That’s when Buzza knew that Musk was willing to put all his chips on the table

Monday, April 8th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonMusk had jolted his team, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), right after the third failed flight in August 2008, with his deadline of getting a new rocket to Kwaj in six weeks:

That seemed like a Musk reality-distortion ploy. It had taken them twelve months between the first and second failed launches, and another seventeen months between the second and the third. But because the rocket did not need any fundamental design changes to correct the problems that caused the third failure, he calculated that a six-week deadline was doable and would energize his team. Also, given his rapid cash burn, he had no other choice.

SpaceX had components for that fourth rocket in its Los Angeles factory, but shipping it by sea to Kwaj would take four weeks. Tim Buzza, SpaceX’s launch director, told Musk that the only way to meet his deadline would be to charter a C-17 transport plane from the Air Force. “Well, then, just do it,” Musk replied. That’s when Buzza knew that Musk was willing to put all his chips on the table.

Twenty SpaceX employees rode with the rocket in the hold of the C-17, strapped into jump seats along the wall.


As they started to descend for refueling in Hawaii, there was a loud popping sound. And another. “We’re like looking at each other, like, this seems weird,” Harriss says. “And then we get another bang, and we saw the side of the rocket tank crumpling like a Coke can.” The rapid descent of the plane caused the pressure in the hold to increase, and the valves of the tank weren’t letting in air fast enough to allow the pressure inside to equalize.

There was a mad scramble as the engineers pulled out their pocket knives and began cutting away the shrink wrapping and trying to open the valves. Bülent Altan ran to the cockpit to try to stop the descent. “Here’s this big Turkish guy screaming at the Air Force pilots, who were the whitest Americans you have ever seen, to go back higher,” Harriss says. Astonishingly, they did not dump the rocket, or Altan, into the ocean. Instead, they agreed to ascend, but warned Altan that they had only thirty minutes of fuel. That meant in ten minutes they would need to start descending again. One of the engineers climbed inside the dark area between the rocket’s first and second stage, found the large pressurization line, and managed to twist it open, allowing air to rush into the rocket and equalize the pressure as the cargo plane again started to descend. The metal began popping back close to its original shape. But damage had been done. The exterior was dented, and one of the slosh baffles had been dislodged.

They called Musk in Los Angeles to tell him what happened and suggest that they bring the rocket back. “All of us standing there could just hear this pause,” says Harriss. “He is silent for a minute. Then he’s like, ‘No, you’re going to get it to Kwaj and fix it there.’” Harriss recalls that when they got to Kwaj their first reaction was, “Man, we’re doomed.” But after a day, the excitement kicked in. “We began telling ourselves, ‘We’re going to make this work.’”


After SpaceX’s first three failures, Musk had imposed more quality controls and risk-reduction procedures. “So we were now used to moving a little bit slower, with more documentation and checks,” Buzza says. He told Musk that if they followed all these new requirements, it would take five weeks to repair the rocket. If they jettisoned the requirements, they could do it in five days. Musk made the expected decision. “Okay,” he said. “Go as fast as you can.”

Musk’s decision to reverse his orders about quality controls taught Buzza two things: Musk could pivot when situations changed, and he was willing to take more risk that anyone. “This is something that we had to learn, which was that Elon would make a statement, but then time would go on and he would realize, ‘Oh no, actually we can do it this other way,’” Buzza says.


“It was unlike anything that the bloated companies in the aerospace industry could possibly have imagined,” Buzza says. “Sometimes his insane deadlines make sense.”

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