- SpaceX’s first engineers lived on a Pacific island to prepare the company’s earliest rocket for launch.
- In the first year that SpaceX was on the island, food shipments sometimes failed.
- One day, hungry engineers refused to work until a helicopter brought chicken and cigarettes.
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In SpaceX’s earliest days, its rocket engineers lived on a Pacific island, where they occasionally ran out of food.
On that island, called Omelek, the team was racing to build a launchpad and set up the company’s Falcon 1 rocket.
Eric Berger, the senior space editor at Ars Technica, described those early days of Elon Musk’s rocket company in his new book, “Liftoff,” published on Tuesday. Berger’s telling of SpaceX’s beginnings is packed with anecdotes that haven’t been previously reported, such as Elon Musk’s first encounter with a Pop-Tart, a rocket-launch attempt thwarted by salty ocean spray, and an island mutiny staged by hungry workers in 2005.
SpaceX engineers were living and working on Omelek, part of the Marshall Islands’ Kwajalein Atoll, because that’s the spot the company chose to escape the US Air Force. The Air Force had indefinitely delayed the company’s efforts to launch from California. But the US Army, which oversaw the atoll, was friendlier to SpaceX’s plans. Being close to the equator also made it easier to reach orbit.
But during that first year on the island, Berger wrote, “logistics were poor.” Supply deliveries were often delayed, and the workers sometimes went without food.
One day in the fall of 2005, tensions boiled over into mutiny. The employees went on strike to force an emergency supply drop and were eventually quelled with chicken wings and cigarettes.
‘We were just wild animals on the island, waiting for food’
After Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, he had to prove that his company could actually fly rockets, and do so faster and cheaper than traditional launch providers.
The need to demonstrate that quickly was in part the reason SpaceX used the islands of the Kwajalein Atoll for its rocket launches for four years.
But Bulent Altan, an engineer who worked for SpaceX at the time, told Berger that the workers there “felt like slaves out on Omelek, with all the power stripped away from us.”
On the day of the mutiny, SpaceX managers had scolded the engineers on Omelek for not sufficiently documenting changes to the rocket. Some of the workers felt that they were being pushed to work ever faster, while managers were suddenly expecting them to do “paperwork, forms, and tickets” that hadn’t been required before, Berger reported.
“We got our asses chewed out, just this huge reprimand,” Altan said.
The engineers had been anticipating the arrival of a boat with a shipment of food, beer, and cigarettes. When the vessel didn’t come, that was the last straw.
“We had been going around the clock,” Jeremy Hollman, the engineer who led the Omelek team, 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.”
Hollman called the launch director, Tim Buzza, and explained that the Omelek team members wouldn’t work until they received a supply drop with food and cigarettes. The SpaceX engineers were going on strike.
Buzza “recognized the gravity of the situation,” Berger wrote, so he called in an Army helicopter to bring cigarettes and trays of chicken wings to Omelek that night.
“We were just wild animals on the island, waiting for food,” Ed Thomas, a SpaceX technician at the time, told Berger.
At first it seemed the helicopter supply drop might fail too. The pilot refused to land, saying the tower the workers were building on the launchpad made it unsafe for his helicopter. After Buzza promised to buy him a few drinks, the pilot dropped the supplies out of the helicopter’s door.
With chicken in their stomachs, the engineers went back to work.
SpaceX attempted its first launch the following spring, but the rocket caught fire and fell into the ocean.
To improve morale, Musk booked a Zero-G flight on a 727 aircraft for about three dozen employees so they could briefly experience the weightlessness that astronauts feel.
In March 2007, SpaceX’s first rocket finally reached space. By the time the company launched its third flight, the employees on Omelek had set up a well-stocked kitchen where they took turns cooking meals. They also had a “refrigerated sea van” with unlimited drinks, Berger wrote.
“Everything was fantastic luxury, compared to the first flight, so we loved it on Omelek,” Altan said.
SpaceX no longer has any presence in the Marshall Islands. The company is testing new rocket prototypes at its facilities in Boca Chica, Texas.