Sometime between 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. E.T. on Tuesday, the sky over the eastern coast of Florida will be tinged with the whitish streak of a soaring rocket. Or a giant fireball.

SpaceX will attempt to launch its new Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time from the Kennedy Space Center on Florida's Merritt Island. It's the most powerful rocket Elon Musk's company has ever manufactured. With its 27 Merlin engines--three times as many as the company's second-most potent vessel, the Falcon 9--the rocket will produce as much thrust as 18 747s

Musk, for once, has curbed expectations--sort of. He's said the chances of the rocket exploding are high, and that he would "consider it a win" if the explosion doesn't damage the launch pad. 

Setting the bar somewhat low is a novel approach for an entrepreneur known nearly as well for his ability to create outrageous amounts of hype as he is for his actual accomplishments. But it might indicate that Musk is well aware of an undeniable fact: No matter what happens on Tuesday, he's already won.

Few people could have expected SpaceX to come so far in so little time. Musk has said before that he thought the company had just a 10 percent chance of getting a rocket into orbit when he founded the company back in 2002.

At the time, the space industry was a quiet place, dominated by giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Now, the private space sector is booming: 120 VCs invested $3.9 billion into space companies in 2017, according to a report from industry watcher Space Angels. SpaceX has helped lead the charge: The company's advancements with reusable rocket technology have changed the equation, lowering the barriers for entry for entrepreneurs looking to commercialize the skies above.

Even before the Heavy attempts its launch, SpaceX has already pulled off an incredible feat. The Heavy's 5.1 million pounds of thrust mean it's capable of reaching Mars--and is the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V, which last took astronauts to the moon more than four decades ago. It's an incredible accomplishment for a private company--and it was achieved just 16 years after its founding.

Yet Musk remains grounded when it comes to setting expectations for his space company. That's in comparison with how he talks about Tesla, where he makes bold promises--like that of a cross-country self-driving demo last year, or the company's ability to produce 5,000 cars per week by the end of 2017--only to fall well short. 

Tesla's market cap is hovering around that of Ford and GM based purely on the company's promise: While it sold about 1 percent the number of cars each of those companies did in 2017, shareholders' faith in Tesla's future gives it the capital it needs to keep working toward its goal of affordable, mass-produced electric cars. 

As a private company, SpaceX doesn't have to promise the world to anyone on a specific timeline. That gives Musk the freedom to set the bar lower--and then, hopefully, hurdle way over it. 

The company has overcome such long odds that even its rivals root for it. Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin currently is working on its own massive rocket, the New Glenn, which is expected to be less powerful than SpaceX's newest creation. But on Monday, Bezos wished Musk and SpaceX good luck, tweeting that he was "hoping for a beautiful, nominal flight." 

Even if the Heavy does blow up on the launch pad on Tuesday, Musk will still have come further than any single space entrepreneur. No one--not detractors, rivals, or shareholders--can argue otherwise.

And regardless of the outcome, Musk has ensured that he will remain one of the biggest showmen in business: When the Falcon Heavy either soars into space or burns up, it will be carrying Musk's own red Tesla roadster as cargo.

Published on: Feb 6, 2018