SpaceX engineers staged 2005 mutiny after being left without food while working on Pacific island


SpaceX engineers once staged a mutiny after they were left without food and cigarettes while working ‘like slaves’ to build a launch pad on an island in the Pacific during the company’s early years, according to a new book.

The strike, which was staged in 2005, took place as SpaceX’s rocket engineers were racing to construct a launch site on Omelek, in the Marshall Islands, for the company’s Falcon 1 rocket.

The engineers were living and working on Omelek in a bid to escape the US Air Force, which had indefinitely delayed the SpaceX’s efforts to launch rockets from California. But the US Army, which oversaw Omelek, was said to be more encouraging of the company’s plans and permitted them to operate on the atoll.

However, as detailed space journalist Eric Berger’s new book ‘Liftoff’, during the first year on the island ‘logistics were poor’, with deliveries of supplies often delayed and workers sometimes having to forgo meals.

But one day in the fall of 2005, tensions boiled over into rebellion when a boat carrying food, beer and cigarettes failed to arrive. 

This, compounded by a verbal lashing from SpaceX managers earlier that day, prompted the engineers to go on strike.

‘We had been going around the clock,’ lead engineer of the Omelek team, Jeremy Hollman, told Berger. ‘At some point everybody got fed up and decided that we needed to find a way to let them know that we were a part of this team as well.’

The strike, which was staged in 2005, took place as SpaceX’s rocket engineers were racing to construct a launch site on Omelek, in the Marshall Islands, for the company’s Falcon 1 rocket (seen above)

Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, seeking to build and launch rockets far quicker and more cheaply than traditional launch providers

Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, seeking to build and launch rockets far quicker and more cheaply than traditional launch providers

When Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, he set out to prove his company could, firstly actually fly rockets, but also do so far quicker and more cheaply than traditional launch providers.

Musk’s need to demonstrate that quickly was part of the reason he based his engineers out of the Marshall Islands for four years, Business Insider reported.

However, former SpaceX engineer Bulent Altan told Berger the workers ‘felt like slaves out on Omelek, with all the power stripped away from us.’

Hours before the mutiny would unfold, SpaceX managers had scolded the engineers on Omelek for failing to sufficiently document changes to the rocket.

Some workers recalled for Berger how they felt like they were being forced to work even faster, while management were suddenly requiring them to do paperwork – something that hadn’t been asked of them previously.

‘We got our a**es chewed out, just this huge reprimand,’ Altan remembered.

What kept them going, Altan said, was the anticipated arrival of a boat carrying a shipment of food, beer and cigarettes later that day.

But the vessel failed to arrive and the final straw was broken: the engineers said they would work no longer.

Former SpaceX engineer Bulent Altan (above on the island) told Berger the workers 'felt like slaves out on Omelek, with all the power stripped away from us'

Former SpaceX engineer Bulent Altan (above on the island) told Berger the workers ‘felt like slaves out on Omelek, with all the power stripped away from us’

A group of engineers, including Tom Mueller (far right), who oversaw the design, testing an construction of SpaceX's engines are pictured above on the island in an unadated photo

A group of engineers, including Tom Mueller (far right), who oversaw the design, testing an construction of SpaceX’s engines are pictured above on the island in an unadated photo

The Falcon 1 rocket built by SpaceX of El Segundo sits on the launch pad awaiting liftoff at the U.S. Military's Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site on Omelek Island, near Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean's Marshall Islands, November 25, 2005

SpaceX engineers make final preparations on the Falcon 1 rocket at the U.S. Military's Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site on Omelek Island, near Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean's Marshall Islands, November 25, 2005

The Falcon 1 rocket built by SpaceX of El Segundo sits on the launch pad awaiting liftoff at the U.S. Military’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site on Omelek Island, near Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean’s Marshall Islands, November 25, 2005

According to Berger, Tim Buzza, the company’s launch director, ‘recognized the gravity of the situation’ after receiving a call from a disgruntled Hollman.

Seeking to mend the deeply fractured relations between the engineers and management, he arranged for an Army helicopter to drop a supply of cigarette and chicken wings to Omelek later that night.

‘We were just wild animals on the island, waiting for food,’ SpaceX technician Ed Thomas told Berger.

Berger's book, Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, hit shelves on Tuesday

Berger’s book, Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, hit shelves on Tuesday

Incredibly, the helicopter supply drop almost failed to arrive too. 

The pilot reportedly refused to land, saying the tower the workers were building on the launchpad made it unsafe for his helicopter.

A desperate Buzza pleaded with the pilot, and he finally agreed to make the drop after Buzza promised to buy him a few drinks. 

The engineers wafted down the chicken wings, enjoyed their beers and cigarettes and then agreed to go back to work. 

SpaceX attempted its first launch the following spring, but the rocket caught fire and plummeted into the ocean.

In attempt to boost moral, Musk booked a Zero-G flight on a 727 aircraft for about three dozen employees so they could feel the weightlessness that astronauts experience.

SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket finally reached orbit in September 2008. By that time, conditions on Omelek had vastly improved and they no longer needed to rely on supply deliveries. 

The engineers could cook their own food in their kitchen and had a ‘refrigerated sea van’ with unlimited drinks, according to Berger. 

‘Everything was fantastic luxury, compared to the first flight, so we loved it on Omelek,’ Altan said. 

More than a decade-and-a-half on, SpaceX no longer has any presence in the Marshall Islands. It now tests its new rocket prototypes at its base in Boca Chica, Texas.

SpaceX engineers are seen rolling the Falcon 1 out to the launch site ahead of its third test

SpaceX engineers are seen rolling the Falcon 1 out to the launch site ahead of its third test

Elon Musk, the co-founder of SpaceX, watches the liftoff of Falcon 1 rocket from Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll located 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, September, 29, 2008

Elon Musk, the co-founder of SpaceX, watches the liftoff of Falcon 1 rocket from Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll located 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, September, 29, 2008

SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket finally reached space in September 2008. By that time, conditions on Omelek had vastly improved and they no longer needed to rely on supply deliveries

SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket finally reached space in September 2008. By that time, conditions on Omelek had vastly improved and they no longer needed to rely on supply deliveries

Eric Berger (above) said the key message of his book is 'the world's most interesting space company almost didn't exist, and if it hadn't been for these crazy adventurers — for a small group of engineers — SpaceX would not exist.'

Eric Berger shown in an image for NASA

Eric Berger (above) said the key message of his book is ‘the world’s most interesting space company almost didn’t exist, and if it hadn’t been for these crazy adventurers — for a small group of engineers — SpaceX would not exist.’

Berger’s book, Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, hit shelves on Tuesday. 

It’s packed with never previously reported anecdotes, including Elon Musk’s first encounter with a Pop-Tart.

Speaking to Space.com, Berger said: ‘I think the key message [of the book] is the world’s most interesting space company almost didn’t exist, and if it hadn’t been for these crazy adventurers — for a small group of engineers — SpaceX would not exist.

‘You wouldn’t see drone ship landings on the Atlantic Ocean, or the Falcon Heavy launches, or Crew Dragon missions to the International Space Station. SpaceX is a great American success story and it was fun to go back and find out how it happened.’

Earlier this week, SpaceX’s Starship Serial Number 10 (SN10) exploded roughly 10 minutes after landing on the launch pad following its first high altitude test flight.

The failure occurred after SpaceX declared it a success, as SN10 flew, flipped and landed without crashing and burning like the previous prototypes SN8 and SN9.

‘Third time’s a charm, as the saying goes,’ SpaceX principal integration engineer John Insprucker said during SpaceX’s livestream Wednesday.

‘We’ve had a successful soft touchdown on the landing pad that’s capping a beautiful test flight of Starship 10.’

The cause of the explosion has not yet been revealed, but Musk has referred to such events as ‘RUD,’ or Rapid Unplanned Disassembly.

Some sources speculate the landing legs attached to the base did not deploy, which sent the rocket toppling over, and crushed pipes holding methane.

Elsewhere this week, Musk revealed plans to create a dog-friendly futuristic metropolis in Texas called Starbase that includes SpaceX’s testing facility in Boca Chica. 



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