SpaceX’s Launch Control Room: 3 Rocket Missions in 31 Hours

Dec. 30: This article was updated to include a 61st launch that occurred after it was published.

HAWTHORNE, Calif. — Clouds billowed from the Falcon 9 rocket, visible on the large screen looming above us. The vehicle was across the country at a NASA launch site in Florida, and engineers there were talking to engineers here, at SpaceX mission control. “Stage 1 LOX load is complete,” a controller said, audible to people wearing headsets at 24 different consoles. It was T-minus 2 minutes and counting before liftoff on Wednesday, Oct. 5, and the rocket was fueled with liquid oxygen propellant. The mission’s operators were ready to send four astronauts to the International Space Station.

Journalists typically are not allowed in the room where SpaceX guides its rockets to space and back to Earth. The company has been operating such missions with increasing frequency; in 2022, SpaceX has launched its Falcon 9 rockets 61 times, and sometimes multiple rockets the same day or on consecutive days. It is a cadence that is among the engineering feats that have transformed an industry and made SpaceX a central player in American spaceflight. And, the company was attempting something it had never done: launching three missions in less than 31 hours.

As it worked toward this goal, SpaceX allowed me to be in mission control for a couple of days in October to observe a sequence of launches, landings, dockings and deployments.

The rocket company and its 10,000 employees soared to new heights week after week in 2022, presenting what appeared to be a parallel universe governed by precision as chaos roiled the other ventures of Elon Musk, its founder and chief executive.

After buying Twitter, Mr. Musk became absorbed in efforts to overturn the social network’s content moderation rules, then temporarily suspended some journalists from the site after they reported on an account that tracks the location of his private jet. The mayhem at Twitter has spilled over into Tesla, the electric carmaker that is a key source of Mr. Musk’s extraordinary wealth, and which lost a considerable portion of its valuation since the Twitter acquisition.

And SpaceX employees have not been spared from Mr. Musk’s gravitational pull. In November, eight former SpaceX employees filed unfair-labor-practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming they were fired illegally after writing an open letter calling Mr. Musk a “distraction and embarrassment,” and lamenting his response to a report that the company had settled a sexual harassment lawsuit against him.

But those problems felt far away in mission control, where one crew member tabbed between 12 open windows on his screens. Meanwhile, at a console on the front row, Gwynne Shotwell, the president and chief operating officer of SpaceX known for keeping the company stable, scanned the overhead display, pointed and whispered to an employee next to her. It was time for the rocket and its astronauts to fly on a mission called Crew-5.

Watching a rocket launch is a deafening, visceral experience. But mission control has a library-like silence. The room itself is unpleasantly warm. At every triple-monitor workstation, members of the operations team typed and clicked. The occasional coffee cup, bottled water, hand sanitizer and candy packet littered the consoles, but overall the tables were sterile. There were no thick binders that once characterized NASA mission control to be found, nor were there the coats and ties of the Apollo era. Instead, hoodies, company T-shirts and Chuck Taylors were the corporate uniform.

The room’s back and left walls are made of glass, revealing the sweep of the company’s shop floor where tradesmen, machinists and aerospace engineers build, among other things, a rocket engine every two days. But two minutes before launch, the floor seemed vacant. Hundreds of workers were gathered behind the glass, peering in. The interior of mission control was monastic and methodical, but just outside it the crowd chattered, laughed and swayed, creating a skittish atmosphere of nervous energy.

Over the radio, the Crew-5 range coordinator counted down. “Ten, nine, eight …” but he was drowned out by the SpaceX workers on the other side of the glass, shouting in full New Year’s Eve mode.

Almost in unison, the mission operations crew reached forward and turned up the volume on their headsets to hear over the racket.

On the big screen, a column of fire separated the Falcon 9 rocket from planet Earth. It glided upward, cheered by the people who built it. But no one stood and celebrated inside mission control. Nor did their focus waver as the crowd behind cheered each step in the rocket’s planned sequence. Inside the room, they studied charts and compared launch data.

Twelve minutes after lifting off, the Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft and its four astronauts detached from the rocket’s second stage, setting off at more than 27,000 kilometers per hour to catch up with the space station.

The mission’s launch director, Mark Soltys, came on the voice network and addressed the astronauts, slyly referencing an internet meme tied to the movie “Mean Girls.”

“On behalf of the entire launch and recovery team, it was an honor and a pleasure to be part of this mission with you,” he said. “And while Oct. 3 may always belong to the ‘Mean Girls,’ Oct. 5 will forever belong to Crew-5. Godspeed Endurance. Cheers.”

Nicole Aunapu Mann, a NASA astronaut and the mission’s commander, responded, “Awesome, thank you so much to the Falcon team. That was a smooth ride up here. You’ve got three rookies that are pretty happy to be floating in space right now.”

Back on the ground at SpaceX, the work had only just begun. Over the next 31 hours, the astronauts had to arrive at and dock with the space station, and two more rockets needed to carry a bevy of satellites to orbit. It would be a glimpse of what a truly spacefaring future for humankind could look like, in which mission control would be less like a single-event-driven facility and more like an air traffic control tower.

Reusable rockets on rapid launch cadences are now so normal that it is hard to remember how absurd the idea once seemed. In 1999, the founder of a dot-com start-up called Zip2, Elon Musk, came into “some resources to do interesting things” when he sold his business for $300 million. Two years later, the same executive, Mr. Musk, then 31, increased his fortune when eBay bought PayPal, of which he was the majority shareholder.

Mr. Musk had aspirations to land humans on Mars. Finding American launch vehicles absurdly expensive, he established Space Exploration Technologies Corp, better known as SpaceX. The key to undercutting competition, he eventually realized, was rocket reusability. In the concept SpaceX would achieve, the rocket would fly its payload to space, then land on Earth upright — essentially a launch in reverse.

By 2012, SpaceX had become the first company to dock a private cargo spacecraft with the International Space Station. Then, in 2015, it landed a Falcon 9 booster for the first time. In 2020, the company flew two astronauts to the space station and returned NASA to human spaceflight for the first time in nine years.

Today, Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules are the workhorses of NASA, the Defense Department and private spaceflight. Many SpaceX employees are animated by a fervor for Mr. Musk’s vision: They want to play a role in permanently putting humans on Mars and making humanity a “multiplanetary species,” as Mr. Musk puts it. SpaceX launches and landings, once bordering on magic, have become predictable, if not monotonous. But SpaceX employees sometimes bristle at the idea that the company’s launches have become routine.

“This is not routine,” said Benjamin Reed, the senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX. “Years lead up to our launches, and especially these big NASA launches.”

He said that before humanity can colonize Mars, spaceflight must become as normal as air travel. “But you never want your airplane pilot, your control tower people, to say, ‘Oh, this is just routine.’”

Mars will require the company to launch “multiple times a day, every day, all the time,” Mr. Reed said. “What people have to understand is that it takes a lot to get there, and we’re not anywhere close yet.”

It’s not only about Mars. NASA has pinned on SpaceX its hopes for landing astronauts on the moon, as part of the Artemis program. Both efforts will rely on Starship, a reusable stainless steel spacecraft, and the Super Heavy booster.

The program to build that spacecraft is being run by Ms. Shotwell, an engineer who joined SpaceX in 2002, the year it was founded, and was promoted to president of the company in 2008, becoming responsible for executing it by running day-to-day operations and strategic partnerships. Ms. Shotwell is often credited with helping drive many of its most significant achievements. She defended Mr. Musk to the company’s employees after the sexual harassment claim emerged, and shares Mr. Musk’s multiplanetary vision.

“The advantage that SpaceX has — even over Tesla — is Gwynne Shotwell,” said Casey Dreier, the senior space policy adviser of the Planetary Society, an organization that advocates for space exploration. “She plays the key role as the steady and profoundly competent hand at SpaceX that keeps it winning contracts, producing as demanded and then channeling Musk’s energy.”

Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator of NASA and author of the book “Escaping Gravity,” echoes that assessment. “She has not only been leading SpaceX to unimaginable success, but she has to balance that while managing someone who seems to keep trying to make it more difficult,” she said.

Mr. Musk inserts himself into the company’s operations, including an email he sent to employees the day after Thanksgiving in 2021 warning that SpaceX faced “genuine risk of bankruptcy if we cannot achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year.” (The rocket did not fly in 2022, and its first orbital test is expected in 2023.) In that email Mr. Musk called production of its engines “a disaster.”

Employees of SpaceX and Mr. Musk’s other companies also contend with his polarizing actions and statements. Even before his messy purchase of Twitter, he has had a penchant for public spats with elected officials; made statements about U.S. foreign policy, including the role it should play in the war in Ukraine; settled fraud charges with the Securities and Exchange Commission; the list goes on.

Mr. Dreier said relying on entrepreneurs like Mr. Musk introduces a measure of instability into American spaceflight and risks dragging NASA into the fray. High-profile corporate executives are going to personify space endeavors in a way that no national agency has, he said: “This was all previously the domain of a kind of a faceless bureaucrat.”

For NASA, however, there is little alternative to SpaceX right now.

“We’re actually in this surprising, quiet chokepoint where SpaceX is, functionally, the only game in town,” Mr. Dreier said. With the company’s dominance in global space launch, he added that in this part of his business empire, Mr. Musk has achieved some freedom to express himself without fear of reprisal. “Because what are they going to do?” he asks of NASA.

For all of SpaceX’s achievements, the privately held company’s accounting is murky to the public, said Pierre Lionnet, the research and managing director of Eurospace, a nonprofit devoted to studying the space industry.

“Nobody really knows anything about the financials of SpaceX,” said Mr. Lionnet. “No balance sheet or financial report is available. We have a very large company of 10,000 people — a main contractor to NASA and the Defense Department — and there is absolutely no information available on its financial health.”

In 2020, the investment bank Morgan Stanley assessed the value of SpaceX at $100 billion, and its Starship rocket alone as an $11 billion business. Regular Starship flights, Morgan Stanley said, would make Starlink, SpaceX’s high-speed internet from space service, profitable. By 2030, the bank forecast Starship would be launching 10,000 tons of payloads into orbit per year. Mr. Lionnet said that for the math to work, by 2040, Starship would have to launch 46,000 tons. This is the equivalent of launching 100 complete International Space Stations a year.

The implicit assumption, he said, is that if the price of launch drops a lot, “you will significantly increase the demand.” But, he asks, “What could be the use of all that mass?”

He added that there is one case where the numbers do work for SpaceX.

“It may be that, at a basic level, the goal of SpaceX is not to make profit, but rather, to go to Mars,” Mr. Lionnet said. “If you buy into that, nothing else really means anything. And whenever Musk comes for money, he always finds people to give it to him.”

Seven hours after the liftoff of Crew-5, another Falcon 9 stood on a launchpad at Vandenberg Space Force Base, three hours northwest of Los Angeles and much closer to SpaceX’s headquarters. The primary mission control facility was still monitoring the astronauts’ journey, so a second team worked in an adjacent, much smaller mission control center.

The client for Wednesday’s second launch was SpaceX itself — the flight would carry 52 of the company’s Starlink internet satellites to orbit. SpaceX currently has 3,200 of the satellites in space, with the goal of launching about 39,000 more in the coming years.

Behind a veil of fog at the launch site stood a rocket that had flown 13 times, and it was a go for launch.

At T-minus 4 minutes, Ms. Shotwell slipped into the room, taking a seat at a console on the front row.

Outside, another crowd had gathered. During the final countdown, again, the room remained silent while the gathered SpaceX workers on the shop floor marked the final five, four, three, two…

The rocket launched and its booster touched down on a ship in the Pacific. One hour later, a video stream from space showed the Starlink satellites deploying from the rocket’s upper stage. With Earth in the background, they drifted outward in a manner more like “2001: A Space Odyssey” than “Star Wars.”

More than half of all SpaceX launches in 2022 carried Starlink satellites. By flying its own cargo 30 times in a year on rockets it reuses, the company’s engineers can optimize the launch vehicles.

“We’re still making changes to the rocket that improve performance. And we’re at the point now where we can put almost 17 metric tons into orbit and recover the booster,” said Jon Edwards, the vice president of Falcon launches. “That’s a lot.”

So far, the fastest SpaceX has recovered and reused a booster for launch is 21 days. The most flown booster has launched 15 times, with further launches planned.

“Honestly, a new rocket, in my opinion — and I think most people have come around to this — is scarier to fly than a fight-proven rocket,” Mr. Edwards said. Although new rockets are heavily tested before their first flight, he says that “nothing compares to a flight test.”

The afternoon of the next day, on Thursday, the team in the primary mission control monitored the Crew-5 mission that had launched 29 hours earlier. The astronauts in the Crew Dragon capsule had reached the International Space Station and were preparing to dock.

Human spaceflight is by far SpaceX’s most expensive and challenging activity.

“When you are sending people into space, you cannot err,” said William Gerstenmaier, the vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX. Before joining the company in 2020, he worked at NASA for four decades. “I’ve been through two tragedies in my past career, on both Challenger and Columbia. Those are devastating to me personally, and I don’t want to ever experience that again.”

There is a hierarchy in mission control. For NASA-funded missions to the space station, a team in California, not NASA, owns and operates the capsule during flight. There is one launch director for Falcon 9 and four mission directors for supporting round-the-clock operations once Dragon is in orbit.

The mission director oversees a hierarchy of systems for both the rocket and spacecraft. Reporting to each system lead are specialists for each subsystem. They are constantly plotting data over that which previous missions reported. Each reports anomalies on voice loops to their system leader or the mission director, who will then discuss whether action is warranted.

Concurrently, mission operations members communicate across corporate chat software. Each specialist on a console has a back-room chat with their hardware team in another part of SpaceX headquarters.

SpaceX spends years training engineers to work in mission control.

“Not just anyone can do this,” said Jessica Jensen, a vice president at SpaceX who helped to design the mission control processes. “You enter into our program, you say what type of role you want, and there are materials you have to study on your own and quizzes you have to take.”

Instructors evaluate would-be operators in simulations using the actual mission control room. Technical accuracy and success is not enough; temperament is also assessed.

When the astronauts of Crew-5 mission arrived at the space station, their Dragon capsule used laser range finders called Dragon Eyes to guide the spacecraft during docking.

That Thursday’s arrival went off without major hitches. The process was so slow, the operators so quiet, that except for a report of “Docking complete,” it was nearly impossible to know what had just happened or when the process was, in fact, complete.

Hawthorne mission control had managed two launches and one docking in just over a day, with one launch to go.

Almost 31 hours after Crew 5 launched, 24 hours after Starlink lifted off and an hour after the space station docking, the team in mission control was ready for yet another takeoff. SpaceX was about to set a commercial spaceflight record.

A crowd gathered outside mission control once again. Two TV and radio broadcast satellites from the company Intelsat were mounted atop the rocket. Hawthorne’s primary mission control remained focused on the astronauts. The third launch would thus be run from the alternate mission control space.

“Stage 1 LOX load is complete,” came the familiar words at T-minus 3 minutes. Ms. Shotwell had by now taken her customary front row spot. She whispered a greeting to Jared Metter, the director of flight reliability, and pulled on her headset.

I looked around the room. Watching this third launch attempt, it all felt so precise, so predictable. Onscreen, all the familiar graphs and grids. It was, indeed, like watching planes take off at an airport. On a deeper level, it felt like the future. It was starting to feel routine.

“Stage 2 LOX load complete,” said the same engineer a minute later.

A member of the mission operations crew updated the main screen, adding multiple views of the rocket, the landing pad — the usual.

“Falcon is in start-up.” T-minus 1 minute and counting.

Fifteen seconds later, “Go for launch.”

Then, seconds before liftoff, two mission operators, silent otherwise, began to mumble a little louder than the rest, typed and clicked, and one pointed at the screen.

“Launch abort has started.”


Onscreen, a button labeled “GSW” flashed red. One labeled “PROP 1” flashed yellow.

“Cryo bottle pressure,” said an operator.

“Leak — that’s my guess.”

The conversation was louder now. Operators toggled between voice networks, click, click, clicked their mice and typed into their chat windows.

The rocket made the decision. It wasn’t ready. The Intelsat satellites would not launch today.

Across the room, Ms. Shotwell removed her headset. She pushed away from her desk, and stood.

“It would have been super cool,” she said to Mr. Metter. “So cool.”

Ten minutes later, Mr. Musk offered a report on Twitter. “Tiny helium leak (just barely triggered abort), but we take no risks with customer satellites.”

Forty-eight hours later, the rocket launched, deployed the satellites and landed successfully. Almost routine, but not quite.

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