And The Other Things

No one I wanted to talk to worked at NASA. Most of them weren’t even in Florida — but their rocket was. Rising wind licked at my pink press badge, which jutted out like a cowlick from its Apollo-era clasp. Turtles and alligators wandered along historic launch pads, silver fish leapt from the pools and lagoons, a sea bird’s nest bustled with visitors behind the old press office. The gargantuan Vehicle Assembly Building, where the component parts of the Saturn V and the Space Shuttles were stacked and mated, towered impressively above it all. Its sun-bleached exterior showed age spots where some panels had been replaced, once. A mid 70s military vehicle sat guard nearby, like something from a dictator’s motorcade. Barack Obama’s photo hung in all the rust-stained buildings, but this was not like my America; it was Florida.

The rocket that launched to resupply the International Space Station was not America’s either, it was Elon Musk’s. Of course, it was built by his team of 3,500 engineers, technicians, designers, assemblers, managers, construction workers… but even to them, Musk is SpaceX, Tesla, Iron Man. So it was his rocket that launched — one and a half million pounds of force booming across the lagoon in a blaze so bright you needed two pairs of sunglasses to get a proper look.


“It is just amazing every time.”

“That was somethin’. You just can’t help but feel like… wow!”

America did launch rockets from here, once. Brilliant space ships that went up with the eyes of the world watching them on screen. The first canoes sent to sea by our island planet. The ruins of their test pads still stand, all in a row, “ABANDON IN PLACE,” printed on their sides.

The Apollo 1 and 7 launch pad, abandoned in place, with ULA’s Titan Heavy pad in the background.

Three years in, on January 27th, 1967, Apollo 1 was already on the launch pad. There were two huge flame deflectors, like wide, double-sided slides, that could roll into place beneath the launch platform — but only one bears the black scorch of rocket exhaust. The three astronauts died there, in the command module, in a fire for which the escape procedure failed. So new procedures were made, designs redone, and, two years later, NASA put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. The Soviets lost the race to the Moon, and America won. Over the next three years, NASA launched six more Saturn V rockets and landed ten more men on the lunar surface. Three of them even brought buggies to drive around in. But the program cost almost $10 billion per flight, so when the political incentive for manned missions dried up, attention turned to efficiency.

The Shuttle was intended to operate like a Boeing 747, flying cheaply and at regular intervals. Mockups made in oil paint portrayed the Shuttle standing on its landing gear in a tall, empty hangar as cargo was lowered into its holding bay. The real picture included such a complex ground processing structure that the Shuttle itself was barely visible behind stacks of equipment and workers. Flights occurred months apart, at an estimated cost of $1.6 billion a piece. After the program’s first public disaster in 1986, when Challenger disintegrated shortly after liftoff and 7 more astronauts died, famed physicist Richard Feynman was recruited to join the investigation. He was stunned by what he found. The catastrophe had not been a stroke of bad luck; it was the product of engineering missteps. NASA’s internal communication was poor, safety ratings fundamentally misunderstood, noted problems left unaddressed, testing insufficient, and other things; but Feynman saw a deeper problem, with a nebulous prescription. “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled,” he wrote.

New thinking was here needed! The U.S. X-plane competitions had driven Boeing, Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, Martin Marietta, and others to compete to design innovative airplanes since 1946, so, in 1995, over two decades after the Shuttle program began, they turned to them again to build the next-generation of American spacecraft. The X-33 specifications required that the craft be Single-Stage-to-Orbit and rapidly reusable, but by 2001, when the program was canceled, $1.87 billion had been spent and Lockheed Martin’s twin aerospike engine had never left the test bed. Now, another two decades removed, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 seeks to change this course of history — though the startup turned juggernaut ne’er dwells on the lore of the ancients.

The SpaceX complex in Hawthorne sits right up against the freeway. Engineers, mostly young and white, hustle in and out past a crew of very busy security guards. Although there is a small team at Cape Canaveral that runs the launches, their command center is a glass chamber on the factory floor. 2,500 miles apart, communication between the two is near instantaneous thanks to a 5 gigabit connection that shuttles packets of data across the continent in a few thousandths of a second — the delay when you watch at home is about 7 seconds. The radio chatter was sparse in the lead up to the launch, but reams of data poured in from the autonomous Falcon and its ground-based supercomputer. Usually, a first stage rocket free-falls into the ocean. Sometimes it is recovered. Very rarely, as was the case with the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, it is repaired and eventually reused. Of course, Musk’s rocket was going to land.

After the second stage safely separated, the first stage flipped its tail end around, slowing it down, then up, pushing the rocket back towards the ground, and then all the way around until it was facing down towards the Earth. It flew through the atmosphere, slowing from Mach 4 down to 0 km/s. Using its grid fins to maneuver into position, the Falcon touched down on a small barge 200 miles from its launch pad, then fell over, and blew up — all by itself. Still, SpaceX made $133 million from the sale of their launch to NASA — they charge about $61.2 million for commercial launches — and drew both national and international attention. Few were aware that United Launch Alliance (ULA), SpaceX’s main competitor, had announced its own plan for a reusable rocket the day before. So ULA lost, and SpaceX won. To Musk, that mattered very little. Whether it happened on April 13th or 14th, or June 9th, or sometime this Fall — the history book would not read, “Elon Musk: founder of SpaceX, the first company to land a rocket from space.” Instead, if things go according to plan, it will say, “Elon Musk: founder of Just Testing, the first off-Earth colony.”

The last Shuttle flew in 2011, running cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Since then, our astronauts have ridden in Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and satellite deployments and ISS resupplies have been bought from ULA at an average cost of about $300 million a launch. “We are not transitioning to a multi-user spaceport, we are a multi-user spaceport,” said Colonel Cabana, Director of the Kennedy Space Center. Behind him loomed the old Vehicle Assembly Building, with NASA’s insignia beside an American flag the size of a basketball court. It was the five year anniversary of Obama’s last visit, when he announced the Mars mission. “There is a new 3D movie that we have at the visitor’s center, and you have to see it. There’s this scene at the end that really lays out our plan for Mars. And I believe we’ll be the first to do it.” Cabana smiled as the assembled space geeks clapped and whooped. Down the road a ways, past the rusting chain link fence of Apollo’s Saturn V launch pad, and out through Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, a cruise ship sat docked at port. Tickets to ride on the steel leviathan (if only our canoe-bound ancestors could see us now) started at $399. When night fell, its horn blasted over the din of drunken passengers as it thrust laterally from the docks — and then, slowly at first, paddled forward into the dark, open ocean.

Hangar for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy under construction on launch complex 39-A, once used by the Saturn V and the Shuttle.