Who Is Zach Dunn? SpaceX Engineer Risked His Life to Help Save Elon Musk's Company

The story of Zach Dunn, a SpaceX engineer who crawled into a rocket to stop it from imploding, has been told in a new book on the company.

According to Liftoff, a book about SpaceX's early days published March 2, Dunn's actions to prevent damage to that particular rocket could have been a make-or-break moment for SpaceX. It was written by Eric Berger, a senior space editor for Ars Technica.

In September 2008, SpaceX launched its Falcon 1 rocket into orbit. It became the first ever privately developed liquid fuel rocket to orbit the Earth.

Ahead of the launch, engineers at the rocket firm had hired a military plane to transport the SpaceX rocket to its launch site near Hawaii.

The upcoming launch was significant for the company because it was running out of money and, until that point, had failed to get a rocket into orbit. In the race against time, Musk had given the engineers less than two months to make the launch happen.

Musk has previously said that if this launch had failed for some reason, SpaceX would have collapsed.

The rocket almost died before it even got to the launch site. As the plane carrying the Falcon 1 rocket was coming in to land, the engineers on board heard a "terrible popping noise," according to the book, as seen by Business Insider.

The engineers realized that as the plane descended through the atmosphere, the rocket's fuel tank was not balancing the pressure difference fast enough. The pressure in the jet was increasing, and the rocket needed to vent air.

Anne Chinnery, a launch operations manager at SpaceX at the time, warned the engineers to move to the front of the rocket in case it imploded, fearing this could injure or kill those sitting next to it.

Despite this, Dunn, who had joined the team as an intern around two years prior, crawled into a section of the rocket where he could access the liquid-oxygen fuel tank. Using a wrench, he opened a vent that allowed air to flow in and equalize the pressure difference, according to the book.

The incident ended up damaging the rocket slightly, but SpaceX engineers were able to quickly mend it and, in September 2008, that Falcon 1 successfully reached orbit. SpaceX was subsequently able to secure funding to grow.

Musk recalled the launch in 2017 at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) conference in Adelaide, Australia. He said: "I messed up the first three launches, the first three launches failed. Fortunately the fourth launch—that was the last money that we had—the fourth launch worked, or that would have been it for SpaceX."

Dunn went on to become senior vice president of production and launch at SpaceX. In 2020, he left the company to work for Relativity, another private rocket firm seeking to build a rocket made largely from 3D-printed components.

Musk said on Twitter at the time: "Zach made a significant contribution to SpaceX & is a friend. I wish him well as he tries something new."

SpaceX logo
The SpaceX hangar on Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 1, 2019. SpaceX came close to running out of money in its early days. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty