/ The Falcon 1 rocket ascends toward space on its fourth flight.SpaceX Share this story
They bunked in a double-wide trailer, cramming inside on cots and sleeping bags, as many as a dozen at a time. In the mornings, they feasted on steaming plates of scrambled eggs. At night, beneath some of the darkest skies on Earth, they grilled steaks and wondered if the heavens above were beyond their reach. Kids, most of them, existed alone on a tiny speck of an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was the middle of nowhere, really.
And they worked. They worked desperately—tinkering, testing, and fixing—hoping that nothing would go wrong this time. Already, their small rocket had failed three times. One more launch anomaly likely meant the end of Space Exploration Technologies.
Three times, in 2006, 2007, and 2008, SpaceX tried to launch a Falcon 1 rocket from Omelek Island in the Pacific Ocean, a coral shelf perhaps a meter above sea level and the size of three soccer fields. Less than two months after the last failure, the money was running out. SpaceX had just one final rocket to launch, with only some spare components left over in its California factory.
“We all knew that the stakes were incredibly high,” Zach Dunn recalled of that feverish period in 2008. This time, the Falcon 1 had to work. And the kids knew it. Barely a year out of graduate school and just 26, Dunn nonetheless was a senior engineer over the rocket’s first stage. “It was tense. There was a lot of pressure.”
Today, it is difficult to imagine the world of aerospace without SpaceX. United Launch Alliance, , the Russians, and the Chinese likely would still dominate the launch industry, with their prices a closely guarded secret. A decade ago, these industry titans saw in Elon Musk just another gnat to be swatted aside like so many who had come before. The idea of reusing an orbital rocket to lower the cost of access to space? Laughable. ?!? This funny sounding guy from South Africa couldn‘t even put a small, single-engine rocket into orbit.
This, and more, lay on the line September 28, 2008, when SpaceX sought to finally become the first company to privately develop a rocket that successfully reached orbit.
“That‘s something that only nations had done before, because the barriers to entry were so high,” Chad Anderson, of the Space Angels investment group, said about privately developing an orbital rocket. “Going from zero to one is really, really difficult. And that’s what SpaceX did. That guy and that company have been swimming upstream, and fighting, for so long to get that ball rolling.”
Ten years later, the industry has undergone . The titans of aerospace have scrambled to remake themselves, or die, in the new world where Musk is not a pretender but the leading protagonist. Following in SpaceX’s wake, more than 100 private companies around the world are trying to accomplish the same feat with rockets of various sizes.
There is no question who blazed the trail or that it began deep in the Pacific tropics. A few days before the fourth and possibly final attempt to launch the Falcon 1 rocket, Dunn left Omelek by boat, making the trip to “the Kwaj,” or Kwajalein Island. This nearby island was tiny, too, measuring about 4km long and several hundred meters across. But it was a continent compared to Omelek and home to SpaceX‘s launch control center. / Zach Dunn with the Merlin engine that powered the successful fourth flight of the Falcon 1 rocket.SpaceX
On the morning of the launch, Dunn sat on console in a bunker on the Kwaj, monitoring the health of the Merlin-1 engine and the fuel tanks in the first stage. As the rocket took off, he watched, hoping it wouldn’t blow up. Cheers erupted inside the bunker about three minutes into the flight, when the second stage separated from the rocket. Then came an agonizing six minutes when the Falcon’s upper stage engine, named Kestrel, would have to burn, necessary to show potential customers the rocket could put their satellites into a proper orbit. And burn it did.
“When Kestrel shut down, the place just exploded,” Dunn recalled of the bunker. “We went absolutely wild. We were all jumping around. Hugging each other. Screaming. It was a righteous celebration.”
The party in the Pacific would last all night. The next day, SpaceX would begin anew in its efforts to conquer the aerospace world. This time, it would not fail.
Hans Koenigsmann joined SpaceX as employee number four. He came to SpaceX in 2002 from another aerospace firm in Southern California, Microcosm. (SpaceX’s dynamic president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, would follow him from the same company a couple of months later.) Soon, Koenigsmann began to work on an avionics system for a rocket, the brains that controlled it during flight.
With a mandate from Musk to slash costs, Koenigsmann had to decide what to buy and what to build in-house, and he had to hire a team of engineers. In leaving an established company, the German-born Koenigsmann had taken a big risk, leaving a comfortable job for a completely untested venture whose founder was already .
Koenigsmann did not join SpaceX because he believed in that mission. “I just wanted to develop a rocket with a small team, and not 15,000 people like had been done in the past,” he said. “I wanted to show you could do this with 200.”
Initially, SpaceX wanted to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, located a couple hours‘ drive north of its Southern California headquarters. But the big rocket companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin among them, used that facility for the launch of their rockets, and the military and its contractors were less than welcoming to the upstart.
So eventually, SpaceX looked west. Far to the west, to an Army base 8,000km away surrounded by vast expanses of blue ocean. Here, there was no other traffic on the range. When SpaceX needed priority, it generally got it. “We weren’t in the shadows of other, bigger companies, so that helped us,” Koenigsmann said.
Even today, he can recall the route to Kwaj from Los Angeles. Take an afternoon or evening flight from LAX to Hawaii. Spend the night there and catch the 7am flight to the Marshall Islands from Gate 14. It made several stops along this once-a-day route, and one of them was the Kwaj.
Once there, SpaceX employees mostly rode bicycles around the island, with its sand, surf, and palm trees. When not spending the night on Omelek, they stayed in Kwajalein’s hotel, called Macy’s—which had nothing to do with the department store. “It sounds a little bit like a tropical island, but it’s an Army version of a tropical island,” Koenigsmann said. “So the hotel was the Army version of a hotel. Every piece of furniture had a United States government number.”
/ Hans Koenigsmann with his family, and the Falcon 1 rocket, at Omelek.SpaceX
It took an hour by boat to reach Omelek Island, where SpaceX built its own launch pad and a hangar for its Falcon 1 rocket. Typically, a rocket would arrive three or four months before its flight and require a lengthy series of processing and tests before launch day.
“It’s pretty unique, and people either liked it or hated it; no one was really neutral,” Koenigsmann said of the spare island life in the Pacific. As for the German, truly half a world away from his home, he liked it there beneath the dark Pacific skies. The island reminded him of why he had come there in the first place. “It gave me a real sense of remoteness and how big this planet really is,” he said.
And it also taught him how damned hard it is to break out of Earth’s gravity well.