As a kid, he piled up the sci-fi novels in the closet of his California bedroom—Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, David Brin’s Uplift novels, Frank Herbert’s Dune saga. He dreamed of going to space, not as an astronaut but as a citizen of a spacefaring society. But by the time Brandon Pearce reached high school in 1986, that dream was fading. When he looked at the missions going on at NASA, he just didn’t see how they would lead to moon colonies, interplanetary travel, and deep-space adventures.
“The shuttle had started flying in the early ’80s, but it wasn’t doing very exciting things,” says Pearce. “It wasn’t opening new frontiers, it wasn’t enabling new capabilities. The most exciting thing happening in space was Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars [Strategic Defense Initiative], which was all about weapons. And I’ve never been interested in the weaponization of space. I was always interested in exploration.”
NASA and its aerospace contractors didn’t seem to be aiming to boldly go where no one had gone before—and they were the only game in town. So Pearce kept reading sci-fi, but he gave up on the idea of a job in aerospace. Instead he concentrated on getting an education and building a satisfying career as a computer engineer.
Then, in 2002, Internet millionaire Elon Musk founded the private company Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX. Musk announced his intention to build cheap and reliable rockets to bring satellites and cargo into orbit, but he emphasized that such prosaic missions would be only the first step in his quest “to make life multiplanetary.” Pearce was sold. Today, the computer engineer is the senior director of avionics hardware development for SpaceX, and he relishes the thought that every day on the job brings his sci-fi visions closer to reality.
The path that led Pearce to his dream job wasn’t straight or obvious. He dropped out of college after one year to take a job as a technician with a consulting company in the San Francisco area. The work often brought him to semiconductor factories around Silicon Valley, and Pearce realized there were plenty of fascinating jobs for geeks like him—but he’d need to go back to school to get them. After earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in computer engineering from the University of California, Santa Cruz, Pearce went to the Silicon Valley chipmaker Xilinx. During his first year of designing circuit boards, the tech bubble burst with a loud pop, but Xilinx remained a stable place to work. “I hunkered down,” Pearce says. He kept designing boards there until 2006.
By then he had the expertise to move up the management ladder, but he was also enthralled by the brash space start-ups that were challenging existing ideas of who could build spacecraft and who could fly on them. Companies like Virgin Galactic and Xcor Aerospace were promising to take tourists on suborbital flights to experience weightlessness. SpaceX had even grander ambitions: It aimed to launch government satellites into orbit and win NASA contracts to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). Pearce followed the company closely and started rooting for its success. He remembers a vacation with his wife in Thailand in 2006 when he snuck away to an Internet café to watch the company’s first rocket take off—it crashed into the ocean after less than a minute’s flight.
That setback didn’t dim Pearce’s enthusiasm. So when a friend offered to bring along Pearce’s résumé during a job interview with SpaceX, he accepted the offer without hesitation. Soon Pearce was heading to SpaceX headquarters in the Los Angeles area for interviews of his own. Then he was negotiating with his wife and his new boss about commuting to L.A. from Santa Cruz for a job in SpaceX’s avionics department. That arrangement lasted for two years until his family relocated.
Moving to SpaceX felt risky, says Pearce: “I left a really secure job for a job I knew might not be there in a year’s time.” But he had no doubts about the decision. “When I started working at SpaceX, I joked with my wife that it might help me avoid a midlife crisis, because I wouldn’t look back and wonder what I’d done with my life,” he says. “I’m helping to execute Elon’s mission, and the things I help design will hopefully end up taking people to Mars. This is what I grew up on as a kid.”
The SpaceX factory and headquarters are located in a massive hangar near the Los Angeles airport. While the company now has more than 3000 employees, it has held on to whimsical start-up features like a free frozen yogurt station. Right next to the fro-yo sits the first Dragon space capsule, blackened and scarred, which in 2010 successfully orbited Earth before splashing down in the Pacific. Since then, unmanned Dragon capsules have docked with the ISS, bringing cargo, and SpaceX is working toward the day when its spacecraft will also ferry crew up and down.
Pearce’s department is responsible for all the electronics in the SpaceX rockets and capsules, which include sensors, communications equipment, guidance and navigation systems, and engine-control mechanisms. Each component must be robust enough to stand up to high temperatures, intense vibration, and radiation. And the systems have to do their jobs even when isolated malfunctions occur, so that one failure doesn’t bring down the entire mission.
Pearce currently oversees avionics R&D, leading a group of about 60 people. On his to-do list is the development of sensors for SpaceX’s newest project, a reusable rocket known as Grasshopper, which has already completed several vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing test flights. Reusable rockets are key to Musk’s vision of bringing life to other planets, because they’re far more economical. He has argued that fully reusable space vehicles could reduce the cost of reaching orbit by a factor of 100.
So what’s it like to work for a daredevil entrepreneur who is trying to reinvent the aerospace industry? According to Pearce, the best and the worst things about working for Musk are actually the same. “He doesn’t feel the need to make reasonable requests,” Pearce says. “The whole idea of SpaceX is not reasonable. The idea that a dot-com millionaire could take [US] $100 million and start a rocket company that within 13 years would be taking supplies to the International Space Station, that’s on track to take crew to the International Space Station—that’s not reasonable.”
Having a boss who dreams big makes work extremely exciting and challenging, says Pearce. “But at the same time, you can never say to Elon, ‘You’re asking us to do that, but that’s not reasonable.’ You have to either figure out how to do it or get as close as you can,” he says. Reusable rockets? They’re working on it. A manned expedition to Mars? They’ll tackle that next.
This article originally appeared in print as “I, Rocketeer.”