In July 2015 I got the unbelievable opportunity to visit and tour Space X twice in one week with two different groups of people.
In case you didn’t already know, you can read about Space X on WaitButWhy.com, and you can take your own video tour of SpaceX guided by Elon Musk himself. So I’m not going to walk you through either of those things here. What I want to highlight is what made my visits so special: The difference between my two tours thanks to the people I accompanied.
First of all, our tour guide was Evan – my best friend from high school’s little brother, who I have known since he was …like 12? and is now taller than I am. It’s disorienting. He was interning for the summer at SpaceX and he was so incredibly stoked to work there. His enthusiasm came through every moment of both tours, even when we stumped him with questions (which didn’t happen often, to his credit).
Me – Photographer & Entrepreneur.
Alex Wood – Visual effects specialist, an old roommate of mine from freshman year of college.
Eric Waldron – Cinematographer and camera operator, also a previous roommate of mine from our summer in France in 2011.
Ryan Greenhalgh – runs DopeStoke.com, friend I met through a shared interest in blogging and mutual residence in Colorado. He goes to college in California, so I flew into San Diego and took the train up to LA with him where Eric picked us up.
Me – Photographer & Entrepreneur (still)
Andy Drish – Co-creator of The Foundation, an online crash course for entrepreneurs.
Libby Payne – Life & business coach/consultant.
Hannah, Libby’s sister – They were in town for a wedding. I think I remember correctly that she’s a grad student.
Off we go!
So the awesome thing is that these two groups were so totally different that the two tours were completely unique experiences.
It’s been over half a year since I took the tour, so in this post I have an interesting opportunity to reflect just on what stuck around and really made a lasting impression on me – which I think is helpful considering just how much of the tour is mind-blowing when you’re actually experiencing it.
Here’s what stood out from each tour experience:
The conversation on the first tour – with a bunch of other 20-something guys – centered around technology. We were most fascinated by the different tools and manufacturing techniques SpaceX uses to make rockets. We talked primarily about the purpose and daily activities of different roles within the company, what individual projects look like, and about the intensely demanding technical details of working on projects at SpaceX.
For example, we talked a little bit about the fact that dust on the floor was a surprisingly significant liability for the company, and that there were entire teams dedicated to figuring out how to reduce the amount of dust on the floor by fractions of a percentage point. It’s that important.
The first tour focused on tactics. “How exactly does all this get done?”
The second tour – with an entrepreneur, a graduate student, and a life coach – focused on a very different set of questions. We had the same magnificent tour guide, but I think we stumped him a few more times during this tour.
Questions centered around high-level business strategies and systems design. My buddy Andy was managing a company with 9 employees at this point, and his girlfriend Libby helps people grow their businesses. Libby’s graduate student sister and I got to hang back and watch Andy asked Evan as many business related questions as he could think of.
Libby asked about how the mission failures felt, and what the aftermath looked like.
Apparently when the Falcon 9 blew up in mid-June it was Evan’s first week at Space X. He and his four roommates (all interns) had car-pooled in to watch the live-stream from the office. When it happened everyone at Space X HQ in California fell silent. Someone piped up a minute or two later “It’s gonna be okay!” – but for the most part it just stayed quiet. Evan says they drove home in silence, and when they came into work the next day everyone was focused entirely on “what went wrong and how can we learn from it?”
Other interesting details include the fact that Elon very emphatically encourages people to leave meetings. Evan said that hypothetically even if it were a 1 on 1 meeting with Elon himself and you were just an intern, if you felt like your time was being wasted by that meeting and would be better spent working, Elon would prefer you just say so and leave. That sounds like some ruthless pragmatism. So group meetings are only attended by people who feel like they are benefitting from them – oh, and mass-emails are not allowed. There is no company wide listserv or mailing list.
We discussed Elon’s long-term plans to colonize Mars over free dinner at the Space X Cafeteria.
The second tour focused much more on why things get done rather than “how”, and on the emotional engagement of the Space X team as they accomplish their work.
The Core Lesson of Space X
The highest impact lesson I took away from Space X was this: Get people to pay you to accomplish your dreams and dream so big it inspires your entire team. Align your interests with missions that benefit other people.
Space X is doing this by providing shipment flights to low earth orbit for countries and satellite companies. They’re using these missions as research opportunities to learn how to land a rocket back on earth instead of letting it burn up in the atmosphere. They’re using the funding from these missions to design capsules like the Dragon 2, which will comfortably seat seven astronauts on a mission to space.
At the end of the next decade, Space X will have leveraged several billion dollars in contracts from the US government via NASA, other countries, and private companies all over the world to research, design, and build a system which will enable humanity to colonize Mars. I have to remind myself over and over again to this day that Space X is real and their goals will likely be met.
If that’s not the most absurdly cool thing you’ve heard all day, I don’t know what is.