Full Transcript: SpaceX Falcon Heavy Test Flight News Conference

Event:                        SpaceX Falcon Heavy Test Flight News Conference

Event date:                  February 6, 2018

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JOHN TAYLOR: Good evening and welcome to the post-launch news conference for the SpaceX Falcon Heavy test flight. I’m John Taylor, director of communications for SpaceX. Joining us to provide a status on the mission, Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and lead designer.


ELON MUSK: Hi, everyone. So yeah, I’m really excited about today, incredibly proud of the SpaceX team. They’ve done an incredible job of creating, well, really the most advanced rocket in the world and biggest rocket in the world.

I’m still trying to absorb everything that happened because it seems surreal to me. Yeah, I had this image of just a giant explosion on the pad with a wheel bouncing down the road and a Tesla logo landing somewhere with a thud. (Laughter.) But fortunately, that’s not what happened.

The mission seems to have gone really as well as one could have hoped with the exception of the center core. The two side boosters, if you guys were here, you saw them land. That was epic. I think that’s probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen, literally, ever. And then the center core obviously didn’t land on the drone ship or we would have shown that. (Laughter.) And I mean, we’re looking at the issue, but I think it didn’t have enough propellant to relight the – all three engines. Sorry, enough for something called TEA-TEB, triethylaluminum-triethylborane that’s used to light the engines. So it – I believe that the center one lit, I believe, and the outer two did not. And that was not enough to slow the stage down.

Apparently, it hit the water at 300 miles an hour and took out two of the engines on the drone ship. So if we got the footage, that sounds like some pretty fun footage. So if the cameras didn’t get blown up as well, then we’ll put that out for just the blooper reel. But that’s the – we weren’t going to reuse the – that center core anyway or the two side boosters. So side boosters – we’ll figure out someplace to put them. But since they not Block 5, or version five, we weren’t planning on reusing any of the cores.

The upper stage seems to have worked perfectly so far. The two burns were executed correctly, and then we’ll see if the upper stage avionics survive quite an arduous trip through the Van Allen belts. Normally, the stage will pass pretty quickly through the Van Allen belts. Here it’s essentially dwelling there for several hours. And then it’s going to do a restart, deplete its propellant, and go to trans-Mars injection. And the propellant levels all look good. The propellant – after the second burn of the upper stage, we were only .3 sigma away from predictions, which is basically very minor.

So it has plenty of propellant to complete the trans-Mars injection assuming that the fuel doesn’t freeze and the oxygen doesn’t boil off and the electronics don’t get fried. Those are the issues. We’ll find out in a few hours if that burn is successful.

I don’t think there’s anything else I know that’s worth mentioning. I went out to the landing zone, took a look at the side boosters. They’re looking in really good condition. So they’re both reflyable, although as I said, they’re a combination of version three and version four, so we will – we’re only going to be reflying really version five at this point. That launches shortly and that’ll be our main stable. We’ll stick to version five for the Falcon architecture. We don’t expect to have a version six.

All right, any questions that I haven’t answered? I’ll do my best to answer them, but I’m not sure if I have the information yet, but I’ll try.

JOHN TAYLOR: So we’re going to start in the room, and the first question goes to David Kerley from ABC News.

QUESTION: Elon, spectacular. What did you learn? What did Falcon Heavy teach you?

ELON MUSK: It teaches – I guess taught me crazy things can come true. Because I – I’d say I didn’t really think this would work. Because when I see the rocket lift off, I see a thousand things that could not work, and it’s amazing when they do.

And I was really – seeing the two boosters land synchronized really just like the simulation – I mean, it makes me think, literally, that could be quite a scalable approach. You could imagine large numbers of those just coming in, landing, taking off, landing, doing many flights per day.

So I think it gives me a lot of faith for our next architecture, sort of the interplanetary spaceship. Kind of have different names for it, but “BFR” is kind of the code name. And it gives me confidence that BFR is really quite workable. When I was actually looking at the side boosters, I’m like, “They’re pretty big.” They’re 16 stories tall, 60-foot leg span, but you really – we need to be way bigger than that.

So I think it’s given me a lot of confidence that we can make the BFR design work. Yeah, it’s – I mean, I have tremendous confidence, obviously, in the SpaceX team, so I think we can really do this a lot and keep advancing the – keep advancing the technology to achieve full and rapid reusability, which would have a profound effect on the future.

Now, one of the interesting things about, say, Falcon Heavy versus Falcon 9 is that Falcon Heavy has the same level of expendability as Falcon 9. So if you look at, say, the price of Falcon 9 is $60 million, Falcon Heavy is 90 even though it’s got three times as much capability, because in both cases the only thing that’s expended is the upper stage. We’re going to start recovering the fairings, the big nose cone. We’re going to recover that, recover the boosters, and so there’s really – the cost of us really between a Falcon 9 and a Falcon Heavy is minor.

JOHN TAYLOR: The next from Marcia Dunn at Associated Press.

QUESTION: Marcia Dunn, AP. What were your – what was going through your mind? How amazed were you to see your Roadster up there with Starman just cruising along with the blue planet? And how long will we be getting live views, do you think, from the car?

ELON MUSK: Well, I think it looks so ridiculous and impossible. And you can tell it’s real because it looks so fake, honestly. (Laughter.) We’d have way better CGI if it was fake. And the colors all look kind of weird in space. There’s no atmospheric occlusion. Everything looks too crisp. But we didn’t really test any of those materials for, “Is it space-hardened” or whatever. So it just has the same seats that a normal car has. It’s just literally a normal car in space, which I kind of like the absurdity of that.

And if you look closely, on the dashboard there’s a tiny Roadster with a tiny spaceman, because Hot Wheels made a Hot Wheels Roadster. And a friend of mine suggested, “Hey, why don’t you put that Hot Wheels Roadster with a tiny spaceman on it in the car too?” I’m like, “That’d be cool, sure.” So we did that.

I mean, it’s kind of silly and fun, but I think that’s – silly and fun things are important. And normally, for a new rocket they’d launch a block of concrete or something like that. I mean, that’s so boring. And I think that just the imagery of it is something that’s going to get people excited around the world. And it’s still tripping me out. I mean, I’m tripping balls here. (Laughter.)

JOHN TAYLOR: Next question in the room. How about Brendan Byrne from WMFE, the NPR affiliate in Orlando?

QUESTION: Yeah. Congratulations, Elon. Great launch today. Where do you see the Falcon Heavy fitting into this launch industry? Is this something that is going to be for more national security? Do you see this for interplanetary missions? What’s the future of Falcon Heavy?

ELON MUSK: Yeah. The great thing – so Falcon Heavy opens up a new class of payload. So it can launch more than twice as much payload as any other rocket in the world, so it’s kind of up to customers what they might want to launch. But it can launch things direct to Pluto and beyond, no stop needed. Don’t even need a gravity assist or anything. And it can launch giant satellites. It can do anything you want.

You could go back to – you could send people back to the moon with a bunch more – if you did a bunch more Falcon Heavy and did an orbital refilling. But two or three Falcon Heavys would equal the payload of a Saturn V. But I wouldn’t recommend doing that, because I think the new architecture, the BFR architecture, is the way to go.

But I think it’s going to open up a sense of possibility. I think it’s going to encourage other companies and countries to say, “Hey, if SpaceX, which is a commercial company, can do this” – and nobody paid for Falcon Heavy, it was paid for with internal funds – then they could do it too. So I think it’s going to encourage other countries and companies to raise their sights and say, “Hey, we can do bigger and better,” which is great. We want a new space race. Races are exciting.

JOHN TAYLOR: How about – one more in the room. How about Derrol Nail from the FOX affiliate here in Orlando?

QUESTION: Mr. Musk, kind of talk us through your thought process as you were watching the launch. You said you were incredibly concerned about it, you just wanted it to clear the pad.

ELON MUSK: Well, I mean —

QUESTION: Because it kind of – you set expectations low, so talk me through as you were watching it.

ELON MUSK: Yeah. I think this is true of anyone who’s involved closely in the design of something. You just – you know all the ways it can fail. And that’s like the sort of mental checklist that’s scrolling through your mind, is all the things that can break. I mean, there’s thousands of things that can go wrong, and everything has to go right once the rocket lifts off. There’s no opportunity to do a recall or upload a software fix or anything like that. It’s either – the passing grade is 100%, at least for the ascent phase. And I’ve seen rockets blow up so many different ways, so it’s a big relief when it actually works.

JOHN TAYLOR: One more question in the room and then we’ll go – I’m sorry.

ELON MUSK: I bet the first – when they first – whoever does – whoever’s – when they’re – first launch a 747 or DC-3 or something like that, I bet the chief engineer was like, “I can’t believe that thing is flying.” (Laughter.)

JOHN TAYLOR: One more in the room and then we’ll go to the phone. How about Irene Klotz from Aviation Week? Irene.

JOHN TAYLOR: We need to have you on mike first for the folks on the phone to hear.

QUESTION: Thanks. I can hold it, okay. Thanks, Irene Klotz with Aviation Week. Congratulations.  Can you talk to us a little bit about what needs to happen to certify Falcon Heavy for the national security missions, how far along you are in that process, and how many flights you might need to do? And also if you’re able to say anything about how much your – SpaceX’s investment to get to the rocket to this point. Thanks.

ELON MUSK: I think we only need – I think there’s – I’m not – it depends on which national security mission that we need to – how many flights depends on which mission. But we have a number of commercial customers for Falcon Heavy, so I think – I really don’t think it’s going to be in any way an impediment to acceptance of national-security missions, because we’ll be doing several Falcon Heavy missions, flights per year. So let’s say if there’s a big national security satellite that’s due for launch in three or four years, we’d probably have a dozen or more launches done by then. So it won’t really – I don’t think there will be a launch number that’s an inhibitor on national security stuff.

And yeah, so and then we’ve got the STP mission that’s coming up, which is another test mission. That’ll go on for – on a – where everything is on Block 5, version five of the rocket. And then we’ll be launching version five, or Block 5 single-stick in a couple months. So I think it’s hopefully smooth sailing for qualification for national security missions.

Our investment to date? It’s probably a lot more than I’d like to admit. We tried to cancel the Falcon Heavy program three times at SpaceX because it was like, “Man, this is way harder than we thought.” Because the initial idea was just like, “Oh, you stick on two first stages as side boosters. How hard can it be?” It’s like, “It’s way hard.” We had to redesign the center core completely. We had to redesign the grid fins because – it’s a long story, but if you’ve got a nose cone on the end of – at the end of the booster instead of a cylinder, you lose control authority. Because if you had a cylinder, you can kind of bounce the air off of the rocket and you get a 30% (ph) or more increased control authority if you’ve got a cylindrical section instead of an ogive section at the end of the booster.

So we had to redesign the grid fins, redesign the control system, massively redesign the thrust structure at the base to take way more load. That center booster has got to deal with over a million pounds of load coming in combined from the side boosters, so it’s – it ends up being heavier. So the center core is basically a complete redesign. And even the side boosters, there’s a pretty large number of parts that change. And then the launch site itself needs to change a lot. I’m guessing our total investment is over half a billion, probably more.

JOHN TAYLOR: I’d like to take some questions from the phone. I think the first one up is Dan Vergano from BuzzFeed News. Is that right?

QUESTION: That’s right. Dan Vergano, BuzzFeed News. Could you talk a little bit about the decision to have the two side cores come down at the same time? Is that just the way it falls out from the physics, or was that an actual decision you made?

ELON MUSK: We did offset them slightly, but really they pretty much just come down. There’s no – we wanted them to offset slightly just so that the radars didn’t interfere, and we actually wanted no communication between the two stages. They were both going a point in absolute space. And we were just worried that the radar reflection of one would be seen by the radar receiver of the other. But no, it just – that’s just kind of how it happened. It was actually meant to happen just like that.

JOHN TAYLOR: The next question on the phone comes from Keith Cowing at NASA Watch.

QUESTION: First of all, congratulations. You’ve launched a rather unconventional payload into space, one that’s generated a lot of buzz. And there’s a lot people – some of them citizen scientists, some of them that are just newbies when it comes to tracking things in space – are going to try and track the Tesla and understand what’s happening to it. You know like that movie, Dude, Where’s My Car? And other than the live webcam today, what is SpaceX going to do to interact with this community of Tesla trackers once the car leaves orbit? Do you have plan, or are you just going to kind of wait and see what bubbles up in the internet and react to it?

ELON MUSK: We have no plan, no plan. (Laughter.) The battery is going to last about 12 hours from launch, roughly, and after that it’s just going to be out there in deep space for maybe millions or billions of years. Who knows. And yeah, maybe discovered by some future alien race thinking, “What the heck? What were these guys doing? Did they worship this car? (Laughter.) Why do they have a little car in the car?” And that will really confuse them.

So I’m not sure what’s going to happen. But I think it’s kind of a fun thing, and I sure hope that next burn works, by the way. We’re not – yeah, we’ll know in a few hours.

JOHN TAYLOR: Now we’re going to go back to the room if that’s okay. So how about Chris Davenport from The Washington Post? Hey, Chris, you can wait until we get you miked.

QUESTION: Thanks. So now that you’re focusing more on the BFR, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the timeline. I know you said it’s coming along faster. And then what that means for your plans for Mars and the moon.

ELON MUSK: Well, I don’t want to get too off topic, but I think we might – if we get lucky, we’ll be able to do short hopper flights with the spaceship part of BFR maybe next year.

JOHN TAYLOR: All right, one more in the room. Let’s see. Who’s – how about Bill Harwood from CBS?

QUESTION: Thanks. Bill Harwood, CBS. Elon, two really quick ones. You mentioned the drone ship. A couple of thrusters got – did the thing land on the ship or nearby or —

ELON MUSK: No, it – so —

QUESTION: And I had a —

ELON MUSK: Again, I would take any information I give with regard to this with a bit of a grain of salt, because I’ll tell you the information that I have but the information I have may be incorrect, so it could be way off.

So the information I received was that we hit the water at about 300 miles an hour, 500 kilometers – roughly 500 kilometers an hour, so that’s hard, and about 100 meters away from the ship. So – which was enough to take out two thrusters and shower the deck with shrapnel. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, and you mentioned the burn coming up. Can you give us any sense of – I know you’re burning to depletion. I mean, how long a burn are we talking about? And when do you hope to have some confirmation to be able to tell us that it did or didn’t work? Thanks.

ELON MUSK: Actually, I don’t happen to know the number – the length of the burn offhand. I was just looking at the propellant residual sigma, which is the key number. It’s a decently long burn though, maybe a minute or so. And yeah, that’ll be in a few hours hopefully. I actually don’t have the latest telemetry from – because I was just out at the landing zone and haven’t been back to launch control since going to landing zone, so I don’t have the latest information on the status of the upper stage.

JOHN TAYLOR: Tom Costello from NBC News, please. Right here on the front row, blue jacket.

QUESTION: Well, congratulations again. I wanted to follow up on Chris’s question because Chris asked you, “What’s your timeline potentially” —

ELON MUSK: Oh, right, right.

QUESTION: — “to go to the moon or Mars?” And you said – did you say, “As soon as next year?” Can you quantify that?

ELON MUSK: No, that’s —

QUESTION: And then I had a – my real question.

ELON MUSK: Sure, yeah.

QUESTION: I’m just doing Chris’s work here.

ELON MUSK: Sure, sure, yeah. (Laughter.) Yeah, well, the – by “hopper test,” I mean kind of like we had the grasshopper program for Falcon 9, where we just had the rocket take off and land in Texas at our Texas test site. So that would be – we’ll either do that at our South Texas launch site near Brownsville or do ship to ship. We’re not sure yet whether ship to ship or Brownsville, but most likely it’s going to – happen at our Brownsville location because we got a lot of land with nobody around. And so if blows up, it’s cool.

But by “hopper test,” I mean it’ll go up several miles and then come down. The ship will – the ship is capable of a single stage to orbit if you fully load the tanks. So we’ll do flights of increasing complexity. We really want to test the heatshield material. So I think we’ll fly out, turn around, accelerate back real hard and come in hot to test the heatshield, because we want to have a highly reusable heat shield that’s capable of absorbing the heat from interplanetary entry velocities, which is really tricky.

QUESTION: So the potential to go to moon or Mars, what’s your timeline there?

ELON MUSK: Oh, yeah, sure. Yeah, yeah. So there are a lot of uncertainties on this program, but it is going to be our focus after – now that we’re almost done with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, we’re going to level off, as I said, at Block 5, or version five. So there won’t be any more major versions of Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy. Dragon is also going to level off at Dragon Version 2. There might be point releases, 5.1 or Dragon 2.1 or something like that. But most of our engineering resources will be dedicated to BFR, and so I think that that will make things go quite quickly.

The ship part is by far the hardest because that’s going to come in from super orbital velocities – Mars-transfer velocities, moon-transfer velocities. These are way harder than coming in from low-Earth orbit. I mean, there’s some of the heating things that scale to the eighth power, which I didn’t think or realize there was anything that scales to the eighth power, but it turns out reentry – certain elements of reentry heating scale to the eighth.

So just, yeah, testing that ship out is the real tricky part. The booster, I think – I don’t want to get complacent, but I think we understand reusable boosters. Reusable spaceships that can land propulsively, that’s harder. So we’re starting with the hard part first.

I don’t know. I think it’s conceivable that we do our first test flight in three or four years of a full-up orbital test flight, including the booster.

QUESTION: To the moon?

ELON MUSK: Oh, no. We’d go to low-Earth orbit first, but it would be capable of going to the moon shortly thereafter. It’s designed to do that.

JOHN TAYLOR: Elon, we want to be sensitive to your time. How many more questions do you want take or how much time do you have? We’re good?

ELON MUSK: I’ll just take a couple, two more questions maybe.

JOHN TAYLOR: Okay, sure. There’s a gentleman who came from our Reddit community —

ELON MUSK: Okay, cool.

QUESTION: — that I wanted to definitely call on. And I don’t know your Reddit handle.

ELON MUSK: I love Reddit. Reddit is awesome.

JOHN TAYLOR: And I don’t want to say your name. So you can introduce yourself with your name or your handle.

QUESTION: Hi, Elon. My name is Martin Avenue (ph) and I’m with Reddit’s r/SpaceX community. I’d like to congratulate you as well, as so many people have done just now. I’d like to know about Starman’s spacesuit.


QUESTION: Is it a production model?


QUESTION: Is it instrumented and/or pressurized, and what’s holding his – what’s holding him up?

ELON MUSK: Well, there’s a mannequin inside. (Laughter.) So it’s just basically stuffed. But yeah, that is the actual production design, so the real one looks just like that. In fact, that’s one of the qualification articles. So that’s a real – that’s the real deal. Yeah, I figured if you’re going to go to – I mean, it’s a dangerous trip. You want to look good. (Laughter.)

It took us three years to design that spacesuit. It was real hard. It’s easy to make a spacesuit that looks good – it’s either – but doesn’t work, or that works but doesn’t look good. But it’s really difficult to make a spacesuit that looks good and works. And you have to make it a multipart process and it’s – it was surprisingly difficult, very difficult.

JOHN TAYLOR: How about Dave Mosher from Business Insider? He’s right there.

QUESTION: Hi, Dave Mosher from Business Insider. Thank you so much for doing this, by the way. I want to go back to BFR for a second since you were talking about that, and also Starman, which is such an inspirational thing that’s happening. Have you thought – given any thought to what you might do with BFR in that way? What is the payload and any thoughts to that?

ELON MUSK: No, no idea. Suggestions are welcome. I mean, it’s a beast, so the BFR – it’s a nine-meter diameter, 30 feet roughly diameter, which is, yeah, you fit a lot in 30-feet diameter; 110, 120 meters long. Yeah, big, although I bet it doesn’t look that big after a while. (Laughter.)

All right, maybe a couple more.

JOHN TAYLOR: One more in the room?

ELON MUSK: Yeah, sure. One more, yeah.

JOHN TAYLOR: Okay, sure. How about Tim Fernholz from Quartz in the back with the white shirt.

QUESTION: Hi, Elon. Thanks again for doing this. Two questions for you: one just about fairing recovery, just curious how SpaceX is coming with that; and two, Jeff Bezos just responded to your tweet congratulating you on your launch today. You just mentioned a minute ago that we need a new space race. I’m just curious if you see yourself in a race with Blue Origin.

ELON MUSK: What was the first part of the question? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Checking in on fairing recovery.

ELON MUSK: Yeah. So the – fairing recovery has proven surprisingly difficult. I think – I’m pretty sure we’ll solve fairing recovery in the next six months. But it turns out if you pop the parachute on the fairing, you’ve got this giant awkward thing. It tends to interfere with the airflow on the parachute and it gets all twisty. And obviously, it was low priority too. Also we have fairing version two, which is the really – that’s the important one that we want to recover. So even if we recover fairing version one, that wouldn’t be – we wouldn’t be reflying it in the future. So fairing two and recovery, that’s very important. And my guess is next six months we figure out fairing recovery.

And we’ve got a special boat to catch the fairing. It’s like a catcher’s mitt. It’s like a giant catcher’s mitt in boat form. It’s going to run around and catch the fairing, actually, kind of fun. I think we might be able to do the same thing with Dragon. So unless – if NASA wants us to, we can try to catch Dragon. (Laughter.) Literally, it’s meant for the fairing, but it would work for Dragon too.

JOHN TAYLOR: In the room, how about James Dean from Florida Today?

QUESTION: Thanks so much, Elon. James Dean, Florida Today. Speaking of those Dragons, could you give us a status on commercial crew and when we might realistically see an astronaut just getting to low-Earth orbit, much less the moon or Mars?

ELON MUSK: Yeah. We’re making great progress on Crew Dragon, or Dragon Version 2. That’s – yeah. Actually, in terms of company priorities, the – obviously, mission assurance is always number one as a priority. But then number – the priority used to be Falcon 9 Block 5, and then a month ago I said, “Absolute priority is Crew Dragon.” So we’re pretty much done with Falcon 9 Block 5, or version five, pretty much almost done with Falcon Heavy. There’s a few tweaks that would occur with Falcon Heavy Block 5, but they’re minor.

And so it’s all hands on deck for Crew Dragon, and our goal is to – we’re aspiring to fly Crew to orbit at the end of this year. That’s our goal. I think that’s – I think the hardware will be ready.

JOHN TAYLOR: We have time for one more question in the room.

ELON MUSK: And I was just looking at Falcon 9. It’s like, “Yeah, look kind of small.” (Laughter.)

JOHN TAYLOR: So we’re going to have to wrap it, and a mike for Chris Gebhardt, please, to have the last question.

QUESTION: A question in terms of the next Falcon Heavy, which is that Arabsat or the one for the Air Force. Do you have any idea of how Pad A held up from today’s launch? And how quickly can it be changed —

ELON MUSK: Oh, the pad looks good.

QUESTION: Pad looks good?

ELON MUSK: Pad is in good shape, yeah, yeah.

QUESTION: And so yeah, so then I guess my questions are: How quickly can the pad be reconfigured between Heavy and Falcon 9, since you need that pad for both?

ELON MUSK: Oh, real fast. It’s no problem going back and forth. It’s designed that way.

QUESTION: And for the Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 – or Falcon Heavy, are the – does the Falcon Heavy need a dedicated core built for it, or are the block —


QUESTION: It does, okay.

ELON MUSK: It does. The center core needs to be dedicated, yeah. So that’s – the center core is a special build. The side boosters, we can reuse existing Falcon 9’s but we need to just replace the inner stage with a nose cone and it needs to use the upgraded titanium grid fins, which were sweet. Those worked out real well. I’m really happy about those.

In fact, I’m glad we got the side boosters back because they had the titanium grid fins and the center core didn’t. So if I was to pick any one, I would have picked the side boosters – I’d pick the center core to explode. (Laughter.) So that would be the least – yeah. Those (inaudible) grid fins are – they’re super expensive and awesome, but the production rate on them is slow. We need them back. Those were the most important things to recover were those grid fins.

QUESTION: Are there censors inside the spacesuit testing its ability to function?


QUESTION: Nope, it’s just up there?

ELON MUSK: Nope, yeah. No, it definitely works though. You can just jump in a vacuum chamber with it and it’s fine. (Laughter.)

JOHN TAYLOR: Elon, thank you.

ELON MUSK: All right, thank you.

JOHN TAYLOR: Thank you so very much for your time. Really appreciate it.

ELON MUSK: All right, all right, thank you. All right, thanks, everyone. Hope you had a good time. Much more excitement coming. (Applause.)

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Image by SpaceX

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