The Falcon 9 rocket’s clouds could be seen on the huge screen above us. Engineers at SpaceX Mission Control were conversing with those at Nasa’s Florida launch site, which was across the country. A controller said, “Stage 1 LOX load is complete,” audible to headset-wearing individuals at 24 different consoles. On October 5, the rocket was being fueled by liquid oxygen propellant, and it was T-minus 2 minutes before liftoff. Four astronauts would soon be dispatched to the International Space Station by the mission controllers.
The room where SpaceX steers its rockets into space and back to Earth typically prohibits journalists. The business has been carrying out such missions more frequently; SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rockets 61 times in 2022, sometimes multiple times on the same day or in a row. One of the engineering feats that has transformed an industry and established SpaceX as a major player in American spaceflight is a cadence. Additionally, the business was attempting something it had never done before: completing three missions in less than 31 hours.
Advertisement SpaceX granted me permission to be in Mission Control for a few days in October to observe a series of launches, landings, dockings, and deployments as it worked toward this objective.
In 2022, the rocket company and its 10,000 employees rose to new heights week after week, presenting what appeared to be a precise parallel universe amid chaos in Elon Musk’s other ventures.
After purchasing Twitter, Musk became involved in efforts to overturn the social network’s content moderation policies. He also temporarily removed some journalists from the site after they reported on an account that tracks his private jet’s location. Tesla, Musk’s electric car business, has become embroiled in the chaos at Twitter. Tesla is a significant contributor to Musk’s extraordinary wealth.
SpaceX employees have also been subjected to Musk’s gravitational pull. Eight former SpaceX employees filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board in November, claiming they were fired illegally after writing an open letter in which they criticized Musk’s response to a report that the company had settled a sexual harassment lawsuit against him and called him a “distraction and embarrassment.”
However, in Mission Control, where one crew member toggled between 12 open windows on his screens, those issues seemed far away. Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer who is known for keeping the company stable, was meanwhile scanning the overhead display at a console in the front row and whispering to an employee next to her. The time had come for the rocket and its astronauts to take off on the Crew-5 mission.
It is a visceral and deafening experience to witness a rocket launch. However, Mission Control is silent like a library. The Crew-5 range coordinator began a countdown over the radio: Ten, nine, eight…,” but the SpaceX workers on the other side of the glass, yelling in full New Year’s Eve mode, drowned him out. To hear over the noise, the mission operations team reached forward almost in unison and turned up the volume on their headsets.
A column of fire separated the Falcon 9 rocket from Earth on the big screen. The people who built it cheered as it floated upward. However, no one in Mission Control stood to celebrate. They also remained focused as the crowd behind them applauded each planned step of the rocket. They looked at charts and compared launch data inside the room.
The Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft and its four astronauts detach from the rocket’s second stage twelve minutes after launch and set off to catch up to the space station at more than 27,000 kilometers per hour.
The work had just begun back on the ground at SpaceX. The astronauts had to dock with the space station for the next 31 hours, and two more rockets had to carry a slew of satellites into orbit.
It is difficult to recall how absurd the concept was in the past when reuseable rockets were used in rapid launch sequences. Elon Musk, the founder of Zip2, a dot-com startup, acquired “some resources to do interesting things” in 1999 when he sold his company for $300 million. Two years later, when eBay acquired PayPal, of which Musk was a majority shareholder, the same executive, who was 31 at the time, increased his wealth.
Musk wanted to bring people to Mars. He founded Space Exploration Technologies Corp., more commonly referred to as SpaceX. He eventually realized that rocket reusability was the key to competing at a lower cost. The rocket would launch its payload into space and then land upright on Earth, essentially performing a launch in reverse, as proposed by SpaceX.
Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules are Nasa, the Defense Department, and private spaceflight’s mainstays today. There is a strong passion among many SpaceX employees for Musk’s vision: As Musk puts it, they want to be a part of permanently placing humans on Mars and making humanity a “multiplanetary species.” SpaceX’s launches and landings, which used to be almost magical, are now routine, if not boring. However, there are times when SpaceX employees resent the idea that the company’s launches have become routine.
Furthermore, it goes beyond Mars. As part of the Artemis program, Nasa has pinned its hopes for landing astronauts on the moon on SpaceX. The Super Heavy booster and the reusable Starship spacecraft will be the backbones of both endeavors.
Shotwell, an engineer who joined SpaceX in 2002, the year it was founded, is in charge of running the program to build that spacecraft. In 2008, he was promoted to president of the company, and he is now in charge of carrying it out by managing day-to-day operations and strategic partnerships. Shotwell is frequently credited with driving many of the organization’s most significant accomplishments. She supports Musk’s multiplanetary vision and defended him in front of the company’s employees following the sexual harassment claim.
Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser for The Planetary Society, an organization that promotes space exploration, stated, “The advantage that SpaceX has — even over Tesla” She plays a crucial role as the steady, highly skilled hand at SpaceX that ensures the company continues to win contracts, meet demand, and channel Musk’s energy.
Pierre Lionnet, research and managing director of Eurospace, a non-profit organization dedicated to studying the space industry, stated, “Despite all of SpaceX’s accomplishments, the public’s understanding of the privately held company’s accounting is murky.” Lionnet stated, “Nobody really knows anything about SpaceX’s financials.” There is no financial report or balance sheet available. We have a 10,000-person company that is a main contractor for Nasa and the Defense Department. We don’t know anything about its financial health.
SpaceX was valued at $100 billion by investment bank Morgan Stanley in 2020, and the company’s Starship rocket alone was valued at $11 billion. Morgan Stanley predicted that SpaceX’s high-speed internet service from space, Starlink, would become profitable with regular Starship flights.
Another Falcon 9 was on a launchpad at Vandenberg Space Force Base, three hours northwest of Los Angeles and much closer to SpaceX’s headquarters, seven hours after Crew-5 took off. A second team worked in a Mission Control center that was adjacent but much smaller because the astronauts’ journey was still being monitored by the primary facility. SpaceX was the client for the second launch on October 5; the mission would send 52 of the company’s Starlink internet satellites into orbit. SpaceX intends to launch approximately 39,000 additional satellites in the coming years, with 3,200 currently in orbit.
A ship in the Pacific was hit by the rocket’s booster after it was launched. The Starlink satellites were seen deploying from the rocket’s upper stage in a video stream from space one hour later. With Earth in the background, they drifted outward more like in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Rather than “Star Wars,” “A Space Odyssey”
The Crew-5 mission, which had launched 29 hours earlier, was monitored by the primary Mission Control team in the afternoon of October 6. The Crew Dragon capsule’s astronauts had reached the International Space Station and were getting ready to dock.
SpaceX’s most expensive and difficult endeavor is unquestionably human spaceflight. William Gerstenmaier, vice-president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, who spent four decades at Nasa prior to joining the company in 2020, stated, “You cannot err when you are sending people into space.” In my previous career, I was involved in Challenger and Columbia tragedies. Those hurt me personally, and I don’t want to go through that ever again.
Dragon Eyes, laser range finders, were used to direct the spacecraft during docking by the Crew-5 astronauts when they reached the space station.
The arrival on October 6 went off without a hitch. Except for a report of “Docking complete,” it was nearly impossible to know what had taken place or when the process was actually finished because the process was so slow and the operators were so quiet. With one launch remaining, Hawthorne Mission Control had managed two launches and a docking in just over a day.
The Mission Control team was prepared for yet another takeoff almost 31 hours after Crew 5 launched, 24 hours after Starlink launched, and an hour after the space station docked. A commercial spaceflight record was about to be established by SpaceX.
However, a few seconds before takeoff, two otherwise silent mission operators typed and clicked, one of them pointing at the screen, and began to mumble a little louder than the others.