SpaceX once left its engineers on an island with no food – which led to the mutiny

Susan Walsh/AP

  • SpaceX’s earliest engineers lived on a remote Pacific island preparing the company’s first rocket for launch.
  • During the first year SpaceX settled on the island, grocery deliveries were sometimes missing.
  • As a result, one day in 2005 the hungry engineers refused to work until a helicopter brought in chicken and cigarettes.

In the early days of SpaceX, rocket engineers lived on a remote Pacific island – and occasionally ran out of food there. On this island, called Omelek, the team was supposed to build a launch pad for the company’s Falcon-1 rocket.

The journalist Eric Berger, who works as space editor at “Ars Technica”, describes this early period of Elon Musk’s space company in his new book “Liftoff“That was released in the US on Tuesday.

Berger’s account of the early days of SpaceX is peppered with anecdotes that have never been reported before. Among them Elon Musk’s first encounter with the sweet American dough biscuit Pop-Tart or the rocket launch attempt that was thwarted by the salty sea spray. Last but not least, he writes about island mutinies that were initiated by hungry employees in 2005.

HarperCollins Publishers

The SpaceX engineers lived and worked on Omelek Island, which was part of the Kwajalein Atoll of the Marshall Islands. SpaceX chose this location to escape the US Air Force. This was because the Air Force had indefinitely delayed the company’s efforts to conduct the launch from California.

The US Army overseeing the atoll was more sympathetic to their plans. The proximity to the equator also made it easier to reach the orbit. During the first year on the island, “the logistics were bad,” writes Berger.

Supply deliveries were often late and the employees sometimes had nothing to eat. Then one day in the fall of 2005, tensions turned into mutiny. The engineers went on strike to force emergency supplies and were eventually immobilized with chicken wings and cigarettes.

“We were like wild animals on the island, waiting for food”

After establishing SpaceX in 2002, Musk had to prove to investors that his company could actually fly rockets – faster and cheaper than traditional space companies. Out of the need to demonstrate this as quickly as possible, SpaceX used the islands of the Kwajalein Atoll for its rocket launches for four years.

Bülent Altan, an engineer who worked for SpaceX at the time, told Berger that the employees “felt like slaves on Omelek because we were deprived of all opportunities.” On the day of the mutiny, the SpaceX managers had the engineers open Omelek scolded. They had not adequately documented changes to the missile.

Some of the island workers felt that they were being pushed to work faster and faster, while the managers also expected them to take care of “paperwork, forms and tickets”. That wasn’t one of her tasks before, reports Berger. “We got spanked, that huge lecture,” said Altan.

The engineers were expecting a ship that day with a delivery of groceries, beer and cigarettes. When the ship didn’t come, it was the drop that broke the barrel. “We worked around the clock,” said Jeremy Hollman. He was the lead engineer on the Omelek team. “At some point everyone got fed up and we decided that we had to find a way to let them know that we were part of this team too.”

SpaceX's Falcon-1 rocket will be on the launch pad of the US military's missile test site on Omelek Island on November 25, 2005.

SpaceX’s Falcon-1 rocket will be on the launch pad of the US military’s missile test site on Omelek Island on November 25, 2005.
Tom Rogers/Reuters

Hollman then called the missile chief, Tim Buzza, and explained that the members of the Omelek team would not work until they received a supply of food and cigarettes. The SpaceX engineers would go on strike. Buzza “recognized the gravity of the situation” and requested an army helicopter that brought cigarettes and chicken wings to Omelek that night. “We were like wild animals on the island waiting for food,” said Ed Thomas, a SpaceX technician.

At first it appeared that the supply helicopter might also be missing. The pilot refused to land, saying that the tower the engineers were building on the launch site made it unsafe for his helicopter. After Buzza promised to buy him a few drinks, the pilot dumped the supplies from the helicopter door. The engineers went back to work with chicken in their stomachs.

“Compared to the first start, everything was now a fantastic luxury”

The following spring, SpaceX attempted its first launch, but the rocket caught fire and fell into the sea. In order to improve morale afterwards, Musk booked a weightless flight in a Boeing 727 for around three dozen employees. They should be able to briefly experience the weightlessness that astronauts can also feel.

SpaceX’s first rocket finally reached space in March 2007. By the time the company took off on its third flight, the staff on Omelek had already set up a well-equipped kitchen in which they took turns cooking meals. In addition, they had unlimited drinks, according to Berger. “Compared to the first start, everything was now a fantastic luxury. We loved it on Omelek, ”said Altan.

Today SpaceX is no longer represented in the Marshall Islands. The company is currently testing new prototype missiles at its Boca Chica, Texas facility.

This article was translated from English and edited by Ilona Tomić. You read the original here.

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SpaceX once left its engineers on an island with no food – which led to the mutiny