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Book recounts SpaceX team’s effort to rescue struggling Dragon

March 17, 2018

What happens when, after a bold bet by the White House on your success, you’ve launched a spacecraft that begins to malfunction? That’s the situation a SpaceX team faced on March 1, 2013, within minutes of launching its Dragon, when several valves became stuck.

“Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator, was beside herself,” writes Christian Davenport in The Washington Post. “The Obama administration had placed a bold bet on Elon Musk’s SpaceX, awarding it hundreds of millions of dollars on contracts to fly crew—not just cargo—to the International Space Station, despite the critics who said it was foolish to trust a private outfit with such a complicated endeavor.”

The scrappy SpaceX team got to work on the problem as senior NASA officials Bill Gerstenmaier and Michael Suffredini looked on, prepared to offer advice. The SpaceX team settled on establishing a pressure differential across the stuck valves that “…might just deliver the kick needed to jar them open,” Davenport writes. With the help of the Air Force, which provided a satellite uplink to transmit new code to the Dragon, the valves were unstuck, and the mission succeeded.

“The SpaceX mind-set had always been about adapting quickly, and it really shined that day,” commented Suffredini, as quoted by Davenport. “They had really an in-depth understanding of that system and the software, and that’s one of the secrets of their success. They probably had the kid in there who wrote the original code.”

Davenport’s article is adapted from his forthcoming book The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. Another recent adaptation of the book describes Paul Allen’s effort to build the world’s largest airplane. Amazon is making the book available electronically on March 20.

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