31 hours inside SpaceX mission control

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft approaching the International Space Station, 428km above the Indian Ocean southwest of Australia, on October 6, 2022. (Photo: NASA/NYTimes)
HAWTHORNE, United States — Clouds billowed from the Falcon 9 rocket, visible on the large screen looming above us. The vehicle was across the country at a NASA launch site in Florida, and engineers there were talking to engineers here, at SpaceX Mission Control. اضافة اعلان

“Stage 1 LOX load is complete,” a controller said, audible to people wearing headsets at 24 different consoles. It was T-minus two minutes and counting before liftoff on October 5, and the rocket was fueled with liquid oxygen propellant. The mission’s operators were ready to send four astronauts to the International Space Station.

Journalists typically are not allowed in the room where SpaceX guides its rockets to space and back to Earth. The company has been operating such missions with increasing frequency; in 2022, SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rockets 61 times, and sometimes multiple rockets the same day or on consecutive days. It is a cadence that is among the engineering feats that have transformed an industry and made SpaceX a central player in American spaceflight. And the company was attempting something it had never done: launching three missions in under 31 hours.

The SpaceX mission control room in Hawthorne, California, during the Crew-5 mission. (Photo: SpaceX/NYTimes)

As it worked toward this goal, SpaceX allowed me to be in Mission Control for a couple of days in October to observe a sequence of launches, landings, dockings, and deployments.

The rocket company and its 10,000 employees soared to new heights week after week in 2022, presenting what appeared to be a parallel universe governed by precision as chaos roiled the other ventures of Elon Musk, its founder and CEO.

After buying Twitter, Musk became absorbed in efforts to overturn the social network’s content moderation rules, then temporarily suspended some journalists from the site after they reported on an account that tracks the location of his private jet. The mayhem at Twitter has spilled over into Tesla, an electric carmaker that is a key source of Musk’s extraordinary wealth.
Watching a rocket launch is a deafening, visceral experience. But Mission Control has a library like silence.
And SpaceX employees have not been spared from Musk’s gravitational pull. In November, eight former SpaceX employees filed unfair-labor-practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming they were fired illegally after writing an open letter calling Musk a “distraction and embarrassment”, and lamenting his response to a report that the company had settled a sexual harassment lawsuit against him.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft approaching the International Space Station. (Photo: NASA/NYTimes) 

Leaving earth behindBut those problems felt far away in Mission Control, where one crew member tabbed between 12 open windows on his screens. Meanwhile, at a console on the front row, Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX and known for keeping the company stable, scanned the overhead display, pointed and whispered to an employee next to her. It was time for the rocket and its astronauts to fly on a mission called Crew-5.

Watching a rocket launch is a deafening, visceral experience. But Mission Control has a librarylike silence.

Over the radio, the Crew-5 range coordinator counted down: “Ten, nine, eight …,” but he was drowned out by the SpaceX workers on the other side of the glass, shouting in full New Year’s Eve mode.

Almost in unison, the mission operations crew reached forward and turned up the volume on their headsets to hear over the racket.

On the big screen, a column of fire separated the Falcon 9 rocket from Earth. It glided upward, cheered by the people who built it. But no one stood and celebrated inside Mission Control. Nor did their focus waver as the crowd behind cheered each step in the rocket’s planned sequence. Inside the room, they studied charts and compared launch data.

Twelve minutes after lifting off, the Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft and its four astronauts detached from the rocket’s second stage, setting off at more than 27,000kph to catch up with the space station.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Crew-5 mission with four astronauts lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on October 5, 2022. (Photo: SpaceX/NYTimes)

Back on the ground at SpaceX, the work had only just begun. Over the next 31 hours, the astronauts had to arrive at and dock with the space station, and two more rockets needed to carry a bevy of satellites to orbit.

The wonder of the reverse launchReusable rockets on rapid launch cadences are now so normal that it is hard to remember how absurd the idea once seemed. In 1999, the founder of a dot-com startup called Zip2, Elon Musk, came into “some resources to do interesting things” when he sold his business for $300 million. Two years later, the same executive, Musk, then 31, increased his fortune when eBay bought PayPal, of which he was the majority shareholder.
“We have a very large company of 10,000 people — a main contractor to NASA and the Defense Department — and there is absolutely no information available on its financial health.”
Musk had aspirations to land humans on Mars. Finding American launch vehicles absurdly expensive, he established Space Exploration Technologies Corp, better known as SpaceX. The key to undercutting competition, he eventually realized, was rocket reusability. In the concept SpaceX would achieve, the rocket would fly its payload to space, then land on Earth upright — essentially a launch in reverse.

Today, Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules are the workhorses of NASA, the US Defense Department, and private spaceflight. Many SpaceX employees are animated by a fervor for Musk’s vision: They want to play a role in permanently putting humans on Mars and making humanity a “multi planetary species”, as Musk puts it. SpaceX launches and landings, once bordering on magic, have become predictable, if not monotonous. But SpaceX employees sometimes bristle at the idea that the company’s launches have become routine.

And it is not about only Mars. NASA has pinned on SpaceX its hopes for landing astronauts on the moon, as part of the Artemis program. Both efforts will rely on Starship, a reusable stainless steel spacecraft, and the Super Heavy booster.

The program to build that spacecraft is being run by Shotwell, an engineer who joined SpaceX in 2002, the year it was founded, and was promoted to president of the company in 2008, becoming responsible for executing it by running day-to-day operations and strategic partnerships. Shotwell is often credited with helping drive many of its most significant achievements. She defended Musk to the company’s employees after the sexual harassment claim emerged, and she shares Musk’s multi planetary vision.

A Starship prototype on its way to the launchpad at the rocket company’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas.(Photo: SpaceX/NYTimes)

“The advantage that SpaceX has — even over Tesla — is Gwynne Shotwell,” said Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser of The Planetary Society, an organization that advocates for space exploration. “She plays the key role as the steady and profoundly competent hand at SpaceX that keeps it winning contracts, producing as demanded, and then channeling Musk’s energy.”

For all of SpaceX’s achievements, the privately-held company’s accounting is murky to the public, said Pierre Lionnet, research and managing director of Euro space, a nonprofit devoted to studying the space industry.

“Nobody really knows anything about the financials of SpaceX,” said Lionnet. “No balance sheet or financial report is available. We have a very large company of 10,000 people — a main contractor to NASA and the Defense Department — and there is absolutely no information available on its financial health.”

In 2020, investment bank Morgan Stanley assessed the value of SpaceX at $100 billion, and its Starship rocket alone as an $11 billion business. Regular Starship flights, Morgan Stanley said, would make Starlink, SpaceX’s high-speed internet from space service, profitable.

Thousands of satellites in orbit
Seven hours after the liftoff of Crew-5, another Falcon 9 stood on a launch pad at Vandenberg Space Force Base, three hours northwest of Los Angeles and much closer to SpaceX’s headquarters. The primary Mission Control facility was still monitoring the astronauts’ journey, so a second team worked in an adjacent, much smaller Mission Control center.

The client for October 5’s second launch was SpaceX itself — the flight would carry 52 of the company’s Starlink internet satellites to orbit. SpaceX currently has 3,200 of the satellites in space, with the goal of launching about 39,000 more in the coming years.

A Starlink mission lifting off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, October 6, 2022.(Photo: SpaceX/NYTimes)

The rocket launched and its booster touched down on a ship in the Pacific. One hour later, a video stream from space showed the Starlink satellites deploying from the rocket’s upper stage. With Earth in the background, they drifted outward in a manner more like “2001: A Space Odyssey” than “Star Wars”.

When humans head to outer spaceThe afternoon of October 6, the team in the primary Mission Control monitored the Crew-5 mission that had launched 29 hours earlier. The astronauts in the Crew Dragon capsule had reached the International Space Station and were preparing to dock.

Human spaceflight is by far SpaceX’s most expensive and challenging activity.

“When you are sending people into space, you cannot err,” said William Gerstenmaier, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX. Before joining the company in 2020, he worked at NASA for four decades. “I’ve been through two tragedies in my past career, on both Challenger and Columbia. Those are devastating to me personally, and I don’t want to ever experience that again.”

When the astronauts of Crew-5 mission arrived at the space station, their Dragon capsule used laser range finders called Dragon Eyes to guide the spacecraft during docking.

October 6’s arrival went off without major hitches. The process was so slow, the operators so quiet, that except for a report of “Docking complete,” it was nearly impossible to know what had just happened or when the process was, in fact, complete.
“When you are sending people into space, you cannot err.”
Hawthorne Mission Control had managed two launches and one docking in just over a day, with one launch to go.

‘Abort’Almost 31 hours after Crew 5 launched, 24 hours after Starlink lifted off and an hour after the space station docking, the team in Mission Control was ready for yet another takeoff. SpaceX was about to set a commercial spaceflight record.

But seconds before liftoff, two mission operators, silent otherwise, began to mumble a little louder than the rest, typed and clicked, and one pointed at the screen.

“Launch abort has started.”


On screen, a button labeled “GSW” flashed red. One labeled “PROP 1” flashed yellow.

“Cryo bottle pressure,” said an operator.

“Leak — that’s my guess.”

The rocket made the decision. It was not ready.

Ten minutes later, Musk offered a report on Twitter. “Tiny helium leak (just barely triggered abort), but we take no risks with customer satellites.”

Forty-eight hours later, the rocket launched, deployed the satellites, and landed successfully. Almost routine, but not quite.

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