SpaceX wakes up some Texans

By Phil Plait | November 23, 2008 9:10 pm

Texans got a bit of a surprise Saturday night when the folks at SpaceX did a major test of their 9-engine cluster At 10:30 p.m. local time, the nine Merlin engines roared into life for a full-up test lasting 178 seconds — nearly three minutes. The test shook houses and rattled windows for miles, burned up a half million pounds of propellant, and generated 855,000 pounds of thrust: enough to launch a pretty big rocket into orbit.

SpaceX nine engine test

SpaceX has an awesome video of the test.

Also, the The Waco Trib has a great article on it, too. Well, it’s not the article so much as the comments which you simply have to read: they’re from locals who hung on for dear life while it happened. My favorite:

I live in Valley Mills, just taking the last steak off the grill. Space-X shook the T-Bone off the grill hit my dog on the head, he thought I smacked him, he bit my ankle. My wife just getting into our water bed shook up a huge wave, threw her out of bed. She blamed it all on me. Milk in now butter-milk, the cats,will not leave the kitchen. My son couldn’t hear his stereo, cranked it up, blew the windows out of the neighbors house. Guess I’ll be replacing them on Sunday. It was a great light show!

Evidently SpaceX notified some officials, but not everybody got the news. I can imagine being terrified of something like this happening even 25 miles away — it must have looked like Armageddon. I feel kinda bad for the local folks, but on the other hand SpaceX is pumping quite a bit of money into the area, so I hope they can forgive.

But I bet they won’t forget.

Image courtesy SpaceX.


Comments (56)

Links to this Post

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  1. Greg in Austin

    I am very skeptical as to the validity of your claim.
    It must be a hoax.

    I lived in Valley Mills for a year, and I find it very unlikely that anyone there has internet access. 😉

    Granted, that was about 24 years ago…


  2. Dan

    That would have been a blast!

    Nyuk, nyuk nyuk…

  3. Superb! SpaceX rocks my socks off.

    Went to the SpaceX Hawthorn facility last month for a private tour and it was a geek’s paradise! Watching the Falcon 9 rockets actually being built was my fav. Oh, and seeing an up-close Merlin-1C. Great to see Elon’s dream coming true :-)

    Cheers, Ian

  4. Wow, SpaceX is much cooler than any other space company! 😛
    I wish I could see something like this happening around here, it’s soooo boring here…

  5. tacitus

    Wow indeed. I live in North Austin and sometime last night around that time (I think) there was a crackling noise that sounded like fireworks going off outside. I remember looking outside to see if any of the neighbors were fooling around with something but didn’t see anything.

    I live about 70 miles south (as the crow flies) from the SpaceX facility near Waco. Do you think I could have been hearing the test firing from this far away? It only seemed to last a few seconds, so if it was, it may have just been the first percussive wave that was audible from Austin (or something like that).

  6. That’s crazy. What sort of engineering did they use to keep the cluster in place? Surely it must have wanted to do as rockets do and fly away. What were the “launch pad” and tower made from? What precautions did they have in place if things got out of control – a self-destruct mechanism like the one on the Shuttle boosters?

  7. nolachief

    They must not have invested in much of an acoustic buffer zone around their test stand if they got that many complaints from the neighbors. Back in the 60s, NASA bought a bunch of land around what is now Stennis Space Center so that they could get away with testing full up Saturn V first stages (5 1.5 million pound thrust F-1 engines, mind you) without shaking apart the neighbors’ houses.

    Tim, it’s a test stand built basically of structural steel and concrete designed to resist at least 855,000 lbf thrust (probably closer to a couple million, easily). Controlling computers (and human observers) have the ability to shut down the test if something goes wrong, usually long before something catastrophic happens. If you’re ever in south Mississippi, I encourage you to go visit Stennis. NASA still does engine testing there, and you can get an idea how big these test stands are.

    (Disclaimer: Yes, I worked there. I speak only for myself, but it was an extremely cool job.)

  8. So it wasn’t the ISS toolbag hitting the dirt?

    I also note that on the SpaceX website they reckon they’re expecting to test the Dragon spacecraft in 2009. Man rated space capsule. [sarcastic mode on]Who would think that after everything Bob Park and Steven Weinberg had said about manned space flight a private space company would build a manned space craft?[/sarcastic mode off]

  9. Bernd

    That video lacks proper bass. 😉

  10. Bernd said: That video lacks proper bass.

    Yes, but the video danieldavid linked to doesn’t 😉

  11. Elmar_M

    Ok, my prediction:
    despite the successful engine test, the first launch of Falcon9 is going to fail. The reason is that it is sufficiently different from Falcon1 to potentially have the same problems all over again. I just think that this time SpaceX will be more careful which is why I would not expect more than one failure. Of course I hope that they will make it on a first try this time, but their track record is not so encouraging so far. I do think though that pretty much all future Falcon1 flights will go fine now (I could potentially see some issues coming up with the payloads).

  12. IVAN3MAN

    @ Elmar_M

    Do you have to send out them negative waves, man?

  13. Yeaaah maaan, stop flowing the negative energies, let the nature send the gooood ones!

  14. Phil –

    Did you read THIS comment?

    “By VirtualBlair
    November 23, 2008 7:27 AM | Link to this
    I just figured it was the “possible” mini black holes, burrowing through to the center of earth, being created by the new european supercollider. At that point, I figured, it was too late to call friends and family…which is why you should always treat people with respect and thankfulness when you say goodbye….we are not thankful however, that space X is so free to do whatever they want and dont (sic) have to let the general public know about it.”

    It amazes me that so many people in their posts blamed SpaceX for lack of notification, when it was clearly mentioned in previous posts that they notified local officials. I guess they didn’t read those posts, but, instead of “lighting off” themselves, they should have done a little research first. Maybe the Waco folks are responsible for all the junk emails we get with all kinds of inflammatory information that is easily refuted by a quick visit to

  15. @Elmar_M:

    Saying the Falcon 9 is so different that it’s bound to have the *same* problems all over is implying they’re too dumb to learn from their mistakes. Falcon 1 was always considered a pathfinder for the Falcon 9 and all issues that F1 faced are resolved (corroded nut, transient thrust, fuel slosh) in that it’s virtually impossible for them to happen again.

    What *is* possible, however, is a totally different and unforeseen problem and failure mode, but that’s what test flights are for.

    For me personally, the greatest fear comes from the fact 9 engines are clustered close together and once the rocket hits high altitude, exhaust plumes expand and start recirculating and messing about with the engine compartment. This full duration firing of the first stage is a big confidence builder, both for SpaceX and myself in that they obviously understand rocket engineering well enough. Some people actually claim SpaceX has more expertise in rocket design than the NASA Ares folks. Go figure…

    I think it’s not unreasonable to expect at least a nominal Falcon 9 first stage flight, if not a mission success on the first try. The unproven 2nd stage is just a shorter version of the 1st stage with a single Merlin engine. It’s similar to a fat, stubby Falcon 1 stage.

  16. The best bit in the comments is when several of them blame Obama.

    Honestly, if you’re at all irritated by … ignorance, I suggest you do not read the comments. It is some of the most condensed high pitched whining ever to take place in a blog comment page. It is astounding just how many people hear a loud noise, instantly become “afraid” above their threshold level for an acceptable false alarm, declaring that they couldn’t possibly take the excitement of something that obviously makes most of us here jealous to not have been near.

  17. I seem to recall back in the 60s maybe that Martin Marietta used to do some testing of loud things south of Denver.

  18. Oh, and I have to add: I LOVE to watch bright, launchy things like this…

  19. John Phillips, FCD

    Way cool. I will never tire of such sights. My only sadness is that due to my age I will likely be long dead before space flight is routinely available to us ordinary mortals.


    think we all know who was responsible for that, the Godless liberals who cannot stand having their immorality shoved back in their ugly face!! The defenders of free thought, the Big Bang theory and evolution, are not only striking out at me, but at all Christians. . Last night, while I was sitting on my front-porch swing, gazing up at Heaven, President Bush appeared to me in a vision. He told me that my work was not yet finished, there were still many liberals who had not yet seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!! President Bush would not be in the White House right now if God didn’t want him there. President Bush was put in a position of leadership in order to wipe the devil’s religion of Islam off the face of the Earth, so that the Christian God can fill the world with His message of peace and love. President Bush has stated numerous times that he speakes with God in the Oval Office, he even asked God for military advice before the invasion of Iraq. Modern liberalism is the equivalent of atheism, liberals are in favor of killing babies, raising taxes, teaching evolution, and same sex marriage. Jesus is opposed to all of these horrible things.

  21. “I feel kinda bad for the local folks, but on the other hand SpaceX is pumping quite a bit of money into the area, so I hope they can forgive.”

    Well, maybe they thought it was the ATF raiding another compound. Not sure if you’ve ever spent a great teal of time in Waco and the surrounding area. As a skeptic, you’d probably start to feel really uncomfortable (the “stupid, it burns” picture comes to mind).

    Also, you’d be surprised how incredibly shortsighted and downright dumb people can be about this… Where I live, Eglin AFB pumps $6 BILLION into the economy per year. Yet the local mayor is fighting the Air Force for trying to bring an F-35 Training Squadron in because they are louder than the F-15. This would have resulted in a few thousand more jobs and an additional $600 Million in MILCON… Right now the AF is re-evaluating the F-35 plan. I suppose the small town that wouldn’t even exist without the base is getting their wish of sorts. There is something seriously wrong with how self-centered some of these types of places are (and from my experience with Waco, they probably HATE SpaceX).

  22. LOL @ truechristian… And there you have someone who would feel right at home in Waco.

    I wonder what this joker things of his god(s) allowing Barak Obama to win?

  23. kuhnigget

    “Where I live, Eglin AFB pumps $6 BILLION into the economy per year. Yet the local mayor is fighting the Air Force for trying to bring an F-35 Training Squadron in because they are louder than the F-15. This would have resulted in a few thousand more jobs and an additional $600 Million”

    I dunno. It’s one thing to be accommodating and appreciative, but another thing entirely to just roll over on your back and stick your feet in the air every time your rich neighbor parks yet another mega RV next to your kitchen window.

    What’s wrong with setting limits? Would those “few thousand more jobs” (presumably for a few thousand more new residents) be worth the extra strain, not just on the ears but on the town’s infrastructure, its atmosphere, all the qualities that make it the sort of place where people want to live in the first place? Money isn’t everything, and it’s not that hard to strike a balance.

    As for SpaceX, if I were their PR guy (assuming they have one), I’d be all over the city officials for not properly spreading the word. Then, I’d make darn sure that next time, I got the word out myself. A few free tickets to a (safe) viewing site would go a long way toward warding off any ill will from the community.

  24. Steve A

    There’s a little follow up. According to the print article in that paper, the police said they weren’t informed either and had no idea what as going on. SpaceX, for their part, was apologetic, wrote a statement that went to that paper’s bog, but did state that there were several similar tests of Falcon 9 engines that no one blinked an eye at.

    I can’t wait to see this going. Now that they successfully launched the Falcon 1, I think they are going to have a much easier time with the Falcon 9. If you like this company, check out Carmack’s (of Doom and Quake fame) Armadillo Aerospace. They are also doing some impressive work on the cheap.

  25. Cheyenne

    So cool to have private companies getting into the space launching business.

    855,000 pounds of thrust! Egad. Gulp.

    “burned up a half million pounds of propellant” – let’s make sure Al Gore doesn’t hear about that and try to ruin their advancement.

  26. TDHowe

    Tim, a few more details the produced 855,000 lbf (or about 3.8 MegaNewtons), the test stand is rated for 3,372,000 lbf (15 MegaNewtons).

    I do wish they would announce when these were happening better though, I only live a few hours away and wouldn’t mind driving down to watch it for half an hour.

  27. Chris P

    Those weren’t Merlin engines. Merlin engines are what powered Spitfires and the like. Couldn’t they have picked another name.

    PS. I see that CU has picked up a crazy fan of ID. He seems have not noticed that ID is relabeled creationism. He’s professor of philosophy in physics, whatever that is. Not in the physics department fortunately. He has however presented an honors seminar entitled “Physics and God”. I’ll try to see if I can get anything on it.

    Chris P

  28. I didn’t realize Spitfires or Rolls-Royce held copyright to the word “Merlin”.

    Lighten up a bit, it’s supposed to be a tribute to those engines, not a mockery.

  29. Bob Krembs

    I have a silly question. Does all that thrust affect the earth’s orbit in any way? We have been testing rockets like that for many years and I’ve never heard of anyone being concerned, so I assume it is negligible. Anyone want to do the math for me?

  30. Leon

    If everyone in Valley Mills writes as poorly as “Shaken Not Stired”, it’s surprising they didn’t go after SpaceX thinking they were under attack, or some dumb-a** thing like that. Let’s not forget what happened in Springfield after the meteor landed, causing a big scare:

    “Now let’s go burn down the observatory, so this never happens again!”

  31. Sili

    I hope that Al Gore remark was meant as a joke. I wouldn’t mind seeing some numbers, but my guess is that space launches make an insignificant contribution of GHGs. It likely doesn’t compare with what can be saved by driving with the correct tyre pressure – despite the snide response from the Republans.

    And of course don’t let’s talk about what’d happen if the US car park had the same fuel efficiency as the EU one. That’s much too inconvenient.

    A propos – I’m getting increasingly fed up with 4x4s. Something’s gonna give before long.

  32. Elmar_M

    Sorry, yes my comment was unnecessarily negative. And of course they wont make the “same” mistake twice. I can see simillar problems happening again though.
    I do not like disappointments much, so I try to keep my expectations low. I usually go quite well that way (my low expectations are usually met pretty much dead on, whenever politicians are involved, they are usually below my lowest expectations even).
    Just for the record, I love SpaceX and I watched every launch of a SpaceX rocket live (I think I missed the very first one live, not sure now) and that besides the time difference which put them well into the very early morning here. I am just trying to keep myself from getting to overly excited (as I said, dont like disappointments).

  33. Sergei

    Spectacular view!
    It’s quite funny to measure 21st century rocket engine’s trust in 18th century pounds. I had to convert it to metric get feeling of numbers. Here’s the numbers for other non-american folks:

    855,000 pounds of thrust = 4 MH.
    To compare, each (out of three) space shuttle engine produce 1.8 MN of trust, each shuttle’s buster – 14.7 MH.

    Half a million pounds = 226.5 Tons of propellant

  34. tacitus

    I have a silly question. Does all that thrust affect the earth’s orbit in any way? We have been testing rockets like that for many years and I’ve never heard of anyone being concerned, so I assume it is negligible. Anyone want to do the math for me?

    The sheer overwhelming mass of the Earth makes any force we can apply to it completely ineffectual (in any meaningful way). There will be a theoretically calculable change in Earth’s motion round the Sun, but I suspect it’s not measurable by anything we have today, and it’s certainly nothing to worry about.

    If you think about it, the Earth has survived countless high-energy impacts from space (much higher energy than anything we’ve done) and it is still in the same, stable orbit it’s been in for billions of years.

    I do have an interesting and related story idea I might develop some time which involves parallel Universes and parallel Earths. The key point is that in the vast majority of the parallel universes, Earth is not in exactly the same position in space as our own Earth because the countless minor differences that have happened over millions of years — e.g. plate tectonics may have shifted the continents into a different configuration — add up to a major shift in another Earth’s orbit and position when compared to our own. So you would not be able to cross over from one Earth to another, because you would be stepping out into deep space! (But you could use that problem to your advantage as a really cheap and easy way to launch spacecraft, assuming they can get back into our reality!).

  35. Elmar_M

    I am not sure but the biggest “nudge” (and that did do pretty much nothing, I should add) the earth would have gotten in recorded history (while humans were arround and able to write it down), must have been the explosion of the Krakatoa, right? According to Wikipedia it had the equivalent of 900,000 Gigatons(yes giga)of TNT.
    Let me repeat that: ninehundred million megatons of TNT.
    The worlds biggest nuke,the Tsar Bomba had 50 megatons.
    Unless the number on Wikipedia is a typo, this kind of explosive power would make all the nuclear arsenals in the world combined seem like firecrackers.
    Anyone who can top that?

  36. Elmar_M

    Edit,I think those numbers are bollocks. At least some of the other numbers in this article dont make sense either.
    I think it should be 900 megatons of TNT, which would be a lot more reasonable a number. Still 900 megatons is nothing to lough at.
    Mount Saint Hellens made 400 Megatons. So less than half of that. Looking of the description of this explosion, the explosion of the Krakatoa must have been quite a sight…

  37. qwints

    My family’s from Waco and they said that only the local paper published a notification. Waco’s surrounded by a bunch of small municipalities and only the closest one (McGregor) warned people.

  38. Grew up in Huntsville in the 60’s and remember the tremors from the Saturn tests. We loved it.


    cheyenne- bringing up al gore is a misdirection of the lamest sorts. what you are trying to imply is that the test produced huge amounts of CO2 that would contribute to the well established “green house” effect that is the result of excessive CO2 produced from the chemical combustion of fossil fuels.

    however, if we can look at chemistry you will see that in reality this test did not do that. liquid oxygen and hydrogen are two chemically combustible substances that, when combined, produce the highest thrust rate at the cleanest output that we know of.

    if you want to imply that nasa is making the earth hotter from green house gases i suggest you turn your ire to china’s cars, to india’s coal plants, and to the hot gas that escapes from your boring brain.

  40. stevechell: Read my comments policy, please. It’s linked in the sidebar. You can disagree with cheyenne, but that last insult violates my one simple rule for commenting here.


    sorry. i don’t like stupid people. if somebody lies they need to be corrected. he clearly lied and try tried to say something that was very false. i tried to correct.

  42. IVAN3MAN

    Phil, you should see the language in the comments section at

  43. Sili


    The fuel in the Falcon engines is kerosene, not hydrogen. The do give off CO_2_. I just don’t think all the spacelaunches put together contribute significantly compared to just a day of driving in the US.

    But I’d love to see some back-of-the-envelope numbers.

  44. Sergei

    I have a silly question. Does all that thrust affect the earth’s orbit in any way? We have been testing rockets like that for many years and I’ve never heard of anyone being concerned, so I assume it is negligible. Anyone want to do the math for me?

    It doesn’t. In order to create trust something (like rocket engine exhaust) have to leave the Earth’s orbit. So theoretically those tiny satellites we send deep into space might affect the orbit, but mass and speed is so small, that the affect practically dissolve in space dust falling on Earth and Solar wind effects.

  45. Sergei

    “quote” tag didn’t work in my last post. How you guys create quotes here? Thanks.

  46. Try “blockquote”.

    Blockquote will do something like this

    Or you could just italicise using the “i” tag like this.

  47. Gary Ansorge

    ,,,and Jesus just told me, you don’t represent HIS teachings in any way, shape or form,,,

    GAry 7


    ur a freaking retard man God is real and hes there ur jsut a mentally
    retarded fag that need s a freaking life u dumb ass fuk nut get a
    freaking life and go back to sea world bitch
    Yeah, and once yuo gets to about the 8 year old level send yuo
    something on the basics of logic

  49. Rev. I. P. Freeley

    Matthew 24:11 And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.

  50. I believe this internet site has got some rattling great information for everyone : D.


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