Elon Musk’s Obsession with Soviet-Era Rockets


It’s hard not to like Elon Musk, who has turned his eclectic interests into a variety of market-disrupting businesses.

The billionaire entrepreneur behind such companies as the online payment firm PayPal, electric sports car company Tesla and rocket-maker SpaceX is the subject of a new book, “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” by Ashlee Vance, a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine.

The book, published by HarperCollins, contains a trove of memorable quotes and anecdotes that reveal insights into Musk’s personality and myriad interests, which include, not surprisingly, Soviet-era rocket technology.

Take, for example, the following quote from Kevin Hartz, an early investor in PayPal, who recalled going out to a restaurant with Musk and other officials in Las Vegas to recognize the company’s achievements, according to a Washington Post article:

“We’re all hanging out in this cabana at the Hard Rock Cafe, and Elon is there reading some obscure Soviet rocket manual that was all moldy and looked like it had been bought on eBay.”

Musk used the $100 million from the sale of PayPal to start Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, which now has NASA contracts to ferry cargo and potentially astronauts to the International Space Station. The company is also poised to become certified to launch U.S. military spacecraft.

The Air Force next month is expected to allow SpaceX to lift off national-security payloads. Musk spent years attacking the incumbent launch provider — a Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture named United Launch Alliance LLC — for relying on Russian technology. ULA’s Atlas booster uses the Russian-made RD-180 as a first-stage engine.

One can only wonder if the rocket manual Musk was reading years ago in Vegas mentioned the precursors to this particular propulsion system.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • KnownUnkowns

    He also went to Russia to look at some of their rocket tech with the idea of maybe buying some but found it too expensive. So he just designed and built his own, like it was nothing.

    The man is a mutant and I mean that in a good way.

    • jbiz

      Yea he just invented everything himself. The Wernher von Braun and others were just morons. This Musk is a genius ( sarcasm).

      If you are rich then morons want to be ridden by the rich like the fools they are.

      • Stan

        He is a genius. Countless people have been doing the same old thing for decades and decades while paying lip service to the mere possibilities of doing things differently. Here’s a guy who took a look at what was happening and had the imagination to realize that it can be done better NOW, as opposed to 30 years from now. And he comes out ahead even if he never recovers F9 first stage but if he does… that right there should be embarrassing to everyone else in the business.

  • smitty

    Thank god for people like Musk who are willing to invest in mankinds future rather than just sit around hoarding power and money. There is untold riches in just mining the asteroid belt, not to mention space tourism. Then there is the secondary spinoff research that will benifit all areas of human endeavor.

    • blight_

      If more businessmen were like him, instead of investing their efforts into ways to screw people out of their money and to hide their Smaug-hoards of money in a mountain of dodgy tax laws…or donating their money to political causes just for giggles. Ugh!

      • guest

        ABSOLUTELY!!! Our country has literally HUNDREDS if not THOUSANDS of people with hundreds of millions and billions of dollars doing absolutely nothing at all. And others who like you said, build nothing but take and destroy. It is not as bad now as in the 80’s or if it is, we just don’t hear about it. OR…hahahaha I forget, the number of plots are smaller, but, the take is much bigger i.e. mortgage crisis, etc. :-)

        • blight_

          It’s probably as bad as the ’80s. Why wouldn’t it be?

    • jbiz

      Yup. The invented nothing just hired up NASA and other former unemployed scientists and who were trained with tax payers money. That is the way to go.

      Privatize everything and then tell everyone how the rich are better then rest of self hating peasants who come on here tell everyone how stupid they are. We know that already with your ignorant idiotic commentary.

      If they could the lovers of musk would take it every which way they can.

      • blight_

        And that’s why the government has decided to rectify that mistake by training nobody, and letting the private sector do it. Yuck.

  • Mastro63

    “It’s hard not to like Elon Musk” Google his first wife’s letter about their divorce. You might not want your sister/daughter dating him.

    • blight_

      Divorces are hot messes, and to make it in the Bay Area requires some degree of ruthlessness. Steve Jobs was legendarily brutal in his own way.

    • Jeff M

      I’d recommend anyone who can takes a gamble and marries a billionaire.

    • Bill in Lexington,NC

      Fine by me.

      I don’t expect anyone to live a perfect life … only that they try to leave the world a little better than they found it. So far Elon has shown not only that desire, but has demonstrated the ability to deliver on it.

      I’ve got three ex-wives and the stories to match. To hear them tell it, I was a real piece of work … but I’ve caught every one of them with their legs open — more than once and embezzling family funds to support their lovers.

      I’ve also got a fourth wife who has been with me for roughly 15 years. I finally found a woman who knows the way home … every time.

  • steve

    If I was designing rockets, I’d be looking at Soviet ones too. The Russians have always been pretty good at it.

    • Guest

      The Russian rockets are pretty good ehhh, well, how about the Navy’s sub missiles, I think they have a PERFECT record on test launches, which they take at least 2 missiles off of subs a year to test fire. And the TITAN I, II & III. The MINUTEMAN program, which is almost 50 yrs old now, pretty darn good record.
      BUT, with all this, I AM STILL confused as to why we went with the Russians, unless, price was the MAJOR consideration.

    • Guest

      And I am almost forgetting the MOST POWERFUL ROCKET EVER LAUNCHED which was the Saturn V, STILL holds the record and…is AMERICAN :-).

      • steve

        What does THE MOST POWERFUL ROCKET EVER MADE have to do with getting cargo to the ISS? Absolutely nothing. If you think the Russians suck at designing hulls, aircraft, and spacecraft, you are a fool. Don’t let your patriotism blind you. The Russians have been really good at getting things in orbit, on time, and on budget, that’s all that matters when choosing a contractor.

        • steve

          First of all, I’m no idiot.

          Secondly, I’ve always posted under my first name here.

          Third, why would you not look at the tech from the only other country that was part of the original Space Race? It’s always a good idea to look at what others have done before designing your own stuff.

      • blight_

        N1 had greater liftoff thrust, but a reduced payload. Saturn V had greatest payload and impulse (and unlike the N1, was brought to somewhat serial production with several launches).

        Of course, the ’60s and ’70s was Pax America, and since then…not so good. Sure, people at the top are richer now than they were back then, but that’s probably the metric we’d be forced to point at.

    • danny

      well, the Germans they got were rather good too.

  • John Slow

    Why don’t they just pull a China and “imitate” the RD-180 design?

    • blight_

      They could, but it could never catch the Russians in cost.

    • Dfens

      Why “imitate” it when you can learn from what they did and improve it? Did you ever wonder what engineers in this country do all day?

      • blight_

        A million monkeys designing rockets…

      • Guest

        I do, I do wonder what they do :-). But, I think many of them went into other fields, unlike the 60 & 70’s when it was COOL to be involved with the space program, and little boys and girls were inspired by our achievements…….:-(

        There are NO NATIONAL PROGRAMS like way back when…..I do miss that national commaradiere, so to speak..hahahaha

        • blight_

          “Son…grow up to be a quantitative finance guy”
          “Son…be a business major”

          A problem with pyramids of company heirarchy is that the number of foundation bricks can be less than the sum total of overhead on top of them. And the number of piecemealed responsibilities (with the demise of the chief designer) makes it more comical.

          • Dfens

            With so much management, you wouldn’t think that mismanagement would be engineers’ biggest complaint, but it certainly is.

  • blight_

    “One can only wonder if the rocket manual Musk was reading years ago in Vegas mentioned the precursors to this particular propulsion system.”

    Since no actual detail is provided about the rocket manual, maybe we’ll never know. Ugh. “News!” :[

    • guest

      Unless Musk can read Russian, Im not so sure about this story

      • blight_

        “I was just looking at the pictures…”

        • Stan

          Rocket Porn!

      • Godzilla

        I also kind of doubt it. It’s not like it is easy to read Russian. At best he could be looking at diagrams. The only Russian rocketry book I’ve read is Chertok’s Memoirs. It was translated to English by NASA and you can download it for free.

        • Godzilla

          Here is the link. The book is really good: http://www.nasa.gov/connect/ebooks/rockets_people…

  • Stan

    Russians have achieved a certain mythological status with their rocket technology due to their firsts. Perhaps he went there with the idea of learning the know how and realized that there is more hot air to the myth than there is in Energia’s exhaust. I mean look at Salyut, it’s substantially the same thing that lifted the first artificial satellite. That’s as “in the box” thinking as you can get and everyone pre-SpaceX was guilty of it. Enter Elon Musk.

  • http://PrometheusGoneWild.wordpress.com Dennis

    NASA had all the people and money.
    And what did they do with it? The shuttle became a jobs program, just like most of NASA…..
    Lot of anti-rich comments here. They guy made the money and is doing great things with it. It’s not like he has it under his mattress…..
    Most companies today are run by salesmen and accountants. If new technology comes around they generally buy it and make sure it goes nowhere.
    Which to a technologist like me is akin to herasy:)

  • Bill in Lexington,NC

    This is just the most recent time that Elon has entered a market no one even thought existed and has done well with it. In tackling the electric car market and in tackling the rocket launch market, he’s faced some well-heeled and entrenched power.

    I live in a teensy-tiny town in NC … tonight they are showing a free movie downtown projected onto the side of a garbage truck. Yeah, that kind of defines a small town.

    Last year, the PTB in our little burg put up an electric vehicle recharging station in the middle of town.

    When a small southern town puts up a recharging station … electric vehicles have “arrived”.