Saturday, July 18th, 2009, SpaceX – Hawthorne, CA
The Glenn, Ames, and Marshall Academies arrived early in the morning for a tour of a relatively young company known as Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk (co-inventor of PayPal). SpaceX was founded with the purpose of supplying low cost transportation of satellites, cargo, and crew to low Earth orbit.
To achieve this goal, SpaceX has developed its Falcon line of rockets which includes the Falcon 1 design (currently in use), as well as the Falcon 9 design (currently under development) for larger payloads. Cargo and crew transport will be accomplished via the use of a Dragon capsule which is in the final stages of development.
Before the tour began, the group was treated to the sight of a new Dragon capsule being driven to its Texas test site on the back of a flatbed truck. It was a mere glimpse of what was to come. Soon the tours were underway. A propulsion expert named Brian, with the assistance of Jon (space materials engineer) and Kiko (heat shield engineer), led the tour of SpaceX’s Hawthorn facility.
The first stop was a flight-ready, full scale Dragon capsule which is scheduled to fly later this year in a Falcon 9 test flight. Next, a line of Merlin engines was observed by everyone in the tour group. Brian commented on the fact that each engine is manufactured by one, and only one, propulsion technician. In this way, each technician is responsible for everything and anything which affects or is affected by that particular engine.
Next, some turbo-machinery, as well as the reaction control engines, were observed through a large series of clean-room windows. After a brief discussion on the function of each device, the group headed further into the depths of the building and stopped for a moment to look at the integration of one of the Falcon 9’s first stage Merlin engine assembly. It was amazing to learn that the entire integration process takes less than two weeks, which is quick and highly efficient by aerospace standards.
Finally, the tour wrapped up with a look at the ablative heat shield material which will be used on the Dragon capsule. This heat shield was comprised of nearly 70 different “tiles,” each of which had a unique curvature which matched that of the Dragon capsule. This ablative material could theoretically withstand up to 10 reentries into the atmosphere, but will only be used once due to landing concerns and safety reasons.
After the tour, the group was introduced to Cassie Kloberdanz, a former NASA employee who now works for SpaceX, as well as Aaron Zeeb, who was the head of technical recruiting at SpaceX. Together they discussed the career opportunities at SpaceX and gave a short presentation concerning the current goals of the company. Presently, SpaceX employs about 800 people and is growing its employee base significantly. The company seems to be a vibrant place to work. The majority of the employees are young and are very eager to do important work for SpaceX.
Perhaps the most significant influence comes from the management style of Elon Musk himself. Musk’s philosophy places a high priority on reducing costs by eliminating, he says, the typical “bureaucracy” found in most space transportation organizations. His management style is very flat, such that there are very few links in the chain of command between himself and the engineers/technicians who work with the equipment on a daily basis. Because of Musk’s ingenuity and innovative spirit, SpaceX seems to be one company that is shooting for the stars.