An early SpaceX engineer crawled inside an imploding rocket on a jet in midair to save the company

An early SpaceX engineer crawled inside an imploding rocket on a jet in midair to save the company

Morgan McFall-Johnsen Mar 16, 2021, 3:36 PM

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Elon Musk. 

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 would be done for.

LIFTOFF cover eric berger book

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 because of a pressure imbalance. So Zach Dunn, one of SpaceX’s newest engineers at the time, crawled into its belly. His quick fix saved the company — and possibly his own life.

Berger’s book “Liftoff” describes this moment and other wild 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 midair.

SpaceX engineers faced a midflight emergency

By September 2008, SpaceX was almost out of money, according to Berger’s book. The company had failed in all of its attempts to launch a rocket into 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 recession hit. SpaceX had enough resources for just one more launch attempt, the book said.

Musk gave his engineers six weeks for the last-ditch effort, Berger wrote. 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, according to the book.

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 wrote.

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