NOV and SpaceX Transcript


00:11 Michael Gaines: Hi and welcome to another episode of NOV Today. I'm your host, Michael Gaines. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this new podcast journey we've been taking has been what I like to describe as, the story behind the story. In other words, behind all of the purchase orders and invoices are usually conversations, collaboration, and NOV team members making creativity, innovation, and sharing their passion a regular part of their workday. This was made crystal clear to me when, through a single Yammer post, SpaceX fan, Bernt Egeland from Kristiansand, Norway, posted a video he found on YouTube that showed several NOV portable power units on SpaceX's autonomous drone ship, "Okay, I Still Love You."

00:58 Michael Gaines: Space exploration company or more commonly, SpaceX, is the brainchild of entrepreneur, Elon Musk, who is known for being one of the co-founders of PayPal and the current CEO of Tesla Motors. Further investigation of the video indicated that it was footage from the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of February 11, 2015. In the YouTube post, the unnamed videographer walks around the barge, purportedly surveying damage of the power generation equipment caused by 20-foot ocean swells. This Yammer post was quickly followed up by additional comments from NOV employees, with the most detailed coming from Eric Vasquez, indicating that NOV equipment has been provided to SpaceX for the last two years. In case the previous statements didn't hit you like it did me initially, let me try to rephrase. NOV is directly involved in the space industry, and more specifically, as a supplier of portable power equipment to SpaceX.

02:03 Michael Gaines: When I found out we were involved with SpaceX, a tsunami of questions came to mind. How did we secure business with a space exploration company? What technology is involved? On and on the questions came, hungry for answers. I began my search by placing a call to Eric Vasquez, whose post seemed to indicate he was well informed, or at least, could point me in the right direction. After a quick call to Eric, two names emerged, Operations Support Supervisor, Garrett Williams and Gulf Coast Senior Sales Representative, Harris Allemand.

02:38 Michael Gaines: Good morning.

02:39 Garrett Williams: Hey, Michael. Good morning.

02:40 Michael Gaines: Hey, good morning, Garrett. How are you? 

02:41 Garrett Williams: Oh, pretty good. How about you? 

02:43 Michael Gaines:
Oh, man, I'm doing well. Can't complain of a nice, rainy morning here, which ironically I enjoy, so maybe it's just me. So, I spoke with Eric Vasquez who then directed me to... Ultimately, to you. And so, I'm just trying to figure out how in the world does one of the leading oil and gas manufacturers and specifically, portable power providers end up working with SpaceX? 

03:16 Garrett Williams: Yep. It's kind of a funny story. One of our offices had received a call back in September of 2014, basically, someone asking for a generator. It seemed like a pretty simple request at the time. And at that point in time, we really didn't know who they were specifically, we didn't have any involvement with them prior to that. So it was a fairly new company, we didn't know much about them. So standard procedure is you receive the call, you find out what they need, we drafted all that up, we sized everything up, and we kicked it off to the salesmen for pricing.

03:52 Michael Gaines: Gulf Coast Senior Sales Representative, Harris Allemand.

03:55 Harris Allemand: So they called the office. I went down there to the location where they were at. I spoke to the guys and asked them what they needed and what they were looking for. And basically, from there, I just stayed on top of them, and we ended up selling them several units, and then they got in conjunction with the office and did a bunch of wiring, and they can remotely start the generators, and it was a big project.

04:21 Michael Gaines: Wow.

04:22 Harris Allemand: And we just stayed in touch with them. And whether they're in Florida, Cape Canaveral, or in California, we just stayed in touch, and servicing and supply whatever they need.

04:33 Michael Gaines: Again, Garrett Williams.

04:35 Garrett Williams: When we started to dive deeper into it, we thought it was a joke. So we have a random person calling, basically saying that they need a generator that's going to be powering some hydraulic thrusters on a barge, that's going to be used as a landing and launching pad for rockets, sending supplies to the International Space Station. [chuckle] So we were definitely kind of hesitant at first, it's like you don't get it all like that too often. And so we had our doubts initially.

05:05 Garrett Williams: But like I said, we dug a lot deeper into it, and it was actually... It was SpaceX. We did our homework, we found out who they were. They actually won a CRS contract back in 2008 from NASA, which is basically a commercial resupply service contract. And they essentially bring supplies to the International Space Station. They have made them quite a bit of work in general. They send satellites into orbits, they send supplies to the space station, so they definitely do quite a bit of work. But our application at the time, they were refurbishing a barge in Morgan City, and that was the one of two. So SpaceX actually has two drone ships, or they're actually autonomous space drone ships, as they call them. But they're unmanned, they have four hydraulic thrusters on the barge, and they sit in the middle of the ocean.

06:04 Garrett Williams: So one is actually named "Just Read the Instructions" that's actually based out of the Port of Los Angeles, that's covering the Pacific Ocean. And they have the second one, which is the initial barge that we were covering is, "Of Course I Still Love You" which is based out of Cape Canaveral covering the Atlantic. So, the initial barge that we were located on was in Morgan City, they were building that barge up. We had sent our equipment to Morgan City, they put it on the barge around October. So essentially, that same year, they put it on the barge, I went out into the Atlantic. They have 11 flights actually as of today off of those two barges. And it's a pretty cool feature that they have is, it's a completely unmanned barge. It has GPS positioning systems, which is controlled with the thrusters, but it's actually able to stay within 10 feet of a specified longitude and latitude. The longitude and latitude was actually, you have something the size of a football field, and they're landing a 14-storey building on top of it in the middle of the ocean.


07:19 Garrett Williams: I mean, you can imagine how difficult that would be.

07:20 Michael Gaines: Yeah.

07:21 Garrett Williams: And they have to account for not only GPS errors but also swells. Yeah, I mean, the ocean's not flat, it goes up and down, depending on the tide and things of that nature. It really blows your mind when you really start to research this stuff, and it was an amazing project to definitely be a part of.

07:40 Michael Gaines: So tell me, what specific equipment have we provided to SpaceX so far? 

07:49 Garrett Williams: So far, we've sent a total of four generators and six fuel tanks. They had the initial launch, which was in January of 2015, which is the "Of Course I Still Love You". We sent two 150 kWs, and they had the launch. When they tried to land back on the pad site, they had some malfunctions.

08:20 Michael Gaines: Right. I remember seeing that.

08:23 Garrett Williams: Yeah. It actually blew up our generators, our fuel tank, and it was... Because you have to understand, a lot of our equipment goes offshore, so there's certain Coast Guard regulations, it's built to a certain spec. And we think these generators are indestructible, you can't do anything to these things. But when you have a 14-storey jet rocket filled with jet fuel, it melted these generators like it's butter.

08:51 Michael Gaines: And as a quick sidebar, if you're like me and can't visualize what 1.7 million pounds of super heated thrust from nine rocket engines does to a portable power unit, a quick web search should show you just how powerful those engines are. And believe me, it's impressive. Again, Garrett Williams.

09:12 Garrett Williams: We did have to do some minor modifications overall. They were offshore-approved, so they were essentially already ready to go offshore for that application. The one modification we did do, it's actually called a "battleshort". And what a battleshort is, is you typically hear about this in military application, and what it means is you're taking off every safety measure from the unit outside of a manual emergency shutdown. So when you set a unit up for battleshort, you're rigging it to where regardless of oil pressure, regardless of cooling temperature, which our safety measures made in order to protect the engine, they want to eliminate all of those.

10:00 Michael Gaines: Harris Allemand.

10:01 Harris Allemand: The reason SpaceX wanted it that way is because when they come to touch down or take off their rocket, they can't have any power failure whatsoever.

10:15 Garrett Williams: So unless they need to manually shut that unit down, they want it to run regardless of what the temperature is or regardless of what the oil pressure is. Because it's a lot more crucial for the barge to be in position than it is for, "Oh, the generator's going to overheat." So we did have to make some modifications on that end, just removing all of the safety measures, so it wouldn't shut down regardless of any hiccups, any error codes, anything to that nature. We were actually pretty up to par for what they needed at the time other than, just like I said, that slight modification there. So we were definitely ready for it.

10:54 Michael Gaines:
I was still curious as to who the personnel were who made the modifications to the units that SpaceX used. So, I looked up the number to the portable power facility in Larose, Louisiana and spoke with Gulf Coast Regional Manager, Ronnie Hebert.

11:08 Ronnie Hebert: We've been servicing their needs as needed, as far as we've made some savings, we did some repairs. Yeah, we just tackled it ourselves and went forward with it. It's pretty much a simple need. Two generators, a transfer switch and some distribution, and some fuel tanks. We've never heard of SpaceX before, and we started googling it and see what it was all about. Elon Musk was in of it, and he's a genius.

11:37 Michael Gaines: Again, Harris Allemand.

11:39 Harris Allemand: Everything was in-house. We didn't search out an engineering team or nothing, we just had our guys in the shop which, they're very well trained. And we've got with SpaceX and see what they wanted, we did our research, and we did it, just took off from there.

11:54 Michael Gaines: So, let's imagine for a moment that you aren't convinced this is a big deal. I can respect that. So let's look at it from a different angle. According to SpaceX, the Falcon 9 rocket costs approximately $60 million. Historically, rockets like the Falcon 9 were used once and then scrapped upon re-entry. In other words, up until SpaceX, companies considered it standard practice to literally scrap $60 million. That's the exact same concept as going out to buy a brand new Boeing 737, flying it once, and then sending it to a scrap yard to be demolished. Or put another way, the equivalent of purchasing a little more than 1.2 million barrels of oil and lighting a match to it.

12:43 Michael Gaines: But now, with the advent of reusable rockets, considered the Holy Grail of the space industry, opens up new things that the former NASA Deputy Administrator, Lori Garver, stated, "Allows for significant steps towards interplanetary travel. Think launching and landing on demand, just like today's commercial aircraft, in addition to cheaper launches of satellites, that we have all come to rely on for everything from GPS to base directions to next generation weather satellites."

13:12 Garrett Williams: The technology that they're working on really is a whole another level. And it's similar to what I like to say the "innovitas". You want to have a lot of innovative and forward-looking projects, opportunities, products, things of that nature. I think our mission statements tend to align pretty well and anything that is innovative or, like I said before, is forward-looking, it's been great. These guys are great to work with, easy to work with, they tell us what they need, and we essentially make it happen.

13:48 Michael Gaines:
So the next time you hear SpaceX and see one of their rockets land on an autonomous spaceport drone, keep an eye out for those yellow boxes on the deck and be proud to know NOV is literally powering the future of the space industry.

14:05 Michael Gaines: For NOV Today, I'm Michael Gaines. Thanks for listening, and we'll talk to you later.


14:34 Michael Gaines:
Thanks for listening to this episode of NOV Today. We'd like to hear your feedback, share your thoughts by tweeting us @NOVGlobal and using the hashtag #NOVToday. Or you can contact us by sending an email to [email protected]. For NOV Today, I'm Michael Gaines. Thanks for listening, and we'll talk to you later.