At 12:45AM EST on Monday morning, Olga Pawluczyk — bathed in the glow of her iPad — sat on the end of her bed with her heart in her throat.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was preparing to launch to the International Space Station, carrying aboard a device about the size of a large water bottle, called a spectrometer, that represented three years of work for her company, P&P Optica (PPO).
It was the second time in just over a year that PPO’s President and CEO had sat nervously in front of a screen, waiting to see her team’s work propelled into orbit. On June 28, 2015, SpaceX’s CRS-7 rocket disintegrated about two minutes after launch, along with the PPO spectrometer it was carrying.
“You can’t stop wondering, ‘What if the same thing happens?’” Pawluczyk said. “I don’t think we’d be sending a third spectrometer up.”
“Silence.” That’s how Pawluczyk described the reaction she and her team had to that first, disastrous launch.
“You’re just sitting there stunned,” she said. “Watching the launch… You don’t realize what’s happening right away. How many launches does one watch in a lifetime? All of a sudden I saw little bits falling down. The camera zoomed back to the launchpad, and the announcement was something like, ‘Well, the mission appears to be a failure.’
“This was two years of work for us, and we were a tiny little part of (the mission). Imagine how the engineers who built the SpaceX rocket must have felt. But there wasn’t any loss of life, and in that sense it was just a minor failure. But a lot of people put a lot of time into it.”
You have to do vibration and magnetic testing, to make sure that the thing still works when shaking or weightless and that it won’t interfere with other instruments. This means you need a special testing area somewhere in your headquarters.
So, as Pawluczyk told the Record, her team dug “a six-foot-deep swimming pool inside the building” then filled it with “concrete, sand and different materials to absorb vibrations,” and threw on a “10,000-pound table standing on a pedestal of foam… floated so it absorbs every single vibration.”
You also have to build whatever you’re sending up, and since we’re talking about a spectrometer — a device that breaks apart light shone through an object and precisely measures its wavelengths to understand the chemical composition of the physical thing — you need a holographic lab.
There are only two or three in the world, so you build one.
You also need to build a custom software platform to use the thing, because space is a uniquely challenging UX environment.
Your team works around the clock for ages, but they get it done.
Then, it detonates on launch.
So Pawluczyk was understandably nervous on Monday night. But as the launch progressed, each major milestone came and went without incident, bolstering Pawluczyk’s confidence.
“I had one of the biggest smiles on my face in a while now. It’s only a few minutes, but it took about three years to get there. At SpaceX, they have more people running around, and as the launch approaches everyone is getting really excited about it. The launch went perfectly, the first stage separated perfectly. The rocket, the Falcon, came back and landed successfully. The second stage separated and the solar panels deployed.
“Every time something happened successfully, people were cheering more and more. So even though I was sitting in my little room in darkness watching it on an iPad, I felt like I was part of a much bigger community.”
Did she cheer herself, alone in her bedroom, when the rocket reached safety?
“Of course!” she laughs.
The spectrometer isn’t being used for curiosity-driven research, at least not right now. It’s being used for an important aspect of science too often forgotten: sharing it with the world. P&P Optica’s spectrometer will be used to engage school kids and adults in fun space experiments, sponsored by a company called Story Time from Space that is focused on science communication.
For Pawluczyk, the launch was a fascinating experiment, but a far cry from what she worries about day to day.
“It’s really what spectrometers can do back on Earth that’s much more exciting. We use the same technology that will be on the space station to look at things like food, recycling materials, and to conduct biomedical research.
“Spectrometers are a very interesting science. They allow us to see chemistry. There are many, many earth-bound uses for it.”