Ashlee Vance
The New York Times bestselling author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, And The Quest For A Fantastic Future; Bloomberg journalist; and host of Hello World.
Books
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Stories
At 18, He Strapped a Rocket Engine to His Bike. Now He’s Taking on SpaceX
Peter Beck was more productive than most teenagers. He spent much of his youth tinkering in the family’s garage workshop in small-town New Zealand, amid welding and milling equipment. At 15 he built an aluminum bike from scratch. At 16 he bought a rusted-out Austin Mini for $300 and refurbished it end-to-end, rebuilding the engine and suspension and fixing all of the body panels. Beck’s parents, a museum director and a teacher, encouraged their son—within reason. “Mum would bring dinner down and set it on a bench for me, but it would just get cold,” Beck says. “Eventually she would yell out, ‘You have to stop angle grinding and get to bed.’ ”

In 1999, at 18, Beck did something most people would consider very stupid. After checking out books from the library to learn how to make his own fuel, he set up a laboratory in a backyard shed and set to work on a rocket engine. Lacking a hazmat suit, he wrapped himself in plastic bags and put on a welding helmet as he distilled peroxide and other chemicals.

After successfully testing one of his engine designs, he decided it was time for a proper adventure. He strapped the engine to the back of a custom-built bicycle, dressed himself in a red jumpsuit and white helmet, and fired up a trial run in a local parking lot. Leaning forward in a near-prone position, he managed to reach about 90 miles an hour. To slow himself down, he first sat upright, allowing wind resistance to do some of the work lest the brake pads or wheels melt. “Only a few people on the planet have put their legs inside a rocket,” Beck says. “It’s a very good feeling.”

For most people, a successful rocket test conducted with home-brewed fuel might have led to an engineering degree. Beck instead took on a series of apprenticeships and jobs. He worked for an aluminum supplier, cleaning toilets and putting together mills and lathes. He built luxury yachts, becoming expert at analyzing their acoustics to dampen engine and propeller noise. He worked for a local appliance maker, where he learned tool and die casting. Finally, he joined a government-backed R&D lab.

At every stop he would complete his required tasks, then stay late into the night fiddling with his rocket engine designs. Co-workers appreciated his pluck, and now and again an expensive bit of material, like a $2,000 hunk of titanium, would mysteriously appear in his workspace.

In 2006, Beck’s wife got a work assignment that brought the couple to the U.S. for a month. He took the opportunity to tour the country’s aerospace research institutes and companies, showing up—sometimes unannounced—at places like NASA’s Ames Research Center and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as well as Boeing Co. and Rocketdyne. He was hoping to find a job but came away depressed. “I expected there to be all these startup people running around with high energy and crazy shit everywhere,” he says. “But there was none of that happening.” Companies and labs were still making rockets and talking about missions to Mars, but their approaches seemed stale.
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