The mystery of a thousand random O-rings, plus sticking together through thick and thin.
900,000 Gallons Per Minute
The landline phone on the white, plastic folding table that served as my desk rang. I didn’t hear it; I had my headphones on blasting music into my ears while I caught up on email. My hoodie was pulled up to ward off the damp cold in the concrete room that served as our shared engineering office. All around me other engineers were hard at work at similar plastic tables, headphones also on their heads, coats over their shoulders, typing furiously with knit brows and generally trying to look busy.
We’d just launched our first rocket from our new pad a few months before. After over eighteen months of manic effort, close calls, and adrenal addiction, one morning the rocket simply lifted off into the sky and was gone forever. There were no more launches scheduled for another year or two. We found ourselves in a strange purgatory where we had to keep up the illusion of busyness without much real work to do, and no real budget to do it with.
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My eyes flitted from my dual monitor setup to the Cisco phone next to me. I noticed it was ringing by seeing the blinking light on the receiver. I whipped off my hoodie-headphone combo and answered it. I’d seen that the call was internal, coming from an extension at HQ rather than an outside line, otherwise I would have just ignored it. As the conversation unfolded, I wished I would have ignored it anyway.
“We need 900,000 gallons of water per minute for the next launch. We want you to test it.”
Without going into too much detail, this simply wasn’t possible. For the launch a few months before, we’d flowed less than 25% of that and all had gone well. Reaching that new number would require an immense undertaking;one I didn’t believe we’d pay for, seeing as how every other project budget had been recently cut. The benefit simply wasn’t there for the effort required.
By the end of the short conversation, I’d been saddled with running something called subscale testing. We’d done it before, when we first built the pad. We took a small version of the rocket and blasted 6,000 psi nitrogen out the end, to simulate the noise from launch. While it blasted away, a scaled-down water system sprayed water all over a scaled-down launch pad, outfitted with microphones, to see if we could reduce the acoustic noise.
The first time we’d done this subscale testing, the year before, our data was no better than a pseudorandom number generator. Visualized, it was colorful static that changed very little with respect to the flow of the water.This left a bad taste in my mouth and gave me a sour attitude about have to run a new version of the project.
I figured, if I was lucky, I could duck the work for a while. My goal was to hold the entire project off until summer, when I planned to quit anyway. The desire to run subscale, at some insane new flow rate I was pretty sure had been miscalculated,felt like one of those things that would simply fade away on the breeze. I imagined that down at HQ a bunch of PhD’s had a meeting, got cranked up, spun up this stupid idea, and made a few phone calls. I assumed that they’d get busy with some other flavor-of-the-week and forget to follow up. It had happened before.
But then, to my horror, the very next week parts started rolling in.
This was crazy for a few reasons. First, and foremost, it meant the project was absolutely happening and I’d have to be the one to deal with it. Ugh. Second, no designs had been completed, so all those purchased parts were likely useless. It was like buying windows for a new home build before you’d even picked up a tape measure. And finally, the remote team was being extremely pushy with our team. Beyond their curt call with me, they’d apparently started bullying our Receiving Department to see if the parts had shown up yet.
“What the fuck is this shit, and where do you want it?” Enrique asked me.
The anger of his words caught me off guard; Rico, as we called him, and I joked around exclusively, I had never seen him upset before. I asked him what was going on and he told me that random parts had started showing up left and right, and we had no place to put them. When he called HQ to ask about it, they’d rudely told him to deal with it and hung up.
Rico and I weren’t the only that had been caught in the snare, either. A couple other engineers had received the same terse phone calls I did. Our welders and technicians had been reassigned without any details of what they’d be doing, exactly. The only thing each of us knew is that no one wanted to do the project.
I went down to the Receiving room. It was strewn with shipments of new parts on pallets crate sitting on the floor. Inside were hundreds if not thousands of rubber O-rings. Soft, pliable, toroids all strewn throughout the crate. No note, no explanation, no purpose.
“What could they possibly be for?” I wondered.
I called the brains down at HQ to find out. The conversation, more or less, went like this:
“Yo, what are all these O-rings for?”
“For joining the pipe.”
“The pipe that runs to the rocket, with the nitrogen gas inside.”
“That is like 6,000 psi. We’re gonna weld that pipe.”
“Yeah, put the O-rings in the welds.”
Friends, that is not how O-rings work. If you put an O-ring inside a pipe and try to weld it, it’ll melt, ruin the weld, and probably catch fire. Don’t try that.
I reported my findings to the rest of the team, there was a collective groan. The O-rings were indeed useless, like we feared. None of us could get money for projects we wanted to do, and the only one we could get funded was already a trainwreck a week in. We realized we were going to have to do this cursed project and, worse, we realized we’d be entirely on our own. At that point, any one of them could have left me to deal with things on my own.
But that’s not what happened.
Instead, we each picked up an O-ring from the crate and slipped it over our wrists. They were the perfect size for bracelets. In a silly and corny display of solidarity, we all put our hands together like a youth league soccer team, and Team Friendship was born.
Team Friendship became our pad rallying cry. From the break room, to the weld shop, to the parts receiving room, we’d pass one another, hold up our O-ringed wrist and holler, “Team Friendship!” It was goofy, but it got the point across and made us laugh. It reminded me that the ridiculousness of whatever project we were working on didn’t matter, but helping our friends out of ridiculous jams did.
That was a theme that had been forged during the launch campaign, where we regularly worked 7 days a week and way better than 12 hours a day. But that was to launch a rocket, our first, off a brand-new pad! The stakes felt high — hell, they were high! Many nights I’d be walking to my car, too tired to think, only to see my friend’s car in the parking lot. I’d turn around, go back inside, and help them finish whatever they had going on, so no one was left to toil alone.
Once the rocket launched, and the work turned to strange new projects like subscale, I was thrilled to see the dynamic not only remained, but it also strengthened. We resigned ourselves to the work, not because of some mission, or because it was our job, but rather because we were determined not to let our friends suffer alone. I think that is the essence of the best part of humanity. We don’t let the ones we love suffer alone. We all pull through together knowing that it’ll go faster if we all chip in, or at least be a lot more enjoyable!
A lot is written about teams that push through high stakes, low odds missions. Those are amazing stories! I am fortunate to have quite a few of them myself. But it’s the small moments, and the small ways, that we show up for each other that strike me the hardest. I think it’s easier (though not necessarily easy) to show up for people when the drama is high. It’s a lot harder to help a friend get through a meaningless project at work. Yet, the impact feels bigger because I know just how easy it would have been for them to do nothing.
I still wear my O-ring. In fact, I’ve never really taken it off even though it’s been nine years since I first put it on. It is a great reminder of the importance of showing up for those we love, in situations big and small. A reminder, too, that work is often more silly than serious. Few things, especially at work, are ever as important as they might seem.
Finally, it reminds me of the power of friendship. Friends are the people that we create life with and, really, the main we create our conception of ourselves. Good people are also just hard to find, and I’m happy that almost a decade later I’m still friends with the Team Friendship crew. In fact, two of them work with me at The Launch Company. You never know what good might come from a silly, doomed project.
There are clever ways to get to that number for very short durations. The real issue is recycling if the rocket aborts and storing all the wastewater that may become contaminated. Also, I didn’t trust their math.
Also, when push came to shove during the launch campaign, the final water configuration was signed off by a VP who watched it run and said, “looks good enough.” So much for data.
For those that might be interested, there’s some really cool math on how to properly do “dimensional analysis” using things like Buckingham π theorem. Long story short, I found out they did their math wrong and didn’t properly scale the physics of the system. Still, they pressed on with no regard. C’est la vie.
The magic order of getting things to go away is, as follows: First, ignore it. Second, make vague protestations that the new initiative is not “critical path.” Third, run some rough numbers on the project to show it doesn’t make physical/economic/temporal sense. Failing that, you just gotta do it.
Great post, Ben. Can I call you a “Rocket Surgeon” from now on?