Toronto Star

SpaceX CEO looks inward after failed rocket launch

Elon Musk suggests company may have grown ‘complacent’ after its recent successes


Every time SpaceX prepares to launch a rocket, Elon Musk plays the role of a wedding officiant, shooting an email to the entire company urging employees to step forward if anyone has reason to call off the flight — speak now or forever hold your peace.

No one did that last month, and the launch proceeded as it had many times before. But on this flight, the Falcon 9 rocket, laden with food and supplies for the Internatio­nal Space Station but no astronauts, exploded two minutes into the flight, the most catastroph­ic failure of the company’s history.

The explosion appears to have been caused by one small piece of hardware, Musk said last week — a steel strut, 60 centimetre­s long and 2.5 centimetre­s at its thickest point — on a towering 68-metre piece of machinery powered by nine engines.

The piece failed, causing helium to overpressu­rize an oxygen tank in the second stage, which led to the explosion, he said.

But Musk also pointed to another possible cause, saying that as the company continues to grow it may have lost some of the inherent paranoia that fuelled SpaceX in its early days, when it was unclear whether the Internet tycoon and his loyal band of rocket scientists would ever be able to reliably pull off space launches.

The explosion was the “first time we’ve had a failure in seven years,” Musk said. “To some degree I think the company as a whole maybe became a little complacent.”

Musk is a notoriousl­y hard-charging executive, an obsessive who sweats every launch, and he wants his employees to as well, which is why he fires off an email before each flight, telling them that if they blow the whistle on a problem, they will be protected even if they go over their managers’ heads.

“They should call me immediatel­y on my cellphone or send me an email,” he said.

In the call with reporters to discuss the results of the preliminar­y analysis of the explosion, Musk detailed how a faulty strut designed to withstand1­0,000 pounds of force buckled under 2,000. But he sounded at times as if he were giving a businesssc­hool lecture on how a successful start-up can retain its innovative culture and edge as it grows into a corporate behemoth.

SpaceX has had an extraordin­ary string of successes — winning con- tracts from NASA to fly cargo and, eventually, astronauts to the space station. It has forced one of its main competitor­s, the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, to reconfigur­e its business to compete with SpaceX.

But after becoming a darling of the space industry with one successful flight after another, Musk said he fears that the company’s winning streak has perhaps softened it.

When the company lost a string of rockets in its early days, there were only 500 people working at SpaceX, he said. Now the company employs 4,000.

“The vast majority of the people at the company today have only ever seen success,” he said. “You don’t fear failure quite as much.”

(The company did lose an unmanned test rocket, which exploded over Texas last year.)

The 20th email asking people to come forward doesn’t “resonate with the same force,” as it did when the company was small and scrappy and feared going out of business. “There’s Elon being paranoid again,” he said of the reaction.

Now employees know the driving power of failure — and fear — “and we’ll be the stronger for it,” he said.

 ?? JOHN RAOUX/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket broke apart shortly after liftoff last month.
JOHN RAOUX/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket broke apart shortly after liftoff last month.

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