There are flying machines that simply stick in the mind, a Concorde, a Shuttle, a Valkyrie XB-70, or a Boeing 747. One machine that hardly flew but does this trick is the 1920s German Dornier X airliner, an early and massive flying boat with 12 engines. Its wings had a crawl space so the crew could reach the engines and perform adjustments – in flight. Scary but true. The only one of these ever made was soon retired, and so the lack of time to imprint on the public. If the aircraft engine technology available at the time was not quite there yet, why obviously there had to be a way to – as we used to say in the Shuttle program – “mitigate” that. So, crawl space, adjustments. Yet right around the corner, a few years away, was the DC-3, a shiny, modern airplane, some of which are still flying to this day.

The Dornier X airplane, a crew member taking a little trip over to the engine, in flight.

For a few generations now, transportation technology seems to be at a standstill, the turn in the curve and the DC-3-like leap a mirage always on the horizon. In NASA, I always knew a plan that did not reach its main goal before my interns would retire was not a plan. (Oddly, this was not the consensus as I was told “think long term.”) There has been no supersonic airliner after the Concorde. If anything, airspeed has slowed since the 1970s (for the sake of gas mileage). Though arguably, speed is not the major hold-up in air travel just now, lines and security being what they are. We still await the bullet trains, too, at least in the US. And while we are at it, if any of this does arrive, it must be in a way that does not adversely affect the climate or Earth’s limited resources.

Yet this last week would seem an exception, with signs of progress and urgency. There were engines and tiles and rollouts and stacks that recall Shuttle engines and tiles and stacks – except for the part about urgency.

“…my senses fused into an oil and water combination of amazement and boredom.”

Installing engines on a Space Shuttle orbiter was no quick affair. The first time I saw this first-hand, my senses fused into an oil and water combination of amazement and boredom. I was amazed at the technicians in physically demanding positions with their precision and care. I was bored seeing so few pages of the paper procedure stamped off after so many hours. (Patience is part of the particular set of skills acquired in my years at NASA.) Many years later, I would be looking at data for every engine ever installed at Kennedy, dates, tasks, teammates noticing that it somewhat matched replies engineers gave when asked about how long this or that task took.  “Somewhat,” meaning engineers invariably gave the low side of any time or effort when asked (an acquired skill of memory).

Engines were routinely removed from the Shuttle orbiters a few weeks after they were placed comfortably in the processing hanger (platforms and protective covers all over, the hospital patients IVs all attached as we said). Then, the engines were re-installed a month before the orbiter was ready to leave the hanger. By the mid-1990s, someone finally admitted on paper that removing engines between launches was unnecessary. Yet the task would continue, with good reason. There was so much work to do on the Shuttle orbiters, we had to remove the engines to make room for everyone else to work in the same area at the same time.

So, it was a pleasant surprise to wake up one day and see the SpaceX team installed twenty-nine engines – in one night. Twenty-nine. Someone will inevitably say these are slightly smaller engines than the Shuttle’s, but not by much. In NASA-speak, the Shuttle engines were just the start of what we called our “plumber’s nightmare,” from the Shuttle orbiter all the way up and through to the orange external tank and out to the endless facilities. And that was just three engines. What the plumbing must be for twenty-nine engines on a Starship boggles the mind (mine at least).

Above left: A Shuttle engine hoisted up to be installed on a Space Shuttle orbiter in the Vehicle Assembly Building/VAB (not a regular event, as engines were usually installed before the orbiter came to the VAB). Credit: NASA. Above right: Starship and engines latest.

NASA: ‘There’s the Orbiter, Go Put a Motor in It‘ – “There are personal sacrifices,” Rysdyk said. “Kids’ rehearsals go out the window, trips go out the window, birthdays go out the window because what’s important is that this gets done.” Credit: NASA.

Tile was a more mysterious matter. When I first arrived at Kennedy, our routine began with a morning gathering, coffee in hand, and a roundtable of sorts. Engines, check. Reaction control, check. So on and so on. A problem worth noting here, nothing worth reporting there, something off-topic to lighten things up. It was the comforting hum of everyone retelling the story about the day before (and we were big on recounting events, perhaps my writing here symptomatic of that compulsion). The tile group had a calm and repetitious refrain, that moment in a church when you know the lines, something like “five tiles removed, three tiles replaced.” And some new tiles with problems added to the count. It was never much any single day. Some days, the count went backward, more issues picked up than resolved.

The Shuttles “flying brickyard” is now the SpaceX Starship flying bricks, coolly hexagonal shaped. A generation or more removed, yes, and with what appears to be a novel means of attaching them, but still, the hexagonal bricks are a close cousin. Oddly, seeing a tile removed and replaced is an operation that as standard as it was for the Shuttle, is not one I ever saw first-hand. A tile would be missing one day, a hole in the pattern, and then sometime after, as if by magic, it was back, the technicians removing and replacing it in the middle of the night – between midnight and morning. It befell to do this when the least people were around, the noxious water-proofer we used not something you wanted to have around hordes of people working other problems nearby. The post-it note-like tags came some years into the Shuttle program, which Starship now uses as well. (As to urgency, we found out years into the program that bad tiles were only taken to the nearby shop once or twice a day in batches, not in the moment. And NASA did invent newer and much harder tile, of course, but as the program ended, these had only made it onto the Shuttles in select locations at the rear.)

Above left: My photo of Discovery, front/nose gear, 2009. Credit: Edgar Zapata, Above right: A Tweet about Starship and its tiles.

One the tiles we never got to install on the DARPA XSP. Credit: Edgar Zapata,

The actual time to get thousands of square feet of tile ready for a flight is likely somewhere between the time for a Starship taking significant risks and a Shuttle taking none. That is, pending even better materials, an innovation around the corner that will put a skin on a spaceship coming back from orbit that needs nothing more than a good walkaround or some drone doing a surface scan. And this is good – finding a new and improved spot for thermal protection systems time and effort.

“The SpaceX Starbase appears more shipyard than spaceyard.”

But in all this, engines or tiles, there is something else not as obvious in its absence. The Starship is not ensconced in a climate-controlled hangar. The SpaceX Starbase appears more shipyard than spaceyard. (And now I had to add “Starbase” and “spaceyard” to my Word dictionary.) Having prepared and maintained liquid oxygen systems, flight and ground, I might some other day say a firm job requirement is an obsession with cleanliness. We once had a liquid oxygen line open momentarily, outdoors, with some plastic flapping in the sea breeze to keep out the dust. Inevitably there was a speck. And the tiniest speck that flew in would be wiped away, the rag with cleaner bagged (also noxious, eventually banned). UV lights were in vogue too once, leading to still more obsession over the cleanliness of flight hardware for liquid oxygen. (We discovered UV lights generate paperwork about residues.)

From a 1988 Kennedy Space Center work schedule, a reminder about our clothing and attire working around the Space Shuttles. Credit: Edgar Zapata,

Obsessions of the Shuttle sort do not seem to be holding back the Starship spaceyard, and more likely, they need not anyway. The pressures and temperatures of rocket engine are not far removed from today’s ever demanding aircraft engines – engines routinely removed and replaced quickly. The day too has come for the more advanced tile materials to shine, the next gen materials that never covered new Shuttles, and were only used here and there in Shuttles after seemingly endless analysis. As well, industry handles cryogenic systems quite well every day, minus the bunny suits and the obsessive cleanliness as a job requirement. Perhaps that sets us somewhere after the Dornier X, with some “mitigating” still to do, but at least on a straight line to some wondrous leap out of seemingly nowhere, like the DC-3.

As with the costs NASA and SpaceX are targeting for the Starship development, leaps might still happen – a hexagonal, mechanically attached tile, stainless steel weld, and 29 engines at a time.

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