Thursday, June 12, 2014

Benny and the Jets: How I Ended Up Inside Elon Musk's Latest Spacecraft

At a little past 7:30, just as the light of the day was beginning to fade, I walked up to the tables outside the Newseum in Washington, DC. House music thumped from inside the tents erected around the door, and through their sides, billowing in the hot humid wind, I could see about a hundred people in suits and dresses, champagne in hand. It was the unveiling of the Dragon V2, SpaceX's new 2-in-1 landing and escape pod.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft (first version) grappled by a robotic arm on the International Space Station.
The Dragon Version 2 prototype was on public display in Washington, DC earlier this week.
Image Credit: NASA/ISS

"Hi, I think I'm on the list — I should have just been added." I said to the man at the table, trying to mask my nerves and the flush in my face. I had practically sprinted there in full suit and tie.


I gave it, mentioning that I had just run into my friend an hour ago and been invited along. This was a bit of an exaggeration; I had, in fact, just met Benny, but he had invited me nonetheless. That made him the best friend I'd met so far in this city. The attendant ruffled through a few sheets of paper, first on a clipboard that said VIP at the top, then one that said Press.

"Yeah, not seeing you. Who did you say your friend was?"

"errr...Benny." I replied, saying a silent prayer to whatever gods look after coattail-riders and hangers-on. Those gods are popular in Washington, and must keep close watch over their supplicants here; the man's face lit up.

"Oh, Benny! Sure, yeah. Let me get you a tag." He wrote my name down, handed me one of the VIP badges littering the table between us, and pointed me inside. I stepped through the entrance to the tent, and was greeted by a welcome blast of cool air from the portable climate control towers in the corner of the room. Waiters in black bustled back and forth with plates of hors d'oeuvres, while televisions lining the walls ran graphic simulations of Dragon V2's docking and landing procedures. Christ, I was at a SpaceX party.

My eyes were immediately drawn to the Dragon, as I'm sure was the intent. The capsule towered over the crowd, bearing a striking resemblance to a giant egg, squashed at one end. Three fin-like white protrusions housed the module's SuperDraco thrusters, giving way below to the black heat-shielding that would prevent the powerful engines from incinerating the sides of the capsule. These were the defining feature of the Dragon V2, allowing the incredible precision of the landings being depicted on the wall displays.

Standing outside the Dragon V2 prototype at the Newseum on June 10, 2014.

The V2 was designed to be reusable and multi-purpose, unlike the Command Module of the Apollo space program, which used parachutes to slow the capsule's descent after re-entry. Since parachutes rely on air resistance and drag to reduce the terminal velocity of an object, landing on planets with little or no atmosphere requires a propulsion-based mechanism (like on Apollo's Lunar Excursion Module). By combining the extraterrestrial landing module and the return capsule into one, the Dragon V2 allows for lighter overall payloads and helicopter-like precision landings on the trip home, rather than the nerve-rattling splashdowns of old.

A woman with an iPad in her hands stood at the base of the stairway leading up into the open door of the capsule, taking names. I asked how long of a wait it was, and when she replied "a very long time", I asked her to put me down anyway. I was thrilled just to be on the list. I walked through the party, found Benny and thanked him again for the invitation. He seemed genuinely glad to see that I had made it before hurrying off to find his date and pawning me off on Tom, a fellow journalist.

I tried to explain how I had ended up there, and got cut off halfway through the story.

"Let me give you some advice", he said. "And this is just business, don't take it personally. At events like this? Tell short stories. There are billionaires and congressmen here." I thanked him, and he left my side to try and push through the throng of reporters encircling Elon Musk. I didn't have any hope of getting to meet Elon that evening and, face still red with embarrassment from talking Tom's ear off, I was more than content to observe him from afar.

After a few hours of making friends, eating and drinking, the party was winding down. Fearing that the event would end before my name was called, I found the group that was next in the queue and managed to get in line with them. We ascended the steps, and seated ourselves in the carbon-fiber horizontal chairs, reminiscent of modern roller-coaster seating, suspended from the aluminum walls. There was a porthole to my left, and I briefly wondered who would be sitting in my seat watching the earth fall away beneath them when the ship finally took off. The command panel was pulled down, a glassy surface of touchscreens and LED-backlit buttons. My phone was dead, so while everyone took photos of themselves and their friends, I examined the controls. Launch. Abort. A chill ran down my spine; this was better than science-fiction. This was a real spaceship.

Happy to be inside.

We climbed back to the ground, and the party ended shortly thereafter. On the way out, I convinced a new friend to take a photo of me in front of the capsule, and snagged a Dragon baseball cap. One of the engineers led a small party to his bar, Thomas Foolery, for a few more hours of celebration, drinks, and darts. I stayed and talked for a while, and when the time seemed right I walked myself home in the cooling night air, my mind and body singing with excitement at the future I'd found myself in the middle of.

When I dragged myself out of bed Tuesday morning, I had no idea what the day had in store. When I fell back in that night, though, I was disappointed for the first time in my life that I had to leave reality behind for a few hours.


  1. Cool post - you just earned your Space Cadet wings

  2. I’m impressed. You’re truly well informed and very intelligent. You wrote something that people could understand and made the subject intriguing for everyone. I’m saving this for future use.