As it was: a desperate eight weeks that saved SpaceX from failure

They spent the night in bilateral trailer, huddled on mattresses and in sleeping bags, they slept ten in a room. In the morning, feasted on the scrambled eggs. At night, under the darkest skies on Earth, they grilled steaks and wondered whether it is possible to get to heaven. Almost all of them barely out of adolescence and was on a godforsaken island in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Around them was nothing. And they worked. They worked frantically, hade, tried, ruled, hoping that this time everything will work out. Their small rocket three times already blundered. Another failed launch and Space Exploration Technologies have come to end.

Three times, in 2006, 2007 and 2008, SpaceX tried to launch a rocket, the Falcon 1 from the island of Omelek in the Pacific ocean, the coral coast which towered a meter over the sea and was the size of three football fields. Less than two months after the last failure, the money is almost over. SpaceX could launch another missile, then the factory in California there would be only parts.

“We all knew that the stakes are incredibly high,” recalls the febrile period 2008 Zach Dunn. At that time the Falcon 1 was obliged to fly. And everyone knew it. Dunn, who is a year out of graduate school and was only twenty-six years, he served as chief engineer of the first stage of the rocket. “The tension was strong. There was a lot of pressure.”

It is hard to imagine a world without aerospace SpaceX. United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, Roscosmos, China — they all gladly would dominate in rocket space, carefully guarding their prices. Ten years ago, these titans of industry saw in Ilona the Mask of another mosquito, which could kill like anyone who came before him. The idea of re-use of orbital rockets to reduce the cost of access to space was laughable. Mars?! This Joker from South Africa cannot even take a tiny rocket with a single engine to orbit.

This and more was hanging in the air September 28, 2008, when SpaceX finally succeeded in becoming the first company to privately developed rocket, which successfully reached orbit.

“Before this carried only the whole country, because the barrier to entry was very high,” says Chad Anderson from the investment group Space Angels. “From zero to one is very, very difficult to move. But SpaceX did it. The guy and his company swam against the tide and fought with him for so long that they were able to run this edifice”.

For ten years the aerospace industry has undergone radical restructuring. The titans of the aerospace industry moved to change or to die in the new world, where a hero — not a contender — became a Mask. After the success of SpaceX are more than 100 private companies in the world have tried and continue to try to repeat this feat with rockets of different sizes.

It all began in the Pacific tropics. A few days before the fourth and possibly last attempt to launch a rocket, the Falcon 1 Dunn sailed from Omelek on the boat, heading for Quag called the island of Kwajalein. It is also tiny, only four kilometers in length and several hundred meters wide. But compared to Melcom he was continent. Also, it was the mission control center SpaceX.

That morning, Dunn sat behind the console on kwaje to monitor the condition of the engine “Merlin 1” and the fuel tanks of the first stage. When the rocket took off, he watched, hoping that she wouldn’t explode. Three minutes later the flight in the bunker exploded only applause, and the rocket is separated the second stage. Then came an agonizing six minutes, when the upper stage engine of the Falcon called the Kestrel was supposed to burn the fuel. It was necessary to show potential customers that the missile will be able to display the satellites in the desired orbit. And he burned.

“When a Kestrel passed out, everything just exploded,” recalls Dunn. “We just went crazy. Jump. Hugged. Screaming. It was a well deserved celebration.”

Party in the Pacific continued through the night. The next day SpaceX will go back to trying to win the aerospace world. And this time will not fail.

SpaceX: start

Hans Koenigsmann joined SpaceX’s fourth employee. He was at SpaceX in 2002 from another aerospace company in southern California Microcosm. (President of SpaceX, Gwynne, Shotwell will go after him from the same company a few months). Very soon, Koenigsmann started to work on the avionics systems for the launch of the brains that control it during the flight.

After receiving the indication from the Mask to cut costs, Koenigsmann had to decide what to buy and what to build in place, also he had to hire a team of engineers. Leaving already “bounced back”, the seminal German Koenigsmann was a big risk — he left a comfortable job in a completely new enterprise, the founder who dreamed of flying to Mars.

Koenigsmann joined SpaceX not because I believe in this mission. “I just wanted to develop a rocket with a small team, not with 15,000 people, as it had to do in the past — he recalls. — I wanted to show that you can do and forces 200 people.”

Initially, SpaceX wanted to launch rockets from Vandenberg AFB, located a few hours drive North from the headquarters of the company in southern California. But the big rocket companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, was launched from this site its missiles, and military and contractors do not like to share with the upstarts.

So SpaceX has turned to the West. Far to the West, to an army base in 8000 kilometers surrounded by vast expanses of blue ocean. Anyone else was not around. When SpaceX needed the priority she had received. “We were not in the shadow of other big companies, and it helped us,” says Krigsman.

Even today he remembers the way to Kwaj from Los Angeles. I have a midday or evening from Los Angeles to Hawaii. Spend the night there, and at 7 in the morning fly to Marshall Islands from 14 of the terminal. In the way this flight was a few stops, one of which was Quag.

Once there, the employees of SpaceX moved around the island mostly on motorcycles, among the sand, surf and palm trees. If you do not have to attend Omelet, they stayed in a hotel Kwajalein — “Macy”. “Sounds like a tropical island, but it is an army version of tropical Islands,” says Krigsman. “So the hotel was an army version of the hotel. Every piece of furniture was the state room the United States.”

To use the boat to reach the island Omelek, went hour. There SpaceX built their own launch pad and hangar for rocket, the Falcon 1. Usually, the rocket came in three or four months before launch and required a lengthy chain of treatments and tests before launch day.

“It was pretty unique and people either like it, or quite the opposite; no one remained indifferent,” says Krigsman, Recalling the island life. Even though he was German, stranded half a world from home, he liked under the dark skies of the Pacific. The island reminded him of why he had come there in the first place. “He charged me with a sense of remoteness and reminded of how enormous our planet”.

And he taught him how darn hard to break out of earth’s gravity well.

Three failure

Founded in 2002, SpaceX has taken the rocket to the launch pad in just four years. On the morning of 24 March, the Falcon 1 went to your virgin flight from Omelek. First, a small rocket steadily rising over the little island. But after half a minute, due to leakage of fuel inside the rocket, the vehicle literally burned themselves in the process of recovery. Pieces of rocket, the Falcon 1 fell to the Ground.

A few hours later the engineers left Kwaja Omelet to save all that remains. For young successful alumni who gathered at SpaceX with high hopes, it was a brutal sobering moment.

“Down and collected pieces of things that I personally suffered for several months,” recalls Koenigsmann. “I’m not used to failure. But it’s part of the case, and I had to get used to it. With this we have to fight very much, because otherwise you’ll lose.”

Almost a year later, having overcome the demons of the first flight, Koenigsmann and other engineers returned to Amelek with the second Falcon 1 rocket. This flight has been more promising. The booster reached an altitude of 289 kilometers, went into space and went on a set route. After burnout of the first stage separated and the second. But after 265 seconds, the flight began harmonic oscillations, which grew to 474 seconds until the Kestrel engine is not switched off prematurely. The team was pleased just the first stage.

“This mission represents a large step forward for SpaceX and the launch vehicle, the Falcon 1,” according to the flight review of the company. “Despite the partial success, a significant part of the mission was executed with both software and technical points of view.”

Promising second flight laid the Foundation for the third mission, precious cargo, selected for this mission reflected the confidence of SpaceX and its customers. NASA, the defense Department and the private company Celestis will fly this time.

SpaceX has spent 17 months working on the Falcon 1 rocket, perfecting her main engine and checking it to make sure that everything goes smoothly during the August 2008 launch. SpaceX has also begun the recruitment of new employees, anticipating a wonderful future days. Dunn was officially hired in 2007 as an Intern for a whole year. After senior Manager above him retired, Dunn has found enough responsibility to answer for the first step, and took his seat at the console in the bunker on kwaje.

Sitting in the control room with Koenigsmann and 10 other operators during the third flight, Dunn gave the countdown and watched the launch on a computer screen. It was displaying the data indicating the status of the engine and the pressure in the combustion chamber. Dunn was excited and tense at the same time.

Dunn recalls how he lost track of time during the ascent, the Falcon 1, although the first stage of Mask later described as “cinematic perfect” flight. However, after the first stage separated from the second, the new engine Merlin spent a little longer than expected and gave the residual emissions that led to the collision of two steps.

“When the anomaly happened, my head was down,” recalls Dunn. “I looked at the data. And I heard this long sigh. I raised my head and realized that everything is not as it should be. It became clear at once. It was incredibly disappointing. The team around me was broken”. Some of them were crying.

For Koenigsmann who has never experienced such a destructive failure, but now literally jerk back to the realities of space flight, the third run was particularly painful.

“We went home, and Elon just said, we have another rocket, let’s launch it as soon as possible,” he says. “It is in General the feeling that this rocket will perform better or we will have problems”.

Last week, on the threshold of the 10th anniversary of the fourth rocket launch Falcon 1, Musk acknowledged it in full. “If we had not reached orbit with this attempt, SpaceX would not exist,” he says. “It was a very emotionally heavy launch”.

Smoldering revolution

At that time few people understood it, but on the American continent, the government began paving the way for a revolution in the field of space flight. She almost certainly would not have been possible, patience SpaceX failure.

During the presidency of George Bush, NASA launched its fingers in commercial space flights, and allocated several hundred million dollars, SpaceX and other private companies to develop rockets and spacecraft to deliver cargo to the International space station. But the Congress, sensing a threat to the existing government program, flatly refused to allocate the budget for the privatization of such services. A series of failures SpaceX confirmed the statement that only government apparatus like a space Shuttle capable of serious space travel.

Space policy was not ready for such changes at the time of the presidential election, but by September of 2008, Lori Garver has worked on the preliminary points of the presidential program of Barack Obama. Later she brings them to the team space policy and will be the Deputy administrator of NASA. She supported those commercial initiatives offered by Bush and wanted her immediate boss also supported them. But it was extremely difficult to swing the Falcon 1 rocket, which continued to fall.

“I have already explained the importance of developing commercial space launch key advisers on science and technology Obama, and we were moving along this path,” he says. “But if not success [SpaceX], it would be much harder to give performers the commercial delivery of cargo and crews.”

In the first years of Obama’s presidency war broke out between the White house, which wanted to privatize key parts of NASA to reduce costs, and Congress, which refused to take steps that would lead to the loss of traditional jobs near NASA field centers.

A deliberate campaign from prigrevica at the trough of the aerospace companies fueled the battle for funding in Congress. For several years these attacks reduced funding for commercial cargo and later manned space initiatives by 50%. But these attacks happened not only outside the space Agency, says Garver.

“Inside NASA, attempts were made to sabotage this program, and it was the hardest thing to overcome,” he says. Very few crossed to the other side.

Over time, these tactics of warfare faded. Among them were attempts to give a program for the delivery of cargo and crew by one operator. Sometimes positive data on the commercial companies hiding or exaggerating the success of their missile Agency’s Space Launch System. Commercial contracts were acquired requirements. Sabotage was everywhere, including its own administration, NASA, Directors, authorized representatives, and sometimes even in the external Advisory Board.

“If the Falcon 1 does not went into orbit with this mission, the forces that tried to push us off course, most likely would succeed,” she says.

Fourth flight

On the appointed day, start on the Pacific ocean engineers Kwaja woke up well before dawn. Not that Dunn could not sleep. He compared the anxiety of that night with final exams. For the SpaceX team, this flight was a test with two choices: to fall and to go to seek less nervous; to succeed and to continue to conquer the world.

After a quick snack in the army hotel was followed by a 45-minute trip on the motorcycle in the control centre towards the wind. Constant winds blew the Marshall Islands from East to West, and from the position Quadia this meant that the path to the control center was with oil.

Night duty team prepared the missile for launch — for example, downloaded helium into the apparatus. But Dunne, Koenigsmann and others were in the control center for five to six hours to launch. To watch the last refueling operations Omelet.

There were always technical problems that required a fuss, but still stay on schedule. At 11:15 local time, 15 minutes before the start, Koenigsmann, chief engineer, and Tim Buzza, Director of the run, gave the green light for the launch of Falcon 1. The final decision came from the Mask, who was in California with the rest of the team.

Then she took off. “Then you can’t do anything,” says Krigsman. “You just watch. We sat at the console, but could not affect the result.”

The engineers watched as the missile does what exactly she was supposed to. The first stage is well burnt in, problems with the separation arose. After turn on the Kestrel engine, it is also planning bankrupt. The fairing separated. “At that time it was the most beautiful sight in the world,” says Krigsman.

Then they had to watch your bird for about half an hour. Another burn was scheduled in 45 minutes, is usually required to embed satellites in the finish of the orbital trajectory. Tracking station on ascension island in the Atlantic picked up the signal Falcon, and the second burn also went smoothly. After that, the battery of the second stage was supposed to die, but it lasted long enough for the ground control in the Kwajalein caught her again.

“It was wonderful to see how something comes back that you started one and a half hours earlier,” says Krigsman. “It perfectly illustrated the concept of the earth’s orbit”.

Impact on the industry

The first successful flight of Falcon 1 was the catalyst for the commercial space industry. Funded by private sources to develop new rockets and spacecraft, and commercial business in space beyond telecommunications years saw UPS and downs, but continued success — ever. Second successful launch of the Falcon 1, in 2009, when it put into orbit a commercial satellite, has recorded the success.

“The impact that the space industry has had the first successful commercial rocket launch cannot be overstated,” says Anderson, Manager of investment group Space Angels, which is closely related to public and private investment in space. (He invested in SpaceX a few times over the years).

These first two runs were so significant and because SpaceX launched a small satellite for a private client, much cheaper than could any other company: $ 7 million. More importantly, the company has published its tseny online. On this transparency you never before dreamed of.

“She opened the curtain in a dark area,” says Anderson. “To her there were several companies serving the needs of government and commercial customers, but it was more like a cartel”.

In fact, if a company wanted to launch a satellite, the senior could fly to Paris and meet with Arianespace to talk. After discussing the requirements, the satellite company could go home to wait for the company to launch will not discuss these requirements in oral black box and not name a price.

“To launch a satellite before the advent of SpaceX, the money was not to be a problem. It could be worth $ 90 million, or 170 million, or how much they want. Incredibly high barrier for new businesses”.

Pricing transparency and performance of the Falcon 9 rocket in 2010 for $ 60 million helped to reduce these barriers to a reasonable level. Over time, this new wave of innovation will bring the cosmos into the hands of a wide range of entrepreneurs.

Anderson said that before SpaceX began flying with the rocket, the Falcon 1, had a few dozen funded privately by the companies that were involved globally in space. Today they are 350 and they attracted $ 15 billion of private capital.

It has also facilitated the way for Garver and other supporters of private spaceflight, to convince the White house to support funding kommercheskih delivery of cargo to the space station, and then the crews. NASA also opened up the possibility to use the station for commercial companies to other companies could try new concepts in space, test their performance and one to make a profit.

One of the companies that took advantage of this, it is Made in Space, 3D printing. Its chief Executive officer Andrew rush links the transformation of the International space station national laboratory with the launch of the Falcon 1. According to him, cheaper access to space has helped to launch the fragile economies in low-earth orbit.

“This commercial infrastructure is very important for companies like Made in Space,” says rush. “We don’t need to go and invent a cheap rocket. We can rely on a cheap rocket. I would say that in retrospect this was the starting point”.


After the first run Dunn and other engineers and control center raced on their bikes like a madman through Kwaj to meet with the team that made this morning a rocket in Omelet and then returned to the big island. In the end, they met on the beach near the dock. Then shouted “Or-bi-TA!” over and over again.

This initial success helped to conclude a multibillion-dollar contract to deliver cargo to the space station with NASA and sparked violent decade during which SpaceX moved from the rocket with one engine to the rocket with 9, and then 27 engines. The company has also developed two spacecraft, Dragon 1 and 2, and planted the first dozen steps.

If you do not take in the calculation of the USSR from 1957 to 1967, and NASA from 1961 to 1971, it’s hard to find a company or country, which would be a more dynamic decade in space than this.

For first employees like Koenigsmann and several brilliant engineers who joined the company at the time, this long-awaited success instilled confidence in the ambitious plans Mask on Mars. To settle people there would be a great goal now.

“I have to say, my vision was too limited,” says the engineer. “I realized I needed to set goals a little higher. How about Mars? Well, it is. From Ilona very well. It is essentially expanding the horizons of people and explains why Mars should be our next target, why should we work tirelessly to make this happen”.

Two-thirds of the thirty engineers Kwaja and Omelka, which was the company that first successful launch, and still work at SpaceX. Similar experiences from the devastating failure of the third flight, all those nights in the tropics, and to this final, unconditional success for all is very important. It was a real adventure.

After the crazy team met at the beach Kwaga, they found one of the two bars on the island. The entire Kwajalein knew about SpaceX and what she tried to do. They knew that SpaceX was not easy, and many in the military supported this persistent company. Therefore, many residents of the island joined in the celebration.

That night at the bar drank it all.

The next goal is Mars? Tell us in our chat in Telegram.

0 Comments on “As it was: a desperate eight weeks that saved SpaceX from failure”

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