The NASA Glenn and Ames Academies for Space Exploration toured the 550,000 square feet SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, CA on the morning of Saturday July 17th. The tour was led by recruiters Aaron Zeeb and Kelly Compton, as well as David West from the propulsion group and NASA Academy alumni Jon Barr from avionics. The tour guides took the Academies through both the main office area, and the incredible shop floor.
The tour began just barely inside the main doors at the desk of founder and CEO, Elon Musk. His workspace matches that of any other waist-high cubicle amongst a fortress of desks. Elon believes that closed doors ruin companies, and that an open arrangement encourages the quick spread of good ideas. He has stated that any good idea should be brought to him or another lead immediately because in order to revolutionize the way people think about space every possibility must be explored. Elon is working his hardest to revolutionize the way people think about space. He wants to get away from safe and reliable 40-year-old technologies, and fearlessly pursue perpetual innovation.
Before leaving the office area, the group stopped in front of a large portrait of a launching Falcon 9. Our tour guides talked about the new launch site that just officially broke ground at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The Vandenberg site is a retired Titan launch pad, just like the pad at Cape Canaveral, and will share the Russian-inspired horizontal integration and rotate-up-to-launch method that is used at Cape Canaveral. SpaceX believes this is the best way to process launch vehicles because the horizontal integration can be easily climate controlled and does not require the construction and maintenance of a twenty-story building. The Vandenberg pad is scheduled to open in 2013 and host the first Falcon Heavy launch. As long as they launch on a clear day, the SpaceX team will be able to watch the launch from the roof of the Hawthorne plant.
The tour continued down the hall and through some doors in to the shop floor. Again, easy access by anyone into the shop eliminates sticky red tape and pushes progress forward. Inside the shop the first thing everyone noticed was that the cafeteria was on the shop floor feet from the rockets and spacecraft being constructed. This again proved how the unique practices of SpaceX encourage constant and undeterred productivity. The Academies were amazed by this, at least until David told the group about plans to put a restaurant on the floor above. Just like the rocket designs, SpaceX is continually modifying their workspace to meet their changing needs. Speaking of change, SpaceX is preparing to ramp up their rocket production in a major way, as they plan to produce ten Falcon 9s and ten Falcon Heavies per year. As a Falcon Heavy is three Falcon 9 cores put together, therefore the production facility has to be able to produce 40 9-engine cores every year, plus several Dragon pressurized vehicles. SpaceX has been ramping up their workforce for a while to prepare for this; they now have over 1400 employees (with an average age of only 26). NASA Academy Alum Jon Barr told us about the rigorous process for getting hired, and the recruiters told us that while the internship program is very competitive, only about fifty percent of interns get hired on as full employees. Only around a third of SpaceX employees have advanced degrees, most hire on straight out of school, and as David West told us, “I learn more here than I would at graduate school anyway.”
SpaceX divides themselves up into four main groups: structures, propulsion, avionics, and launch. The space in the massive shop is divided up into three of the groups, as launch does not really need shop space. First up was avionics, where SpaceX concentrates on wire harnesses, large lithium-ion batteries, and general avionics bench testing. The most expensive and complicated systems — radar, LIDAR, and star trackers — are bought from outside and tested here, but almost everything else is produced at the Hawthorne facility. In fact, around 85% of the entire Falcon/Dragon vehicle is produced in-house. SpaceX buys manufacturing equipment instead of finished parts because they have more control on cost, quality, and most importantly right now, schedule.
The next part of the shop on our tour was the structures area, where they build solar panels, the Merlin engine, and parts for Falcon and Dragon. Both Falcon and Dragon are made of an aluminum-lithium material that is very thin but very strong. The Merlin engine is a copper body with nickel electroplated to the outside. The current iteration of Merlin, the Merlin-C, takes two weeks to build, has a lot of complex valves, and produces 90,000 pounds of thrust. The next generation, Merlin-D, will only have two valves because of automatic pressure-based sequencing, will require less fuel, will start easier, and will produce 140,000 pounds of thrust at a higher Isp. The generation after that, which is in the prototype phase now, is Merlin-DD. DD will be made from stamped liners that are electron-beam welded and vacuum braised. This will allow SpaceX to produce the Merlin engine more quickly and at less cost. The tour team also discussed how SpaceX has hired NASCAR engine designers to take the turbopump process in-house. NASCAR engineers have mastered effective and cheap turbopump designs. Before we left the structures area we saw the Dragon solar panels. By buying terrestrial-grade solar panels and adding structure and epoxy in-house, SpaceX has lowered costs by two orders of magnitude. The panels only provide 2 months of power, but that exceeds Dragon’s current mission.
Next we saw the integration clean room for the Dragon 2 capsule. This Dragon was only a couple of weeks away from being shipped to Northrop Grumman for vibration testing; it will eventually fly to ISS. The feature-complete Dragon capsule is the pinnacle of SpaceX design so far: always iterating with decision points anchored in technical experience and smart cost savings. For instance, Dragon engineers relied heavily on NASA Apollo Experience Reports and designed the capsule to descend twice as slowly as Apollo so that excess hypergolic fuel would not have to be dumped. The Dragon capsule will also be kept at a higher pressure and will have thicker walls than Apollo, providing better ballistic protection and making the environment more comfortable. The parachute system is derived from the trough system used on Gemini. We also learned about different types of heat-resistant and ablative materials used on Dragon than can withstand 3200 degrees (Mars entry temperatures), as well as the Draco thrusters used for attitude control and eventually launch abort scenarios. One of the most interesting facts was how SpaceX chose the dimensions of Dragon. The bottom of the craft is a wide as highway transportation will allow, while the top is as wide as the required standardized ISS docking port. The result was a good ballistic design. Also, the pressurized and avionics/support sections of Dragon can be produced separately, helping speed manufacture.
Finally, made our way back to the propulsion area, where we got to see real Merlin engines mounted on to an engine mounting block. The design of the Merlin engine was done with simplicity in mind, as simpler designs lead to smaller costs. The engines are the basic thermal expansion design. The engines run on gimbals pressurized by the fuel itself; they call it “fueldraulics” instead of hydraulics. The second stage engine is the same as the first, but with a few complexities added in such as restart capability and a few controllable valves. All engines are run very fuel rich, which allows for lower operating temperatures, on cheap fuels: $10 per gallon RP-1 with $0.50 per gallon LOX as the oxidizer. The first stage engines are simple and inefficient, but it was determined that at this stage in the design, every complexity would add weight, so the inefficient engines are actually cheaper for this design. As a result of good design work, the first stage has full single engine out capability, the first design to do so since the Saturn rockets of Apollo.
The four SpaceX tour guides answered all of the Academites many questions giving everyone a solid understanding of how SpaceX operates and their goals for the future. The Academy left with a lot to think about including their career plans after receiving their undergraduate degrees.