Friday July 11, 2008 – Hawthorne California
We departed through the NASA JPL gates very quickly in order to arrive in time for our tour of the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, site in Hawthorne, CA. They had recently moved from their old El Segundo site to this newly renovated former Boeing plant where 747 fuselage sections were made. The large plant is unique in the sense that it houses the offices and desks where engineers design their launch vehicles and spacecraft system components. The three Academies were again split into two groups to facilitate easier handling of the tour; Roger, a SpaceX media coordinator, and Jonathan, an engineering employee with the firm, were the tour guides for one group.
After passing through the engineering office spaces in the front of the building, we stopped to pick up some beverages in SpaceX’s complimentary cafeteria. We then moved on to pass through each section of the large manufacturing bay. We passed by engine chamber skeletons and composite barrel test sections. There were various inspection rooms that provided quality control and clean rooms where sensitive fabrication was conducted. A ceiling-mounted crane system provided part transport throughout the bay. As we walked along, Roger explained the background history and current endeavors of SpaceX, praising the low cost and efficient response they can offer customers who wish to launch satellites into low Earth orbit.
We were able to enter a trailer vehicle that served as SpaceX’s sole launch operations center – a simple space where several computers and communications devices enabled operators and managers to conduct space launches and coordinate with users. We then came to a Falcon 9 production line after passing through more manufactured rocket parts and inspection rooms. The heavy two-stage, RP-1/LOX rocket will place large payloads into low Earth orbit and smaller ones into geostationary orbit, using a total of ten of SpaceX’s own Merlin engines to propel it. Its aluminum-lithium alloy casing provides lightweight strength and the whole rocket is being assembled at an unprecedented fast pace. We saw that pieces of a Falcon 1 rocket were being assembled across the bay, which is essentially a smaller version of the Falcon 9 designed to place smaller satellites into low Earth orbit. Completed Merlin engines were also being put together before us, and we were impressed by their compact size and intricate appearance. A mockup of the Dragon capsule, SpaceX’s intended manned spacecraft for future space travel, was also displayed. Our tour guides explained that the Dragon’s heat shield would be designed to allow for steerable ballistic entry landings. They also explained that SpaceX’s launch vehicles and spacecraft are intended to free up NASA resources devoted to mere low Earth orbit activity to allow NASA to pursue grand endeavors like a return to the Moon, a journey to Mars and beyond.
Avionics work was also done in the plant, with electronic components frequently purchased externally and then assembled there. The machine shop for the facility was located outside in a smaller building right next to the main plant. Metal, plastic and other raw materials were converted into basic parts for the rocket here, and we were told that the automated machining devices operated nonstop to provide SpaceX’s rapid production rate. Finally, a question/answer session was provided by Max, a senior mission manager. At 525 employees and growing, SpaceX certainly seemed like an exciting, vibrant and efficient place to work on space transportation technology.