthorne, California. He wanted to make space travel cheaper so Mars could be colonized. I was a businessman in 2002, and if you had asked me if it was a good idea to start a rocket company I would have said you were insane. If you then had asked me if it was a good idea a year later to also start a car manufacturer in the United States, I would have said you’re insane squared. Musk did both of those things in 2002 and 2003 respectively, and has run both of those companies in parallel ever since. If you want to read a good biography of Musk, I can highly recommend Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk.
The rocket and the spaceship that will launch two American veteran astronauts next Wednesday are built by SpaceX. This will be the first time ever a private company launches humans into orbit. I would not have thought this was possible in 2002. If told it was, I would have bet that the company doing it would be Boeing, or McDonnell Douglas, or Lockheed, but certainly not a startup.
I have been a businessman all my life myself. I have had many product launches, and deployments of new things for the first time. I know what it’s like to bet your company on a single product or a single project, and then succeed. I also know what it’s like that last night before “go live” when a thousand things can go wrong and make the whole project come crashing down. I know that the CEO can’t sleep the night before an important launch. I know how it feels when the pulse races, and the circular thinking at 2:30am does not let you calm down. I know what it feels like when all is at stake.
But even knowing all this, I cannot imagine what it must be like in Elon Musk’s life right now, for the next few days, when all is at stake and all the world watches as two American astronauts sit on top of a stack of highly explosive fuel to go to orbit, something no private company has ever done before. If something goes wrong, people die.
The pressure must be enormous.
I will be watching, and I am rooting for SpaceX and Musk.