SpaceX almost died aboard a C-17 jet above Hawaii.
In 2008, before the company had successfully launched a single rocket, two dozen SpaceX engineers were transporting its Falcon 1 rocket to Hawaii inside an Air Force jet. From there, a barge would carry it to the company’s launch facilities in the Marshall Islands for one more launch attempt. It was the company’s last chance: If this failed, SpaceX was done for.
But as the jet descended ahead of landing, the SpaceXers heard “a loud, terrible, popping noise,” according to a new book by Eric Berger, a journalist and senior space editor for Ars Technica. The rocket was imploding due to a pressure imbalance. So Zach Dunn, one of SpaceX’s greenest engineers, crawled into its belly. His quick fix saved the company — and possibly his own life.
Berger’s book, “Liftoff,” documents this moment and other wild, breakneck events from SpaceX’s early years — including the construction of a launchpad on a remote island, a mutiny staged by engineers trapped on that island without food, and the scramble to send a commercial rocket into orbit.
SpaceX finally reached orbit using the very rocket that nearly crumpled in mid-air.
SpaceX engineers faced a mid-flight emergency
By September 2008, SpaceX was almost out of money. The company had failed in all of its attempts to launch a rocket to orbit, so it wasn’t winning any contracts. Musk was running out of cash to pump into SpaceX and Tesla, which were both floundering as the
hit. SpaceX had enough resources for just one more launch attempt.
Musk gave his engineers six weeks for the Hail Mary effort. When they were ready to transport the Falcon 1 rocket from California to the Marshall Islands, the engineers piled into the C-17 jet at Los Angeles International Airport. For the first few hours of the flight to Hawaii, they cruised smoothly above the Pacific, kicking back in cargo-compartment seats surrounding the rocket. Someone broke out a guitar.
But on the descent, loud pops and pings rang through the cargo area as dents appeared along the rocket’s body. The engineers realized that its liquid-oxygen fuel tank was not venting enough air to keep up with the changes in pressure as the jet descended.
The tank was basically “breathing through a straw,” Berger writes.
As the pressure in the jet’s cargo bay increased relative to the pressure inside the rocket’s fuel tank, the Falcon 1 started to…