Is Elon Musk Trying To Do Too Much Too Fast?

If you deal in cars and rockets, you're going to have crashes and blasts. But how many crashes and blasts before your business takes a fatal hit?

That's one of many questions facing Elon Musk, now engaged in one of the most fascinating stories in the history of business, a story playing out in real time.

The spectacular explosion Thursday of a Falcon 9 rocket manufactured by SpaceX, a Musk company, inflames concerns about his management style -- that he's trying to do too much too fast.

"This raises serious questions about the reliability of the SpaceX launch vehicle," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, which receives money from Boeing Co., a SpaceX competitor. "They are taking this technology to the limits."

Taking it to the limit, however, is what Musk is all about. Impatient with innovation's slow pace in traditional industries -- automobiles, energy storage, space flight -- the extraordinarily ambitious entrepreneur has upset the status quo in all three.

His ultimate vision is nothing short of audacious: energy independence for the individual and a colony on Mars for mankind.

You can't innovate with heavy equipment and not expect mishaps. Experts said SpaceX's failure rate is in line with industry standards. But a company can't suffer so many mishaps that product safety comes under serious scrutiny not just for one incident, but in general. Musk isn't there yet, but a series of recent challenges in quick succession call into question his aggressive timelines.

On Wednesday, the day before the explosion, Musk, SpaceX's founder and chief executive, was preparing to announce improvements to Autopilot. That's Tesla Motors' name for its semiautonomous driving system. Tesla is another company run by Musk.

The Autopilot feature drove a Tesla Model S through the underside of a big rig truck in Florida last May, shearing off the car's...

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