Power Players

Elon Musk always thought SpaceX would 'fail' and he'd lose millions

Elon Musk speaks onstage on March 11, 2018 in Austin, Texas.
Chris Saucedo | Getty Images | SXSW

SpaceX aims to launch two NASA astronauts to space in the company's Crew Dragon capsule on Wednesday, marking the first crewed mission in SpaceX history and the first launch of NASA astronauts from the U.S. since 2011. The launch is a historic moment in the future of the U.S. space program and for SpaceX.

Already, however, SpaceX has vastly exceeded any expectations Elon Musk had when he founded the aerospace company 18 years ago.

"I always thought we would fail," Musk said of founding SpaceX during a press conference with NASA in March 2019 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. "So, this is … it's all upside." At the time, SpaceX had just successfully test-launched the Crew Dragon spacecraft, which it designed and built, on the Falcon 9 rocket at Kennedy Space Center. Crew Dragon flew unmanned to deliver 400 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station.

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And to hear Musk tell it, all of SpaceX's success is the result of a tremendous gamble.

"I thought maybe we had a 10% chance of reaching orbit starting out," he said.

Those around Musk were skeptical too. "When we started SpaceX, they said, 'Oh, you are going to fail.' And I said, 'Well, I agree. I think we probably will fail,'" Musk said.

"They said I would … lose all the money from PayPal, I was, like, 'Well, you are probably right,'" Musk said.

But "was worth trying anyway," said Musk.

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Musk made "about $200 million" when eBay bought the online payments company he co-founded in 2002 for $1.5 billion, according to a report from The New York Times. He launched SpaceX that same year to make humans a multiplanetary species — starting with putting people in space, then to build a permanent base on the moon and also to transport humans to Mars, where Musk wants to terraform by 2024 and has said he believes it's possible to have a self-sustaining city by 2050.

"I really believe in the future of space," Musk said at the March 2019 presser. "I think it is important that we become a space-faring civilization and be out there among the stars ... We want the things that are in science fiction novels and movies not be science fiction forever. We want them to be real one day."

Still, those close to Musk tried to talk him out of SpaceX.

"I had so many people try to talk me out of starting a rocket company, it was crazy," Musk told Scott Pelley on CBS's "60 Minutes" in 2014. "One good friend of mine collected a whole series of videos of rockets blowing up and made me watch those. He just didn't want me to lose all my money."

And frankly, it was a close call. SpaceX's first three rocket launches failed.

"A fourth [rocket launch] failure would have been absolutely game over," Musk said at the International Astronautical Congress conference in 2017. "But fate liked us that day. So, the fourth launch worked."

This story has been updated with the news of the latest Crew Dragon launch. 

See also:

Elon Musk remembers the SpaceX of 10 years ago: 'We couldn't even reach orbit with little Falcon 1'

Elon Musk after SpaceX launch: 'To be frank, I am a little emotionally exhausted'

Elon Musk: This is the 'why' of Tesla

Elon Musk remembers the SpaceX of 10 years ago: ‘We couldn’t even reach orbit with little Falcon 1’