In my lifetime, I have witnessed what I thought may be the entire life cycle of the era of manned flight in the USA; from the challenge of Russia’s Sputnik in 1957, when I was 11 years old, to the ROAR of the last Space Shuttle launch in 2011. Oh, brother. Was I wrong.
Before the dust had settled after the last Space Shuttle launch, private companies eager to take up where the government seemed faltering and uncertain emerged to eagerly fill the void. Among these, the wunderkind of this new generation, Elon Musk, the creator of Paypal (an innovative way of purchasing nearly anything in the world), founder of Tesla Motors (the electric car completely redesigned) and pioneer of the reusable space craft with multiple capabilities. Who would not leap at the opportunity to see and hear this remarkable man?
That very opportunity came my way on May 29, 2014, when invitations were extended to a limited number of media outlets to come witness the unveiling of the next generation of SpaceX’s resupply vehicles to the ISS (International Space Station) – the Dragon V-2 – which was to be introduced by Elon Musk himself.
Came the day, we all parked in the lot located across from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California and walked across the street to the main entrance be checked in by a well-prepared and courteous team of coordinators who checked the required two forms of id and matched our names to their lists. We were provided a separate badge on a lanyard and a ’Group Number’ designation to assure each of us of an opportunity to enter the vehicle. Security precautions were in effect and all camera boxes & bags were inspected as would be done at concert halls and sports venues. There were no “pat-downs” and metal detectors were nowhere in sight.
We 50-60 members of the media were ushered into the building at the proper time through a brightly lighted white lobby, skimmed past an open hallway lined with low-walled grey cubicles, through a doorway and into a darkened room already filled with employees and invited guests.
We were placed front and center within 25 feet of the veiled Dragon V-2 capsule. Videographers, reporters and still photographers all quickly positioned themselves and set up within 15 minutes while we were all being entertained by programming detailing the development of the Dragon and emanating from the two large video screens located left and right of the stage upon which rested the fully-shrouded vehicle.
All was in readiness with people in place in a space adjacent to the company cafeteria and coffee bar. As we faced the stage and the veiled vehicle, the entire space was mood-lighted to the max with undulating blue light complemented by subtle space-age music. To our left was a balcony area filled five or six people deep with employees, fronting the open cafeteria space. Behind us more employees and guests and to the right of us a two-story glass wall enclosing a room filled with 30 or more computers on desks, classroom style, each sporting the white SpaceX logo on its monitor.
Behind the stage area, one could see the soft pearl-gray factory space on two separate floor areas to the left and the right. Photography of the factory areas was not permitted but I must say the personnel were not overly guarding of it; but then again, there wasn’t much we could see from our vantage point. Our eyes were filled with the shrouded Dragon V-2 in her sexy blue lighting.
Then, off to the right of the stage, with little fanfare strides the man himself – Elon Musk – to cheers and enthusiastic applause from everyone in the room. He takes the microphone, makes a few words of introduction and gets right to the unveiling…counting down 3, 2, 1. With a burst of light and a puff of mist – the shroud drops and there she is – the Dragon V-2. She is a noticeably larger version of the V-1, a pristine white vehicle resembling a lunar lander, and sleeker and simpler in appearance than her predecessor.
Stairs are rolled up to the vehicle and Elon steps up to open the hatchway and climbs in. SpaceX cameras follow his every move and word as he describes its features and capabilities from one of the reclined seats inside – seating for a crew of up to seven in this configuration, with drop-down controls that open to a multi-screen instrument display.
It was thrilling to watch this one-man show as he described the V-2’s range of capabilities from crew taxi to resupply ship with the emphasis on reuseability. Even the usual ‘disposable’ launch escape system is reusable and uses the same fuel as the landing thrusters. Elon clearly feels that being limited to an ocean splashdown should be a thing of the past. He is fully knowledgeable and conversant with every technical aspect of the vehicle. He believes that the vehicle should have the ability to land with the precision of a helicopter almost anywhere and have a very short turnaround time to the next launch. Other components should also have similar capabilities, such as a booster which can, when spent, land itself wherever it is directed to.
As Elon exits the vehicle, the groups begin to line up to climb into the crew compartment, as promised, to experience the environment for ourselves. It was a thrill.
As groups took their turn examining the Dragon crew quarters, Elon moved to the edge of the stage and for 45 minutes it was an “all you can eat” feast of sound-bytes from Elon Musk, the pioneering entrepreneur in the realm of road and space vehicles, among other related pursuits.
To be within 15 feet of his energy field is magnetic and exciting as is listening to this man who thinks “outside the box”. The pensive and elusive Elon Musk became the effusive Elon Musk that night, right before our eyes as he shared his many dreams and forward vision. He is made of the same energy and stardust that comprised Steve Jobs and Bill Gates…another visionary with a genius for putting people and technologies together and moving mankind along to other levels of accomplishment.