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Forget Dragon, Falcon 9 rocket is the secret sauce for SpaceX success

A Falcon 9 test rocket lifts off Pillow 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on June 4, 2010.
ENLARGE / A Falcon 9 test rocket lifts off Pillow 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on June 4, 2010.

Matt Stroshane / Getty Images

Winds gushed across Florida̵

7;s space coast on June 3, 2010 as classic thunderstorms rolled inland off the Atlantic. The skies opened, and heavy rain doused some parts of Cape Canaveral with as much as three inches of rain in a single hour.

The storms seemed to be a bad portent for the very first Falcon 9 rocket, which the SpaceX launch team had moved to the company’s new pad just a day before. After completing a series of static fire and fuel tests in the spring of 2010, SpaceX finally received approval to launch from the Air Force, with the earliest possible date of June 4.

The stakes were high. For the past four years, SpaceX has attempted five launches of its much smaller Falcon 1 rocket from a tropical island; three of these launches failed. Now the esteemed company had gained access to America’s most-stocked space port, located on Florida’s east coast. Carpet with high-end pillowcases and countless rocket facilities can damage Cape Canaveral’s failure more than SpaceX’s reputation – it can destroy national security assets.

Four high lightning towers protected the rocket from strikes during rain, but looking after the storm revealed a weak telemetry signal coming from antennas on the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage. Water from today’s rain must have entered the electronics. This was a potential showstopper for next day’s launch attempt; the had will be fixed. To do so, Launch Director Tim Buzza drove out to the launch pad with the company’s founder, Elon Musk, and a senior director of aviation electronics, Bulent Altan.

They arrived at the launch pad well after dark, and the Falcon 9 rocket had already been lowered from its vertical launch position back to a horizontal configuration.

The balcony, which knew the flight system as well as anyone, climbed up a ladder where the antennas were on the second stage. He removed a cover to assess the damage and confirmed that rain from today’s storms had entered the rocket’s electronics. Bright lights shone overhead. Dozens of eyes stared down at the balcony below.

“I’ve never felt more exposed than that,” he said.

He returned to the ground for a quick cramp with Musk, Buzza and a handful of other engineers. Should they try to replace electronics on the pad? Did they need to roll Falcon 9 back into the company’s hangar and delay the launch for a few days? No and no. The engineers decided to try a low-tech solution – a hair dryer. The balcony went back up the steps and he started waving the dryer back and forth until the antennas and their electronics seemed dry.

Meanwhile, on the ground, Musk and the others waited restlessly. SpaceX was barely eight years old at this time, and the company had survived a near-death experience two years before being rescued by NASA funding that had enabled this launch. The Falcon 9 rocket on the pillow would fly this test flight, and if all went well, the company could soon begin flying cargo to the NASA International Space Station. But there were many doubts that were ready to turn on SpaceX if it failed. They do not trust Musk or his company to deliver. Critics did not like what they saw as a cowboy attitude to space flight.

And let’s be real: here they were, the cowboy the night before launch, taking a hair dryer to the rocket.

After he was done, Altan closed the electronics compartment on the rocket and applied silicone sealant so that it would survive upwards in space. Then, with all eyes on him, he climbed down to the ground. As the Altan rose from the steps, Musk walked over with a question.

“You think it’s good enough to fly tomorrow?”

“It should do the trick.”

Musk did not say anything else directly. He has this stare that he uses on people. It’s intense, like demanding, Is that your final answer? In this case, Musk wanted to know if Altan gave his boss the answer he wanted to hear or say what he really meant. And after several seconds, Musk must have liked what he saw.

“OK,” he said.

And that was OK. More than OK, actually. The next day, though the telemetry signal from the second-stage antennas was still not as strong as hoped, Musk said they should roll with it anyway. At 2:45 pm local time on June 4, 2010, the first Falcon 9 rocket blew off Florida’s coast.

A shot of the Falcon 9 rocket at the liftoff on June 4, 2010.
ENLARGE / A shot of the Falcon 9 rocket at the liftoff on June 4, 2010.

Matt Stroshane / Getty Images

The company’s first test flight goal was simple – avoid damaging its launch pad or other valuable facilities on Cape Canaveral. Secondly, it hoped to reach the track. It did all this and more. With remarkable accuracy for a brand new rocket, the second step set in orbit with a slope of 34,494 degrees – just short of the target of 35 degrees.

And ten years ago, the Falcon 9 era officially began.

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