Discover more from The Next 30 Trips
Welcome to the Thunderdome
Or, how I danced my way to a job at SpaceX fresh out of graduate school.
Job Hunting & the Universe
I stared at the blinking cursor. The hopeful title “Cover Letter” adorned an otherwise blank page.
“Why do I want this job?” I mused.
I had been at this for months, writing cover letters for every job I applied to. Grad school was winding towards the final spring, and I needed a plan. Writing a custom cover letter for every job posting had started out easy enough, but after the first dozen yielded no results, I cast my net wider. By the end, I’d identify around 500 mechanical engineering job postings across the country, review over 300 of them, and finally apply for around 150, each with tailored resumes and cover letters.
Most elicited no response whatsoever. My desperation deepened as most of the responses I did receive were robotic rejections with no explanation of how or why the algorithm had culled me from the prospective herd. To say that I was burnt out was an understatement. The cursor didn’t care about any of that. It kept blinking.
Why do I want this job? I had to be honest with myself. Other than a need for income and a desire to be seen as a contributing member of society, I didn’t really want any of them. Engineering, especially at the entry level, is a fairly monotonous trade consisting of juggling various sheets: mostly spreadsheets, cutsheets, and timesheets.
It drained me to spend so many late nights staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page trying to write a cover letter for jobs that I was wholly uninterested in. Hundreds of times, I tried to answer the question “why do you want this job?” and failed to muster any optimism whatsoever. Deep down, I nurtured a naive but earnest wish that I would find something exciting, challenging, and which would let me contribute to something bigger than myself.
That wish, like most of my job applications, was met with a long silence as I continued to spend night after night hurling more cover letters and resumes into the aether. And though the silence felt like an eternity to me, I am sure it was but a blink to God, or the Universe, or my Fairy Godmother, or whatever we want to call whatever watches over us. I like to think that in those months, the Universe was just collecting Itself, gathering It’s thoughts, and nodding thoughtfully as It considered my plight, as well as It’s options for my future.
My version of this deity is not a typical one. I picture the Universe taking a long, thoughtful drag on Its cigarette as It ruminates on my plaintive prayers, all the while staring off into the middle distance as job applications pile up at Its feet. Blowing out the smoke, It shrugs as if It decided that we’ll just have to agree to disagree on what I really want or need. It picks idly at Its chipped fingernail paint as It decides that direct experience is the shortest path to revelation, pulls down resolutely on the hem of Its ragged leather jacket, and finally concludes, “Hm, you think you know best. Let’s see about that.”
That is, I believe, how my phone came to ring one winter afternoon, with an unknown number from an unfamiliar area code. I answered and was greeted by a recruiter from SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies, which was a fairly small upstart in the aerospace industry. They had launched a few rockets, the first few were unsuccessful, but the next few got to orbit. They’d just won a demonstration contract for their space capsule to take cargo to the space station.
I had sent in an application on a whim along with a deluge of others, and just like the others got no response. Of course, I hadn’t got a rejection, either, but I’d long ago given up hope of ever hearing from them.
“Hi, Ben. I'm calling from SpaceX about an application you sent in to be a Launch and Test Engineer and I’d like to conduct your behavioral interview for a position at our Vandenburg Launch site in California.”
“Oh, cool, sounds great. When you want to do it?”
“Well, right now. Are you ready?”
Of course, I was not ready, but I figured this was my only shot and agreed. We ran through a basic set of questions about school, my opinion of the company, and my interests. I guess that my answers were satisfactory, because she concluded by asking when I’d have time to meet with the engineering team. I checked my calendar and offered the afternoon of the next day.
“No,” she replied flatly, “I mean today. How about in an hour?”
I didn't see how I could say no, exactly, so I hung up, packed up, and flogged my dilapidated secondhand mountain bike back to my apartment. By the time I got there, I only had about twenty minutes before the interview. I didn't know the best way to prepare. So, I burned through the time by fretting and pacing the tiny apartment, occasionally opening some random textbook to an area of study that flashed through my mind.
My phone rang. It was time. It's hard to capture the frenetic, unyielding pace of the interview that followed. After brief introductions from a handful of people, most of which I couldn’t hear, we jumped right in.
“What's the Reynolds number?”
I managed to rattle off the equation.
“Okay, that's the equation but what does that mean physically?”
I tried to explain how it was a ratio that measured whether inertia or viscous forces dominated in a given fluid flow.
No confirmation of right or wrong, just a different voice chiming in with a fresh question. “If I slowly let the air out of a balloon, what does the graph of radius versus time look like?”
I rattled off an answer. Then the first voice popped back in, “I noticed a bead of water forms on the top edge of my windshield when I drive my motorcycle to work on foggy days. Where does that water come from? And why does it gather at the top edge?”
I answered as best I could, talking about temperature, dew point, and cohesion picked up during my youth flying, but I was reaching — both back in time, and for facts I didn’t have. I hadn’t been prepared to think about this stuff. I figured we would talk about rockets, though I didn’t know anything about those either.
I concluded my rambling response on the beading windshield water. There was a silence, then he said, “Yeah, ok, cool. I buy it. I was kinda thinking the same thing.”
The questions continued on in this way for over an hour. Finally, I could tell they were running out of ammo. A third voice piped in to ask one final question, “Would you expect the exhaust gas temperature of an aircraft’s turbofan engine to trend up or down over the life of the engine? Why?”
At this point, I had my head down on my desk with my eyes closed, phone pushed hard to my ear with one hand. I rambled a bit about seals, enthalpy of reacting flows, and concluded that the temperature will probably go up. They seemed somewhat satisfied. We said our polite goodbyes and ended the call. I opened my eyes and noticed that my girlfriend had come home at some point during the interview and had settled in on the futon silently watching it all unfold. She looked confused.
“That was SpaceX,” I said. “Let's go get drinks and celebrate getting an interview with them because that was brutal and they're never calling back.”
The Dancing Dinner Party
We went to the basement of our local watering hole and hung out for a couple hours. Apparently, there wasn't much for cellular service down there because after coming out that evening, my phone buzzed with a bunch of voicemails hitting my phone all at once. They were all from the recruiter and each was more annoyed with me for not calling her back than the last.
She wanted to know when I could come to California for an onsite interview. I called her back immediately. It was a Friday night and I had to be back to teach by early Tuesday morning. So we decided, right there on the phone in the parking lot of the bar, that I would fly out on Sunday, interview Monday morning, and then hop on an afternoon return flight.
We got the travel together and a couple days later I flew out, collected my rental car, checked into the hotel, and collapsed on the bed. Google Maps revealed that my hotel sat only a mile from Manhattan Beach. Maybe I could find some food and destress on a beach walk, I thought. I was just starting to wrap my mind around that plan when my phone rang with another unknown number. I answered.
“Hi, Ben. I'm the site director up at Vandenberg,” came the friendly greeting. “I wanted to check in and make sure you got to town alright and were ready to come on site tomorrow.”
Vandenburg Air Force base was the location for the new site the company was building. In my talks with the recruiter, I deduced that I was interviewing to be a Launch Engineer and help build, then operate, that pad.
“I did, thanks, but I'm down in LA. I’m actually not scheduled to come up to Vandenburg at all.”
His tone changed, “What. No, that's bullshit. We have to meet you. That's the whole point of an on-site! You shouldn’t be in LA.”
“Well, yeah, I agree. But they only scheduled me only to interview here and I’m in town less than 24 hours.”
“Well, you got a car, right? Why don't you drive up here for dinner tonight. I'll get the team together over at my house. We'll all meet, chat, and then you can drive back down to LA for your interview the next morning.”
I obviously couldn't say no. I had no idea at the time that constantly changing plans and last-minute travel were standard operating procedure. He sent his address. With a deep breath, I cleared my relaxing beach walk out of Google Maps and punched in the new destination. His house was about three hours away by car; I had to get a move on. I took a quick shower, jumped in the car, and got on the 405 North just in time to get my first taste of evening rush hour traffic.
Eventually, the gridlock relaxed, and I enjoyed a gorgeous drive up the coast before turning inland towards Lompoc. I arrived at the site director’s house, up in the hills above town, and met a small motley crew of eight engineers and former Air Force officers. We stood on the back deck and looked down over the rolling tan hills mottled green with brush, out toward the coast. In the fading light, I could make out the lights at the top of the towers next to the launch pad they were working on.
We ate dinner and made polite conversation, everyone trying to get a feel for me, and I for them. As the evening progressed, some unspoken message was sent, or invisible threshold crossed, and out of nowhere one of the managers produced a couple jugs of homemade wine. The volume immediately rose as everyone began laughing, shouting, and competing to be heard over everyone else. Between quips, the engineers would look down at their phones, knit their brow in worry, fire off a message, and then rejoin the fun.
Through it all, I kept waiting for some kind of formal interview, but it never came. Instead, the site director’s youngest child threw down an open challenge to the room in “Dance Dance Revolution.” Of course, I was offered up as tribute and everyone gathered around the TV to watch as the kid kicked my butt with a perfect score, while firing off trash talk in perfect rhythm.
Homemade wine, good cooking, great conversation, and absolute humiliation in the art of dance at the hands of an eleven-year-old combined into a very fun but long evening. It was well past midnight before I got back on the road with a paper cup full of coffee and the well wishes of my new friends.
As I got on the car, the site director called out to me from his front porch.
“Hey, go kick ass in LA tomorrow.”
I promised I’d do my best.
The Rocket Factory
All my life, I had been searching for “my people.” I was lucky to have close friends from high school, but I hadn’t found anyone similar in professional pursuits. Looking back, I was searching for people like me — earnest, outgoing, driven, loud, not afraid to look kind of stupid, and a little bit crazy to boot.
I wasn’t sure what the next day would hold, but driving back to LA that night, I knew that at least I had found my people. Looking back now over ten years later, I can say I was right. Many of the people I met that night have become my closest friends and mentors, and we have stood by one another through some of the biggest trials of our lives.
I flew down the 101 back toward the 405 and my hotel, mesmerized by the stars out over the ocean off my right side. I arrived back in LA around three in the morning and climbed into bed just before four. I dozed fitfully for a few hours before giving up around 7:30, showering, and making the quick drive over to Hawthorne, a city inside the Los Angeles metro, where headquarters was located.
Obviously, I was nervous. Every step along the path thus far had been intense in one way or another. That morning, I was heading into ground zero. I arrived, checked in, and was escorted into a meeting room. After a moment an engineering manager walked in.
I must have looked a little worse for the wear because he said sympathetically, “Hey, I heard you had a long night.”
I smiled and nodded.
“I have a test you're supposed to take. Here.”
He handed it to me. It was a single sheet of paper with questions about thermodynamics, fluids, pump curves, general math, all the stuff you'd expect. I looked it over.
“You probably don’t want to take it, do you?”
I laughed and said, “No, I really don't.” I could feel my head pounding, the wine, caffeine, and lack of sleep all catching up to me.
“Well,” he said, “Why don't you just work through it a little bit and then we’ll discuss it.”
Nervous about another trial, I took the test quickly and handed it back. He silently looked it over, casually aloof, and completely at ease, in perfect contrast to my misery; a hungover, pinched, anxious ball of nerves dressed in cheap khakis and a Wal-Mart button down.
After a long silence, he nodded and said, “Okay, cool. So, yeah, you understand pumps, cryogenics, stuff like that and I heard the Vandy guys love you. I don't really have any questions.”
The shock that shot through me upon hearing those words cleared my head and sat me up perfectly straight. This had to be some kind of trick!
Just then the door to the meeting room swung open and a man everyone called “The Buzzsaw” breezed in. He was the fearsome Vice President of Launch, SpaceX employee number five, and a legend in industry from well before his time there. In the years since, we’ve collaborated on a handful of projects and I’ve found him to be brilliant, intuitive, kind, and funny. Back then, though, it seemed like he was none of those things, or at least he couldn’t show it. That’s because he wasn’t a person; he was a symbol of the unyielding, efficient perfection SpaceX demanded. And he was busy.
“What do we think?” he asked the engineering manager briskly, as he sat down.
“He nailed his phone interview and the Vandy crew likes him. He drove up there and back last night. He also did well on his written test.”
The Buzzsaw hurriedly glanced at my paper exam.
“Okay, great,” he said, “Hire him.”
With that, he stood up and stepped smartly out of the room, his open Tesla zip-up billowing in his wake. I don’t think he ever looked at me, and he definitely didn’t speak to me. It was nothing personal, of course, there was just an ungodly amount to do. I certainly don’t think he saw anything special in me, just the chance to get another body in the door helping tackle the mountain of work. If it didn’t work out, they’d find another.
“Great!” the manager said brightly, “I guess that’s it. Do you want to eat sandwiches and walk around the rocket factory?”
I told him that, yes, I would very much like to do that. The elapsed time from me entering the room to us departing with sandwiches in hand was about 20 minutes. There were no more interview questions, just polite conversation. I guess he wasn’t trying to trick me after all.
We toured the factory floor, munching on Quiznos subs. It was a flurry of activity. We paused by an early cargo space capsule under construction, preparing for a demonstration flight with NASA. In another part of the factory, some huge sheets of metal were being rolled into tubes that would form the tanks of future Falcon rockets. In another area, Merlin engines were on stands being hand-assembled while their nozzles were spin-formed. While I’m sure the experience was amplified by my stress and lack of sleep, I remember my jaw dropping at every turn. It was surreal to see a wide-open factory jammed with space hardware at every turn.
We wrapped up and I headed off to catch my one o’clock flight. The official offer letter hit my inbox by the time I landed. Now, I had a reason to focus and get through the remainder of grad school. I prepared my thesis, executed my defense, and was back in California to start work less than five months later.
My First Day, aka Welcome to the Thunderdome
I did a quick orientation at headquarters in Hawthorne. A bunch of people were there, but most were heading for the Cape, or the test stand in McGregor, or staying at Hawthorne headquarters. I was the only one in a room of 50 or more heading to Vandenburg. The human resources lead told me that I should hit the road because, if I hurried, I could still put a half day of work in after I got there.
I again made the drive from LA up to the Vandenburg Base, registered for my badge, and drove out to SLC-4E, or South Launch Complex 4 East, on the south end of base for the very first time. It wasn’t much, a launch pad on a hill dotted with beige buildings, some old and some new. I was shown to a cubicle that was bare, save a simple desk and an unassembled office chair still in its plastic wrap.
I had been fumbling with the chair for a few minutes when a thick stack of paper landed on my desk. These were schematics, design documents, for the two fluid systems I would be taking over. Eventually, these systems would be made up of tanks, piping, pumps, sensors, and valves that would be used to prep the rocket for launch once it came to the pad. At that moment, though, they were mostly just blank paper.
I got invited to an afternoon tag-up at a whiteboard in the kitchen. A tag-up is a meeting, but we weren’t allowed to have meetings, so we tagged up instead. There were lots of idioms like that I had to learn. For instance, “circling up” is an impromptu tag-up, usually called because something needed immediate fixing.
If during a tag-up someone said they had to “run the numbers” that meant that they were currently bullshitting and needed to go do some math. If someone needed to “sharpen their pencil” that meant running the numbers had gone poorly, someone else had caught it, and they needed to go try again.
If something was “notional” that meant it didn’t exist at all, even as a bounded concept, and hadn’t been thought about in a real way for more than 30 seconds before someone had asked about it. I learned that my systems were mostly notional at that point.
I attended that first tag-up and listened to each system update, trying to learn what they all did and what state each was in. Everyone was early in the design and not a lot of build was happening yet, so that gave me hope that I’d have time to patch all the missing pieces in my two systems.
At an extremely high level, most everything made sense. Our team was designing and building the systems that would fill the rocket with fuel and other liquids it needed to make its flight to space. We were going to build a giant gas station, essentially. Easier said than done, of course, but at least the broad strokes made sense. One system, however, called for something I’d never heard of before.
I leaned over to the engineer who owned it, Chris, and whispered, “Hey man, what is TEA-TEB?”
“Oh, it’s triethylalumina-triethylborane,” he responded politely. I nodded like that answer meant something and decided to let it remain a mystery for the time being.
As I was pondering this, the pad manager, Zach, asked me for an update on my systems. I recognized his voice as the one I’d heard most during my phone interview. The room went quiet, and all eyes turned to me. I was a little shell-shocked; I’d been there a grand total of about two hours, not counting my drive from LA that morning. I reported that I’d received my system schematics and, once I got my chair put together, I’d be taking stock of where they were at. He nodded and moved on. It worked for day one, but I was positive it wouldn’t work for day two.
After the meeting, Zach realized I hadn’t even been up to the launch pad yet, my day consisting solely of a drive up the coast, a fight with a chair, and the afternoon tag-up. Since my interview had just been a drunken dance off, he felt it would be good for me to go up and get acquainted.
The site director, Lee, whose house had been the site of the dance off, joined us. We drove up the hilly, winding road to the pad. At the top, I could see the gutted remains of what had been there before. This pad had launched a rocket called the Titan IV years before. The old concrete bones of that pad had given us something to start with.
We parked the car and got out. As we walked around what looked to me to be a parking lot, Lee pointed to all the empty places where things would be someday. We imagined that the dirt path, freshly cut into the hill side, running from the newly constructed hangar up to where we were now standing, was a big concrete road called Rocket Road. We imagined a giant steel frame structure, over a million pounds and 200-feet long called the ‘transporter erector,’ that would roll the rocket down the road. We imagined a giant pit at the end of that road filled with three-foot diameter hydraulic cylinders that would lift the whole transporter erector from horizontal to vertical so the rocket could launch.
As we imagined, we strolled and soon arrived at the edge of what looked like a portal to hell, opening up right there in the middle of the parking lot. It was a huge hole, big enough to swallow a truck, that went straight down about thirty feet before turning out 90-degrees into a tunnel. This was the flame duct. Someday our rocket would stand right here. We peered down cautiously and imagined 1.1 million pounds of thrust blasting through this duct as the new rocket took flight.
Honestly, though, I only pretended to imagine. I must confess, it was too much for me, standing there surrounded by rotten asphalt, dirt, and steeped in my lack of knowing what any of those things were or what it would take to build them. I couldn’t picture anything very real at all.
Everything was pure abstraction, like knowing that TEA-TEB is triethylalumina-triethylborane. Sure, that tells me what it is, in a way, but it doesn’t tell me what it does, or how we handle it, or what it takes to build a system that moves it around, or what the hell we need it for in the first place. Understanding these things in general is a long way from actually getting any of it built or operational. It almost felt too big to believe. But they were going to have to figure it out.
No, we would have to figure it out.
We stood there for a moment, each kind of nodding and looking around, hands on hips, soaking up the portrait of possibility that had been painted in our imaginations. Like the schematics, mine had a lot of blanks. We finished the tour by going down into the pad building, a kind of concrete bunker, beneath the launch pad itself, and stopped in the Tube Shop.
This is the place where miles of stainless-steel tube would be bent, flared, plumbed, and mounted on panels with valves, gauges and other instrumentation. These panels would be mounted around the pad and control all the systems we were designing. I’d be working closely with these technicians to get my own panels made, once I could imagine them a little better.
As we walked in, I noticed that a group of technicians were huddled around a small-scale model of the pad we’d just been up on. They were trying to attach a miniature flame duct. Lee introduced me briefly as a new engineer.
“Haha, fresh meat!” the lead technician exclaimed.
I didn’t really know what to say so I just stood there and nodded a little bit, a stupid grin plastered on my face. I think he was hoping for a reaction, so he continued on gamely.
“You know that it’s about to get fucking real around here, right?” he asked.
“Oh, yes,” I said plainly, “There is quite a lot to do. We've just been up top imagining it in detail.”
He stared blankly at me for a minute, then shrugged.
“Huh, yeah, well, welcome to the Thunderdome, bitch.”