Engineer Zach Dunn and Elon Musk in 2020

An Engineer risked his life to build SpaceX

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In 2008, SpaceX was facing bankruptcy, the budget allowed for one last attempt to launch Flacon 1. However, the rocket was about to explode mid-air. That’s when Engineer Zach Dunn crawled into a rocket to save SpaceX.

SpaceX vs Bankruptcy

 Long before SpaceX was a pioneering company in renewable rockets, the company almost collapsed aboard a C-17 jet above Hawaii in 2008.

SpaceX was struggling to launch a single rocket after several failed attempts. This launch was the company’s last attempt: If this launch failed, SpaceX would go bankrupt.

The plan for the final launch included the efforts of two dozen engineers transporting the Falcon 1 rocket inside an Air Force jet. Then, a barge would carry it to the company’s launch facilities in the Marshall Islands for one more launch attempt. 

LIFTOFF cover eric berger book
HarperCollins Publishers

But as the jet descended ahead of landing, The rocket was imploding because of a pressure imbalance. So Zach Dunn, one of SpaceX’s newest engineers at the time, crawled into its belly. His quick fix saved the company — and possibly his own life.

Dunn took the risk, and SpaceX finally reached the orbit using the very rocket that nearly crumpled in midair.

Engineers face a Life or Death Situation

Elon Musk. Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images

Musk gave his engineers six weeks for the last-ditch effort. When they were ready to transport the Falcon 1 rocket from California to the Marshall Islands, the engineers piled into the C-17 jet at Los Angeles International Airport. 

But on the descent, loud pops and pings rang through the cargo area as dents appeared along the rocket’s body. The engineers realized its liquid-oxygen fuel tank was not venting enough air to keep up with the changes in pressure as the jet descended.

As the pressure in the jet’s cargo bay increased relative to the pressure inside the rocket’s fuel tank, the Falcon 1 started to crumple.

“The first thought I had was that this thing is going to implode and rebound,” Anne Chinnery, who was managing SpaceX launch operations at the time. “And it would kill all of us who were sitting next to the rocket in the airplane jump seats. So I hopped up and told everybody to get to the front of the rocket.”

Dunn, who’d joined SpaceX as an intern in 2006 and quickly ascended to become a propulsion engineer, was about to save the rocket, its engineers and SpaceX itself.

Desperate Times call for Desperate Measures

Zach Dunn, one of the engineers on board, asked the jet pilots to fly the plane higher to reach a lower air pressure. But, the pilots didn’t have enough fuel and only had one chance to circle the base once before landing. However, this bought the crew 10 minutes.

The engineers opened the shrink wrap enveloping the rocket to find the C-17’s onboard tool kit.

Dunn asked Mike Sheehan to hold his ankles and warn him out if the rocket started exploding. Dunn stepped into the Falcon 1’s interstage that propels the rocket through air, so the smaller section continues into orbit.

Dunn crawled toward the liquid-oxygen tank and reached a large pressurization line to the fuel tank. The next step saved the day.

Dunn twisted the line open with a wrench and let a hiss of air flow in. Then, he called for Sheehan to help him out.

The engineers went back to their seats, and the rocket reinflated before them as the jet successfully descended to Hawaii.

zachary dunn spacex engineer relativity space factory vp
Zach Dunn, a former senior engineer at SpaceX, now works for the 3D-printed rocket startup Relativity Space. Zachary Dunn/Relativity Space

SpaceX Proved Itself, The Dream Continues 

 The Falcon 1 landed safely, making it the first ever successful SpaceX launch. However, the rocket was damaged from its brush with implosion. 

The SpaceX team dismantled, repaired and then reassembled the rocket in only one week.

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The Falcon 1 rocket. SpaceX

The Falcon 1 roared, hauled itself off the ground, and soared into orbit.

In the control room, the team members went absolutely wild. It was righteous.

SpaceX had proved its rockets could get off the planet. Afterward, the company managed to secure itself enough contracts to keep funding flowingly and save the company.

Dunn stayed at SpaceX for another decade, eventually becoming senior vice president of production and launch. Last year, he left SpaceX to oversee manufacturing at Relativity Space, a startup that hopes to automate the rocket-production process with 3D printing.

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