Enlarge /. The launch of Flight Three of the Falcon 1 rocket looked promising at the beginning.
Chris Thompson / SpaceX
This is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of the book LIFTOFF: Elon Musk and the desperate early days SpaceX was launched by our own Eric Berger. The book will be released on March 2, 2021. This excerpt is Summer 2008, and SpaceX has already tried twice to launch the Falcon 1 rocket, which failed both times. While the company's engineers prepare for a third attempt at launch from the tiny island of Omelek in Kwajalein Atoll, time and money are running out …
By the time of the third flight, the SpaceXers had got used to their visits to the Central Pacific Kwajalein Atoll at takeoff. Over the course of three years, they learned to survive in the tropical environment and even enjoy island life. However, some of these lessons were hard to come by.
Early on in the Kwaj experience, engineer Brian Bjelde missed the evening boat back to Kwajalein. It happened. He and a few others slept under the stars and had a very pleasant night. But the next morning Bjelde was missing a change of clothes. So he grabbed a t-shirt from a pack of Falcon 1 loot that had appeared in Omelek. The vacuum-packed white t-shirt might have been wrinkled, but at least it was clean and kept the sun off his back. Bjelde went through huge amounts of sunscreen every day – every piece of skin exposed to the tropical sun was covered. Throughout the day Bjelde noticed how the folds of the T-shirt smoothed out under the heat and humidity of the island.
In the late afternoon he took a shower. "I took off my shirt and had the worst sunburn of my life from the shirt," he said. “I had a perfect sunburn. I think the end of my days will come due to this Kwajalein experience from skin cancer. The sunshine went straight through the cheap white t-shirt. I just didn't think about putting sunscreen underneath. Why would you? "
The heat and humidity punished the omelek in other ways. Bjelde had been a Californian boy, where it was sometimes hot but rarely so humid. And he had never done such physical work before.
Marines at sea may know about step rot, but Bjelde had never heard of it. "I'm not claiming to be thin or thin, and if your thighs rub a little and then you sweat, it creates chafing," he said. "But the salty, humid environment only made things worse."
One day when he was trying to move across the island with his legs bent, Bjelde asked the more experienced Chris Thompson what he should do about his painful illness. Did he need penicillin? Thompson, a former Marine, explained the trick of rubbing deodorant under the legs between the legs. And Thompson made another useful suggestion: switch from boxers to boxer shorts.
The few women on the island had their own problems. In the early years, Anne Chinnery and Flo Li had little privacy and no running water. To use the island's toilet, a bucket first had to be filled with sea water so that the toilet could be flushed. The showers were even more rudimentary. First, the SpaceXers filled a trash can with water to wash their hands. When she got really hot and sweaty at the end of a long day. Li said she would put on a bathing suit and throw the rainwater over her head to rinse it off.
In the course of the Flight One campaign in 2006, the small team switched from a trash can to a storage shower. They collected rainwater in large black bags and then placed the bags on the helipad to warm up during the day. One of these bags was pulled up onto a stand so that it hung over a foldable metal chair, allowing the luxury of a warm shower. For Chinnery and Li, a shower curtain offered a degree of privacy.
Close-up of the Falcon 1 rocket before flight three.
Roll the Falcon 1 missile from the hangar to the launch site before flight three.
The peregrine falcon docked on the island of Omelek.
On the way home from Omelek Island back to Kwaj, it's time to relax.
Brian Bjelde with the C-17 aircraft used for flight four.
Fun in the sun
The engineers and technicians worked hard during the day, but when the sun neared the horizon the crews often took a break. You would swim. A few people even took a thin dip in the lagoon to escape the heat.
Sometimes their efforts at noisy fun went wrong. Omelek was small enough to be crossed in a few minutes, but there was an old, ragged golf cart for the staff during later flight campaigns. Zach Dunn described it as a "serious sucker" related to press wire and chewing gum. Sometime between flights two and three, the car's brakes went bad, but when the launch team returned from Los Angeles, no one noticed.
At the end of a work day, when some of his friends caught the boat back to Kwaj, Dunn decided to drop them off in style. He jumped on the cart, parked near the overnight caravans, and stepped on the metal. Dunn thought it would be fun to zoom in, honk, and wave past his departing friends. He had built up quite a bit of speed as he neared the dock, and in preparation to greet the boat, Dunn decided he'd better slow down. In a slapstick moment straight out of a cartoon, when Dunn hit the brake pedal, it fell to the floor with no resistance. He managed to get his comrades' attention, but for the wrong reasons, when he started yelling and walking towards a small ledge. From there, Dunn faced a clear shot into the lagoon that probably flipped end-to-end as he left. He made a split second decision and instead turned to a palm tree.
"Instead of seeing me wave and honk and be a general sucker, they just saw me pull out at full speed with no explanation whatsoever," Dunn said of the group on the boat. "Then I crashed into a palm tree at top speed."
The impact threw Dunn over the steering wheel of the car, but he walked away from the accident. The employees on the boat laughed out loud.
Some SpaceXers who stayed overnight fished the coral reefs around Omelek, despite releasing whatever they caught. Small organisms that grow on tropical coral reefs produce ciguatoxin, which accumulates in small fish and in larger concentrations in larger fish along the food chain. The Marshallese developed immunity to the toxin, but it causes severe food poisoning in outsiders. Every now and then, SpaceXers would hear a report of a visitor to Kwaj who died after eating a reef fish.
There were also natural threats on land. Coconut crabs, which can grow up to three feet long and are the largest arthropods in the world, lived on Omelek. Sometimes she could be seen scurrying up a tree and knocking a coconut to the ground with strong tongs. Then, back on the ground, the crab would crack the coconut. "We definitely couldn't sleep naked on the beach," said Jeff Richichi, a civil engineer.
By the time of the third flight, Omelek's engineers and technicians had further refined their surroundings, particularly with better food for those who slept on the island. In the kitchen of the Doppelbreiten, they took turns cooking meals that exceeded the price in the army cafeteria on Kwaj. In the morning they feasted on scrambled eggs on steaming plates. In the evening they mixed it up. Bulent Altan and a new startup engineer, Ricky Lim, cooked a lot because they enjoyed it. It could be grilled steaks one night or shrimp in paprika sauce the next. Altan's specialty was a Turkish goulash, which he loved to bake, mixing noodles with garlic and yogurt smothered in a butter tomato sauce. It was a crowd puller at Omelek. There were other amenities too. A refrigerated sea wagon had an endless supply of drinks, including beer for the evenings.
"Everything was fantastic luxury compared to the first flight so we loved it on Omelek," said Altan. “After the really, really crazy days everyone gathered for dinner and really enjoyed just sitting and relaxing. We've seen the same movies over and over again as Starship Troopers. The most important thing is that the camaraderie was great. "
The overnight guests also built a wooden deck that was attached to the trailer. From there they could see some of the darkest skies on earth. Often clouds obscured their view. But when it was clear there were a million brilliant stars. Sometimes there were also artificial stars. They looked like shooting stars, but they weren't faded out. Rather, they brightened up – because they were ICBMs that were fired from the American mainland in the direction of Kwajalein Atoll.Enlarge /. Bulent Altan prepares its "Turkish goulash".
It was a great irony: the command to fly fast pushed SpaceX from Vandenberg to Kwajalein, and there staff had a great view of rockets launched from Vandenberg. For almost half a century, the small atoll served as ground zero for ICBM development and later for President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. The Army's facilities on Kwajalein still serve a number of purposes, but the most permanent one serves as a huge target range.
If the Air Force wants to test the accuracy of a Minuteman III missile, it will launch the three-stage solid fuel missile from Vandenberg towards the Kwaj. With its sophisticated radars, cameras, and other tracking equipment, the Reagan test site in Kwaj is collecting precise radar and optics data from the rocket, which is roaming the atmosphere at about four miles per second. The rockets were often aimed at Illeginni Island on the west side of the atoll. This means that they drove almost directly over Omelek on the eastern edge of the island chain. From there, SpaceXers who were spending the night on Omelek were amazed when these rockets hit. Near Kwajalein, the third stage of the missile would fall off, leaving only the missile bus with the simulated warheads.
For some of the older hands on Kwaj, the prospect of ballistic missiles arriving brought distant memories of the Cold War. It was nice to see those missiles come in, but also a little terrifying to know that if a real warhead were on board, death would be imminent. "The simulated bombs would split off like little fireflies," said Chinnery. “It was very scary to see these. It reminded me of growing up and being afraid of nuclear annihilation. "
Another benefit of spending the night in the double-width trailer was to skip the morning rush hour and catch a few more twinks. The large catamaran that took Boeing employees from Kwaj to Meck Island and then dropped SpaceX employees in Omelek was reliable. But it started early and left the dock at 6:05 a.m. This meant Buzza's team had to get up early if they wanted breakfast before heading to the pier via Kwaj for a ride.
"I never missed this boat," said Buzza. “But sometimes teammates would. The army is very punctual and would not deviate. All but one time they returned to the dock for Elon. "