Tuesday, February 17, 2009

SpaceX Facility Tour.

Along with members of several space advocacy organizations, I took a tour of the Space X facility in Hawthorne, California. The facility is in an industrial part of town at 1 Rocket Road. Here's the sign, the building's face, and the receiving dock.

These are the only pictures available from the tour because the company refused to let us take our cameras into the building. The front part of the building is where the business offices are located. The back end of the building is where the rockets and the manned capsule are manufactured.

We entered the building from the side, by the security office, and found ourselves in the back corner of a very large open space with high windowed walls and a very high ceiling. Large cubicles filled the space with a row of offices at the back. The enclosed offices are for HR. Every other employee works in a cubicle, including the top executives, supposedly even Elon Musk, the wunderkind owner.

We walked along the back wall past the HR offices to the middle of the building, turned right, and passed through a door into the manufacturing part of the building.

The first thing that catches the eye is how spacious and clean the facility is. The building was formerly used for manufacturing Boeing airliners. So, it's big. The second thing that catches the eye is a white space capsule looking very much like an Apollo, in the center of the room. The third thing noticed is a persistent familiar hum. The fourth thing is the life-size Cylon warrior robot standing next to a pillar about 50 feet away. That's a Cylon hum filling the air! The Cylon is standing next to a microphone, as if it's giving a speech. That Cylon sets the tone for the tour. This is no ordinary manufacturing facility.

The Cylon is facing the cafeteria, which is well stocked with hot and cold beverages and snacks. Behind the Cylon is where all the work is done.

The first stop on our tour was the Falcon 1 booster assembly area. A partially assembled Falcon 1 rested on a track. The mockup space capsule is near the rocket. The capsule is SpaceX's Dragon, the craft the company proposes to use for shipping supplies and personnel to and from the International Space Station. Although we were not allowed to take photos, the mockup looked very much like this. (This photo of the Dragon is taken from Wikipedia here, is credited to PistolPete037, and is reproduced pursuant to Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 here.)

Across an aisle was the engine assembly area. Several engines were standing in various stages of assembly. Farther into the building we came across the actual Dragon capsule. It looked to be about 12 feet in diameter and perhaps 18 feet tall. The capsule's hull appeared to be complete. Again, it looked very much like an Apollo capsule. Apparently, this is not a coincidence. Our tour guide praised the design of the Apollo and used the word "perfect" more than once to describe it. Dragon's function is to carry astronauts and supplies into space, not exactly the same as Apollo's, but similar, and so its form follows Apollo's.

Although the shell of Dragon's hull appeared complete, the interior was incomplete. The interior was an empty space waiting for flooring and instrumentation to be installed. No accessories were attached to the exterior. Work appears to be progressing on Dragon but it is not complete. Nearby stood a base for the capsule. The base was partially covered with tan, thick, pieces of some kind of rubbery material. The material looked like irregularly shaped bricks. These bricks were the ablative heat shield for Dragon's re-entry.

After Dragon, our tour took us past enclosed rooms. One of the rooms is a command center used during launches. We passed these rooms to the back where raw materials, such as aluminum, were delivered, stored, and machined. This area is also where the Falcon 9, SpaceX's larger launch vehicle, is assembled. Across from this area an enclosed tent stood behind some screening and signs warning against photography. We weren't told what was in the tent. Three young men were working on something in the tent. A peek into the tent revealed some kind of fabricated panel that looked very much like a canopy for a jet. Who knows, perhaps it's something to do with Dragon? Behind the tent two inner stages for Falcon 9 stood on end, each about 30 feet tall.

Our tour next took us to the cafeteria where we were allowed to have some drinks and snacks under the watchful red eye of the Cylon. The coffee was brewed in a futuristic brewing machine, the Keurig. That machine is an engineer's dream. (Here.) Mine, too, actually.

After the cafeteria, we toured an enclosed area where testing of components is done. This area included machines to test for temperature, pressure, shaking, salt, humidity, and electromagnetic interference. In a bit of whimsy, the Electromagnetic Interference Chamber was named "Voodoo Lounge." After touring the testing area, and not touching anything, we were taken to a conference room to watch some videos, including Elon Musk's tour of SpaceX's launch facility at Cape Canaveral, the successful Falcon 1 launch, and animations of Dragon in action. All the videos are available for viewing at SpaceX's website on the multimedia page. (Here.)

The engineers who gave the tour answered questions after the videos. Here's the data dump of those answers.

- SpaceX relies on off the shelf parts to manufacture its rockets. This is done to reduce cost by avoiding the need to have custom made parts. The off the shelf parts meet aerospace and "mil" specifications.

- SpaceX employs about 400-500 people. Many are young. Our three tour guides were engineers. One was just out of college, the other two appeared to be in their late 20s or early 30s.

- Our guides were proud of their company's commitment to safety. They were also proud of their company's ability to produce quality products at low price.

- They said they are focused on getting Falcon 9 done. As one of them put it, they are "head down", working to get Falcon 9 launched.

- They love their work. And why shouldn't they? SpaceX gets 100 applications for every job listing. SpaceX employees must know they are working on something that is both practical and visionary, and really cool, to boot.

And here are my final impressions. SpaceX is for real. Their manufacturing facility looks state of the art. The working area is clean and organized. Real work is being done at the facility. The company has a business plan and is executing it. The employees we met love their work and are committed to succeeding. We took our tour on a Sunday in the middle of a long holiday weekend. While we were there, people were working in the manufacturing facility, and also in cubicles. Our tour guides willingly came in to promote their company and escort a group of enthusiasts around the facility. They had no reason to do so, but they did it on their own time.

The work they are doing at SpaceX is exciting and potentially revolutionary. But it also looks very ordinary. Their building looks like an ordinary manufacturing building. The office space has the look of any other technical work place. Cubicles, desktops, computer screens. The manufacturing area looks ordinary. The only things extraordinary about the place are the rockets lying on their side and the space capsule standing in the middle of the work space. This is what the future of space travel will look like. It will look ordinary. And just like today, when it's hard to remember what life was like before the personal computer and the cellphone, we will forget what ife was like before human space travel became commonplace.


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I've heard that the SpaceX facility also serves as the design studio for Tesla Motors. Perhaps the work going on under the tent are related to Tesla rather than SpaceX. Did the canopy looking thing resemble a windshield perchance?
The fact that he has a Cylon makes SpaceX the greatest space company on Earth (unless Bigelow Aerospace can build a life sized ship of Serenity).

I envy you for taking the tour. I should try to schedule one myself when I have time.

Exit Question: Which Cylon was it?
It was one of the robotic warrior cylons. A centurion, I guess it would be. From the new series. Very scary.
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