Elon Heads to Mars

“Liftoff” by Eric Berger (2021).  ISBN 978-0-06-297997-1

Elon Musk was already a self-made multi-millionaire in 2000 when the Board of Paypal ousted him as CEO.  Instead of taking his multi-millions and going fishing, Musk got interested in establishing a human civilization on Mars, and was disappointed to find that NASA had no such plans.  His research on how to get to Mars led him to set up SpaceX in 2002.  He committed about $100 Million of his personal funds to finance building & launching 3 rockets.  If he could not get to space on three tries, it would be time to call it quits.

Eric Berger has written a rollicking story reminiscent of NASA’s early years – well worth reading.  SpaceX’s mainly young inexperienced staff worked long hours to achieve the impossible, driven by Musk’s insistence on keeping moving and learning by doing.  Here, I would like to focus on only one part of the story — the reasons for their early launch failures.

In 2006, only 4 years after its founding, SpaceX built and launched its first Falcon One rocket from Kwajalein atoll in the Pacific.  The rocket blew up.  The cause was tracked to a $5 aluminum fuel line nut which had corroded due to salt spray from the Pacific Ocean.  SpaceX had considered using corrosion-resistant stainless steel nuts, but they were heavier – and there is always a big drive in rocket design to cut weight wherever possible.

A year later in 2007 after multiple upgrades SpaceX tried again.  This time, the first stage of the two-stage rocket flew perfectly, but the second stage tumbled out of control.  The problem was traced to fuel sloshing around in the second-stage tank causing instability.  This had been recognized as a possible issue under certain circumstances, but the risk had been estimated to be low.  The solution was known – baffles in the tank to prevent liquid sloshing – but baffles would have added weight.

In August 2008, SpaceX made its third attempt to launch a further-redesigned Falcon One.  First stage flew perfectly, and the second stage separated smoothly.  But then the first stage jerked forwards and collided with the second stage, throwing off its guidance system and dooming the mission.  The problem was traced to a final small push in the vacuum of space from the minor amount of fuel left in the engine after it shut down – a force which was too minor to have been noticeable on engine tests at ground level.  Preventing recurrence of the problem would require a change in only one line of the rocket’s computer code.

Three attempts – all failures for varying minor reasons.  Money was running out, and SpaceX was only a few weeks away from not having enough cash to meet payroll.  Musk rallied the team back at the factory in California.  They had already built most of the pieces for the next Falcon One.  Could they finish that rocket and launch it within 2 months?  Last chance.

Because of the extremely tight time frame, the completed rocket was expensively flown on a military transport jet from California to Kwajalein.  When the plane started to descend, the rocket in the cargo area began to experience the metallic equivalent of the ear-popping familiar to all plane passengers as air pressure increases.  The rocket started to crumple – panic on the flight!  The Air Force pilots wanted to save the plane by opening the rear doors and dumping the unstable structure into the ocean.  SpaceX had anticipated the issue, but the plane descended more rapidly than expected, which overwhelmed their pressure equalization system.

With heroic efforts to save the rocket on the flight, and further heroic efforts to repair the damage in the inhospitable environment of Kwajalein, the Falcon One was ready within the 2 month time frame.  It performed perfectly on launch, and placed a dummy payload into the planned orbit.  SpaceX was saved!

NASA and its big contractors had developed a painstakingly slow development and testing process, which Musk rejected in favor of learning by doing — rapid building and upgrading in the light of experience.  But small problems in rockets can lead to catastrophic failures, which almost brought down SpaceX.  It was a close-run thing.

Striking the right balance between staid NASA caution and early SpaceX forging ahead is a huge challenge.

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  1. Sounds great! Gotta say, your own writing is top-notch as well.

  2. BDB:
    Sounds great!Gotta say, your own writing is top-notch as well.

    My reviews or the books I have written?


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