The moment of 2008 when victory turned into agony for SpaceX

The moment of 2008 when victory turned into agony for SpaceX
The launch of the Falcon 1's third flight seemed promising at first.
Zoom in / The launch of the Falcon 1’s third flight seemed promising at first.

Chris Thompson / SpaceX

This is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of the book LIFTOFF: Elon Musk and the Desperate First Days that Launched SpaceX Written by Eric Berger. The book will be published on March 2, 2022. In this excerpt, it is the summer of 2008, and SpaceX has already tried to launch the Falcon 1 rocket twice, but failed both times. As company engineers prepare for a third launch attempt from the tiny island of Umlik in Kwajalein Atoll, time and money are running out …

By the time of the third flight, SpaceXers are accustomed to their visits to the central Pacific Kwajalein Atoll for launches. Over the course of three years, they learned how to survive in the tropical environment and even enjoy life on the island. However, some of these lessons are hard to come by.

Early in the Kwaj experiment, engineer Brian Bjelde missed the evening boat to Kwajalein. It happened. He and a few others were sleeping under the stars, and having a totally good night. But the next morning, Bjelde lacked a change of clothes. So grabbed a shirt from a bunch of Falcon 1 swag items featured on Omelek. The vacuumed white shirt might have wrinkled, but at least it was clean, and kept the sun off its back. Beldi was subjected to massive amounts of sunscreen every day – any piece of skin exposed to tropical sunlight was covered. All that day, as he was slipping inside, Bjelde noticed the wrinkles of the shirt falling under the heat and humidity of the island.

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In the late afternoon, he went for a shower. He said, “I took off my shirt and got the worst sunburn of my life through the shirt.” “I had a perfect sunburn. I think the end of my days will come through skin cancer because of the Kwajalein experience. The sunlight went straight through that inexpensive white shirt. I just didn’t think of putting sunscreen underneath. Why would I?”

The heat and humidity punished those in Umlek in other ways. Bjeldi was a kid in California, where it was sometimes hot but rarely too humid. He hadn’t done this kind of physical work before.

Marines at sea may be familiar with crotch rot, but Bjelde had never heard of it before. He said, “I don’t claim to be skinny or skinny, and if I rub your thighs a little, then sweat, that leads to anger.” “But the salty and humid environment only made things worse.”

As he struggled to move around one day walking the island’s legs, he asked the more experienced Chris Thompson what he should do about his agonizing illness. Did he need penicillin, perhaps? Thompson, a former Marine, explained the trick of rubbing deodorant under the armpit between the legs. Thompson made another helpful suggestion: switch from boxers to boxers with brief.

Few women on the island faced their suffering. In the early years, Ann Chenery and Flo Lee had little privacy and no running water. Using the island toilet necessitated filling a bucket with sea water first so the toilet could be cleaned. The rains were more primitive. At first, SpaceXers filled a trash bucket with water to wash their hands. When I got really hot and sweaty at the end of a long day. She told me that she would wear a bathing suit and pour rainwater over her head to rinse it out.

As the Flight One campaign progressed in 2006, the small team moved from trash to camp shower. They collected rainwater in large black bags, and then placed the bags on the helipad to keep warm during the day. One of these bags will be pulled onto a stand so that it hangs over a foldable metal chair, allowing for a warm shower. For Chinnery and Li, the shower curtain provides a measure of privacy.

Fun in the sun

Engineers and technicians worked hard during the day, but as the sun approached the horizon, work crews often took a break. They were swimming. Few people even took a dip in the shallow lake as a last resort from the heat.

Sometimes their efforts at revelry went awry. The Omelek was small enough to walk through in a few minutes, but during subsequent flying campaigns there was an old and rough golf cart for the staff to use. Described by Zach Dunn as “dangerous excrement,” it hung with piston wire and chewing gum. At some point between the second and third flights, the brakes in the cart got worse, but when the launch team returned from Los Angeles, nobody realized it.

At the end of one working day, when some of his friends seize the boat back to Quag, Dunn decides to drive them in style. Hop on the cart, park the car near the trailers overnight, and put the pedal to the metal. Dunn thought it would be fun to get past his departed friends, whining and waving. He built up good speed as he approached the dock, and in preparation for the boat salute, Dan decided he’d better slow it down. In a slapstick moment straight from a cartoon, as Dunn pressed the brake pedal, he descended on the ground without any resistance. He succeeded in attracting the attention of his companions, but for the wrong reasons, as he started yelling and sliding towards a small rocky ledge. From there, Dunn faced a clear shot into the lake, and would likely flip the finish over the end as he went. Make a decision in a split second and veer toward a palm tree instead.

Of the group on the boat, Dan said, “Instead of seeing me waving and shouting and being a general foolish ball, they saw me go out at full speed, with no explanation whatsoever.” “Then it hit a palm tree at full speed.”

The collision threw Dunn over the wheel of the cart, but walked away from the accident. The boat staff laughed noisily.

Some Space Xers who stayed overnight fished the coral reefs around the Omlik, even though they released whatever it was caught. Small organisms that grow on tropical coral reefs produce ciguatoxin, which accumulate in small fish and in greater concentrations in larger fish at the top of the food chain. The people of the Marshall Islands have developed immunity to the toxin, but it causes severe food poisoning in strangers. Every now and then, Space Experts would hear a report of Kwag’s death after eating a reef fish.

There were natural threats on the ground, too. The coconut crab, which can be up to three feet long and is the largest arthropod in the world, lives in Umlek. Sometimes they can be seen running over a tree and using powerful pliers to throw their coconuts to the ground. Then, back on the ground, the crab cracks the coconut. “There was definitely no naked beach sleep for us,” said Geoff Richie, a construction engineer.

By the time of the third voyage, Umlek’s engineers and technicians continued to improve their environment, especially while providing better food for those who sleep on the island. In the dual-space kitchen, they would take turns cooking over-fare meals in the army cafeteria in Kwaj. In the morning, they were fed steam plates of scrambled eggs. In the evening, they mixed it up. Bulent Altan and new launch engineer, Ricky Lim, did a lot of cooking because they enjoyed it. It might be grilled steak one night or shrimp in paprika sauce the next. Altan’s specialty was the Turkish goulash who loved to bake, mix pasta with garlic and yogurt, and ferment in a butter and tomato sauce. The fans have proven their admiration on Omelek. There were other amenities, too. The refrigerated sea wagon contained an endless supply of drinks, including beer in the evening.

“Everything was a great luxury compared to the first trip, so we loved it in Umlic,” Altan said. “After the really crazy days, everyone gathered at dinner time and really enjoyed just sitting back and relaxing. We were always watching the same movies over and over, like Starship soldiers. The most important thing is that the camaraderie was wonderful. “

The night workers also built a wooden deck attached to the trailer. From there, they can clear some of the darkest climates on Earth. Often, clouds obscured their view. But when it was clear, there were a million bright stars. Sometimes there were artificial stars, too. They looked like a meteor but didn’t fade away. Instead, they were brighter – because these were ICBMs launched from the United States mainland towards Kwajalein Atoll.

Bulent Altan prepares
Zoom in / Bulent Altan is attending his book “The Turkish Goulash”.

Bulent Altan

It was a big irony: the necessity of fast flying prompted SpaceX from Vandenberg to Kwajalein, and once there, the staff had a comprehensive view of the missiles launched from Vandenberg. For the better part of half a century, the tiny atoll served as the starting point for the development of ICBMs, and later, President Ronald Reagan’s “strategic defense initiative”. The Army facilities at Kwajalein still serve a number of purposes, but the most enduring of them is to act as a giant target field.

When the Air Force wants to test the accuracy of the Minuteman III missile, it will fire a three-stage solid fuel missile from Vandenberg towards Kwaj. Thanks to advanced radars, cameras, and other tracking equipment, the Reagan test site in Quag captures accurate radar and optics data about the missile as it penetrates the atmosphere at speeds of up to four miles per second. Often, rockets have targeted Ilgeny Island, on the western side of the atoll. This means that they passed almost directly over Umlik, on the eastern edge of the island chain. From there, Space Xers who spent the night on Umlic were amazed at the arrival of these rockets. Near Kwajalein, the third stage of the missile will be launched, leaving only the missile bus carrying the simulated warhead.

For some elderly people on Quag, the prospect of ballistic missiles’ arrival has revived distant memories of the Cold War. Seeing those missiles entering was beautiful, but also a little frightening, knowing that if there was a real warhead on board then death would be imminent. “The simulated bombs will separate like little fireflies,” Chenery said. “It was strange to see these. It reminded me of the growth and the fear of nuclear annihilation.”

Another benefit of spending the night in the dual view trailer is to skip the morning rush hour and catch a few more winks. The large boat that carried Boeing employees from Kwaj to Meck Island, and then transported SpaceX workers on Omelek, was reliable. But it started early, leaving the marina at 6:05 AM. This meant that the Buzza team had to get up early if they wanted to eat breakfast before riding through Kwaj to the pier for the ride.

“I’ve never missed this boat,” Boza said. “But sometimes, his team-mates were. The army is very careful and won’t veer. Except once, they went back to the dock for Elon.”

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