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An Inside Look At the SpaceX Rocket Factory

Soulskill posted more than 4 years ago | from the pretty-pictures dept.

Space 50

Dave Bullock writes "The folks at SpaceX are working hard in their Hawthorne labs, cubicles and factory, building rockets that will hopefully bring future astronauts to the International Space Station. At the behest of Wired, I toured the former 747 factory which is now a rocket assembly line. 'Eschewing the traditional startup trappings of two college grads eating ramen, watching Adult Swim and coding until the wee hours of the night, SpaceX instead employs hundreds of brainiacs and builds its rockets in a massive hangar that once housed a 747 assembly line. Started in 2002 by PayPal founder Elon Musk, SpaceX (short for Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) brings a startup mentality to launching rockets into orbit, which until recently was almost exclusively government turf. The hope is that minimal bureaucracy, innovation and in-house manufacturing and testing can be used to put payloads into space at roughly one-tenth the cost of traditional methods.'"

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First! (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28195207)

fp

Minimal? (4, Funny)

grommit (97148) | more than 4 years ago | (#28195213)

I'm all for minimal bureaucracy and maybe minimal in-house manufacturing would be good but is it a smart idea to have minimal innovation and testing?

Re:Minimal? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28195321)

As long as we can minimize the bureaucracy involved in scrubbing a launch when it's so cold the O-rings shrink then I'm all for it.

But a lot of that bureaucracy is for safety. Don't skimp on the safety.

Re:Minimal? (1)

rbanffy (584143) | more than 4 years ago | (#28196063)

Riding a chemical rocket to space has never been safe. And, given the energies, tolerances and limitations, won't be for the foreseeable future.

I am a strong supporter of nuclear-thermal mostly because by packing more energy, you can build more robust spacecraft. Cost increases exponentially the more sophisticated manufacturing you require to make your spacecraft rugged and light. If we could build spacecraft to aircraft or lower specs, cost would decrease impressively.

A solid-core lift-off stage couple with a liquid or gas core for space operations would open up a lot of interesting possibilities.

Re:Minimal? (1)

Idiomatick (976696) | more than 4 years ago | (#28200535)

Nowhere on earth will you be allowed to use a nuclear powered anything. I mean unless you mean like a sub with it just producing the power... in which case its not feasible for efficiency to weight reasons. Unless you want to remove all the shielding and then you still have to carry around crap for propulsion in space. (I think if you made the material you shoot be air you could collect it and compress it on the way up which would reduce weight when it matters... the launch. But ianaap)

Ps. for nuclear-thermal i assume you mean http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion) [wikipedia.org] which so many people love the idea of... maybe if we set a place on earth where were just like fuck it no1 needs to live here... has to be near the equator... honestly the nuke M.E. crazies look like they might be on to something.

Re:Minimal? (1)

Geoffrey.landis (926948) | more than 4 years ago | (#28201341)

Ps. for nuclear-thermal i assume you mean http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion) [wikipedia.org] which so many people love the idea of...

No, that's nuclear pulse propulsion.

Nuclear thermal means a reactor (not a bomb) produces heat, which heats a fluid that is then ejected as reaction mass (e.g., NERVA [daviddarling.info] ).

Nuclear thermal is great for in-space propulsion, but most nuclear thermal engines have a poor thrust to weight ratio for launching from the surface.

Re:Minimal? (1)

rbanffy (584143) | more than 4 years ago | (#28204805)

"but most nuclear thermal engines have a poor thrust to weight ratio for launching from the surface"

The Soviet RD-0410 seemed promising. STNP and Dumbo too. It's not perfect, but if you couple it with a cheap enough propellant (the 0410 used LH2, which is not cheap), you may have something as a result.

Wonder what could be done if we could use water as a propellant on a nuclear lightbulb design.

Re:Minimal? (1)

Geoffrey.landis (926948) | more than 4 years ago | (#28212595)

"but most nuclear thermal engines have a poor thrust to weight ratio for launching from the surface"

The Soviet RD-0410 seemed promising.

??? RD-0140 had a thrust that wasn't even twice the weight of the engine. (e.g., http://www.astronautix.com/engines/rd0410.htm [astronautix.com] ). If you carry enough fuel to give you enough delta-V to get to orbit, it wouldn't even lift its own weight.

In general, nuclear thermal rockets are poor as booster stages for Earth launch.

STNP and Dumbo too. It's not perfect, but if you couple it with a cheap enough propellant (the 0410 used LH2, which is not cheap), you may have something as a result.

Liquid hydrogen's cheap enough. The problem with it is the low density. However, since the specific impulse is inversely proportional to the square root of the molecular mass of the exhaust, if you don't use hydrogen or helium, your specific impulse drops so much that you might as well just use chemical. (I've also proposed lithium, with lower specific impulse, but still better than chemical if you can run hot enough, and it's much much denser than hydrogen. Lithium and boron hydrides are good, too.)

Re:Minimal? (1)

rbanffy (584143) | more than 4 years ago | (#28225563)

"it wouldn't even lift its own weight."

Sorry. My math was off by an order of magnitude. It looks now it's 10% as promising as I thought it was ;-)

And I am not sure I would like to be anywhere close to a hot exhaust of Lithium vapor.

Re:Minimal? (1)

Geoffrey.landis (926948) | more than 4 years ago | (#28226191)

And I am not sure I would like to be anywhere close to a hot exhaust of Lithium vapor.

No problem, we'll recruit a ground crew of people with bipolar disorder!

Re:Minimal? (1)

sketerpot (454020) | more than 4 years ago | (#28201755)

Wrong. Nuclear thermal rockets use a reactor to heat propellant. It's also possible to have a nuclear reactor producing electricity which is used in an ion drive, which you have unfairly written off; it gets very high specific impulse in space, albeit with small thrust.

Also, there are countries where people aren't irrationally paranoid about anything with "nuclear" in the name. China, for example, is set to start kicking a lot of ass with their HTR-DB mass-produced high-temperature gas-core pebble bed modular reactors. I think when you say "nowhere on earth" you actually mean "nowhere in the United States or Europe".

Re:Minimal? (1)

Idiomatick (976696) | more than 4 years ago | (#28210375)

Well it'd also violate some reallllly important treaties and i think even china would be opposed to that.

I wrote it off because well... it doesnt produce enough thrust to make it into space so that defeats the purpose of the spacecraft? I think it could be used in conjunction with another engine like current designs but it doesn't solve the problem we are having. And that is getting into space not traveling throughout it. Clearly our goal should cut the cost of reaching the moon by 10 or 100 before we start worrying about being able to reach 20km/s I mean where are we going to go that is more important than being able to get off the ground?

Re:Minimal? (1)

rbanffy (584143) | more than 4 years ago | (#28204719)

Not at all. Orion is only to be used if we need to evacuate the planet as nobody sane will want to stay behind when all spaceships have departed.

Re:Minimal? (1)

jg42122 (1571769) | more than 4 years ago | (#28247025)

I believe the only way to truly break the space barrier is to stop thinking conventional chemical, strap on to a rocket, and shoot off into space method is the way to go. We are going to have to come up with a new train of thought to be successful or we will never get off this rock.

Who would have thought that Adult swim doesn't... (2, Funny)

yourassOA (1546173) | more than 4 years ago | (#28195229)

increase productivity. Everyone knows ramen is brain food and people code better when sleep deprived.

Re:Who would have thought that Adult swim doesn't. (2, Funny)

morgan_greywolf (835522) | more than 4 years ago | (#28195513)

increase productivity. Everyone knows ramen is brain food and people code better when sleep deprived.

Definitely. I'm sleep deprived and I can say that my code is excellent. When I can get it to compile. And after that, when I'm looking for bugs and stupid programming mistakes, like failing to initialize pointers prior to use or checking for buffer overflows, but hey, I like working for Microsoft's quality assurance department.

if you build it they will cum (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28195315)

quick! find my cum dumpster!

No Sh!@ (4, Insightful)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 4 years ago | (#28195427)

"Eschewing the traditional startup trappings of two college grads eating ramen, watching Adult Swim and coding until the wee hours of the night"

What a surprise. A company that isn't an IT company doesn't behave like an IT company.
 
Get your head out of your ass Wired, that's only 'traditional' for companies whose products rely on code. Caterers don't code all night. Cabinetmakers don't code all night. Organic farmers don't code all night. Graphic artists don't code all night. And that's only a handful of the startups by friends and family over the years - not one of which involved coding all night. Only two of them are college grads too... The caterer graduated from culinary school and the organic farmer just got her doctorate - in history. And not one of them was under thirty.
 
There's a hell of a lot more to the business world than IT. There's a hell of a lot more people in the business world than college graduates.

Re:No Sh!@ (3, Informative)

IANAAC (692242) | more than 4 years ago | (#28195637)

There's a hell of a lot more to the business world than IT. There's a hell of a lot more people in the business world than college graduates.

Wired are just writing to their reader base. That's what magazines do.

Re:No Sh!@ (2, Informative)

camperdave (969942) | more than 4 years ago | (#28196199)

To be fair, the article is talking about a Silicon Valley startup headed by the guy who started a very successful dot com business.

Re:No Sh!@ (2, Interesting)

wramsdel (463149) | more than 4 years ago | (#28196239)

Amen, brother Derek. Having worked for a startup, and with friends at many others, and now working on my own, I have to say I'm sick of the "Have a marginally clever idea, befriend an MBA, write a business plan, find an angel, work your ass off, get some venture capital, IPO" model. That's just not appropriate in so many cases. My role models are welders and plumbers, not Pets.com. Will it work out? Who knows. I do know that I'm not starving, I sleep well at night, and my son knows what I look like.

There is a lot of code and testing (1)

Shivetya (243324) | more than 4 years ago | (#28196407)

in rocket science so the idea of trying to sort out what is wrong and not going home is appropriate.

Now I wouldn't launch on some caffeine high no sleep coder or engineer.. but I can see pressure situations where I might have to one day... (like its up there but its broke now)

Re:No Sh!@ (1)

neumayr (819083) | more than 4 years ago | (#28196473)

You don't say.
Do you really think the author, or the readers, think the world revolves around IT? Okay, in some ways, they might, but of course they're also aware there are things that don't get fixed in software.
No need for you to get your panties in a bunch just because the author tried to relate to his readers' startup experiences and/or preconceptions.

Smart of them (1)

pavon (30274) | more than 4 years ago | (#28200571)

We tried to do it the IT way at first, but you should have seen the fit the HOA threw after the first stage ignition test. I don't see what the problem was, the neighbors have barbecues over at their place all the time. And don't get me started on all the whining over a little bit of harmless pressurized hydrazine in the garage. I mean we only leaked a few liters of the stuff.

Hopefully... (4, Insightful)

Celeste R (1002377) | more than 4 years ago | (#28195449)

Making a design that lasts is a challenge; a "working" design is easy.

Are they making this a design that lasts? (like it was massively over-engineered). Are they making this a design that is safe? (as in not blowing up or falling apart). And are they making this a design that is easier to build and maintain? (think old VW or Chevy).

Or are they making this cheap? (as in quality), or "good enough" (as in design)? Are they testing every aspect? (stress tests in newer alloys, or even the little things like o-rings)

Sure, doing this on a tight budget is important, but... I'd take my chances with the 42-year-old Soyuz design before overcoming my skepticism. And Soyuz is still operational!

Here's to hoping they know what they're building, instead of making the next high-maintenance toy. I'd rather them take the time to do it right, instead of rushing to mediocrity.

Re:Hopefully... (3, Insightful)

Kjella (173770) | more than 4 years ago | (#28195939)

Are they making this a design that lasts? (like it was massively over-engineered). Are they making this a design that is safe? (as in not blowing up or falling apart). And are they making this a design that is easier to build and maintain? (think old VW or Chevy).

Or are they making this cheap? (as in quality), or "good enough" (as in design)? Are they testing every aspect? (stress tests in newer alloys, or even the little things like o-rings)

Lasts? 99.999% of all stress a rocket takes is in the launch, it's not the Mars robots we're talking about here. Safe? As long as they do satellite, SOP is to blow it up on problems unless it flies apart by itself. Easy to maintain? Again, it's a rocket - there's not much in-flight maintenance.

It's all about cheap and "good enough". Everything else like reliability and ease of building is about bringing the cost down. A rocket is throw-away to get a satellite into orbit, it's very binary did you do it or not. If you did, at a lower price, good. Otherwise bad. Human passengers are different but they're quite some way from that still.

Re:Hopefully... (3, Insightful)

Rei (128717) | more than 4 years ago | (#28197445)

Exactly. Rockets don't care much for idealism. They're all about pragmatism. And I think SpaceX has taken a very pragmatic approach. Yeah, it sucks working on a completely new stack because you can't fall back on all of the old testing (read: risk retirement) that's been done before (as well as having higher capital costs). But, for god's sake, it's about time we had new a stack designed from scratch making use of gathered knowledge and modern technology. I really do believe that, given time to retire the risk (which most other stacks retired long ago), they can achieve at least a good portion of their target cost reduction while maintaining reliability. Their turnaround time on launch attempts with only minimal staff is really amazing, and they've made some good design decisions. For example, I like their use of partially pressure-stabilized tanks -- the tanks are strong enough that you don't have to keep them pressurized while transporting them, but not strong enough to withstand the forces of launch without being fully pressurized. Seems to me the perfect middle ground.

Re:Hopefully... (1)

lgw (121541) | more than 4 years ago | (#28199227)

Wait, you like a private-sector rocketry program? Who are you and how did you get Rei's account credentials? ;)

Re:Hopefully... (1)

Rei (128717) | more than 4 years ago | (#28200459)

I've always liked SpaceX. They're actually working on orbital rocketry, rather than unscaleable joyrides.

Re:Hopefully... (1)

lgw (121541) | more than 4 years ago | (#28203949)

Yeah, they seem to want to be a business, not a home for adventurers. I just like the fact they're focused on practical soutions, not on making rockets that would look good on SciFi book covers.

Re:Hopefully... (1)

dpilot (134227) | more than 4 years ago | (#28197549)

I'm in the silicon business, and I've often thought it would be great to get parts into rockets, better yet, missiles. Look at the bright side...

The entire operational liftime of your part is measured in minutes, maybe even seconds. None of the kpoh stuff.
Particularly with missiles, your part is destroyed at the end of operational life, and it's well-protected before that. No need to worry about reverse engineering and such.

Of course there is a problem with field returns, because if something bad makes it to the field, you really want them.

have you used paypal? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28195451)

'minimal bureaucracy' is not the phrase that comes to mind, especially when something goes wrong.

A comapny with a vision (1)

raymansean (1115689) | more than 4 years ago | (#28195489)

I still am amazed that anyone else is shocked that a private company can do something for cheaper than the gov't. In the company there is one boss and he sets the vision of the company. Unfortunately for gov't work, there are 536 bosses and all of them have the ability to over rule the other. This is why most gov't projects cost more than the original contract. In the case of this company their goal is a rocket and currently no one is interfering with that goal. Wait until NASA finally orders their first rocket from them, and all of a sudden NASA wants Y spec instead of X spec, we will then see the cost go up.

Re:A comapny with a vision (2, Insightful)

morgan_greywolf (835522) | more than 4 years ago | (#28195645)

I still am amazed that anyone else is shocked that a private company can do something for cheaper than the gov't. In the company there is one boss and he sets the vision of the company.

Never worked for a large multinational, huh?

This is why most gov't projects cost more than the original contract.

The real reason is is that Bruno has to eat. See, you wouldn't want to Bruno to go hungry. Oh, no. See, Bruno can get very, very cranky when he's hungry. And you wouldn't Bruno to be cranky, now would you? *slam* *smash* See what I mean?

Re:A comapny with a vision (2, Informative)

raymansean (1115689) | more than 4 years ago | (#28195799)

Even at a large multinational there is a direct chain of command that stops with the president or the board, in the US there are 536 people who sit on the board when you have a gov't contract or are a gov't agency and each one of those 536 people have multiple Brunos to keep happy.

Re:A comapny with a vision (3, Insightful)

Tisha_AH (600987) | more than 4 years ago | (#28197843)

And each of those 536 congress-critters has their own agenda and suffers from a chronic lack of long term vision or commitment. Their only concern is making their next election cycle, keeping the lobbyist money flowing into their Swiss bank accounts and catering to the very narrow interests of their own constituencies (as they perceive them).

Just from the NASA perspective, look at how the Apollo program was cut off midstream. They canceled the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle in 2002 when congress decided they wanted the money back.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-38 [wikipedia.org]

With the military now congress has cut off the funding to the F-22, "while-we-are-building-an-operational-fleet". They canceled the RAH-66 Comanche helicopter in 2004 so they could have money to pay for refurbishing the Vietnam era UH-1 helicopters

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAH-66_Comanche [wikipedia.org]

It would suck to work at NASA where you dedicate 5-10 years of your life to a project to have the rug yanked out from under you at the last moment. It is not surprising that there are not long lines of aerospace scientists and engineers at the doors of SpaceX, hoping for the opportunity to have something you worked on actually make it into space.

http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewnews.html?id=766 [spaceref.com]

If you are a programmer, how would you feel if everything you ever did was for naught and was never deployed?

Re:A comapny with a vision (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28195651)

You realize that the folks who are doing all the work, and getting paid, for those "gov[ernmen]t projects [that] cost more than the original contract" are all in private industry, and that they are the ones with the cost overruns? Most cost overruns are not due to changes in government requirements; they are due to the original contractors underbidding and overpromising.

The slashdotter-utopian idea that all corporations are lean-mean-producing-machines is naive. Most corporations (even small startups) have their own internal politics that are just as complex and productivity-draining as the politics within a government agency; and government agencies, unlike private companies, do not have to make a profit.

747 assembly plant? (4, Informative)

oddaddresstrap (702574) | more than 4 years ago | (#28195629)

Some parts of the 747 may have been produced in Hawthorne, but the 747 is (and always has been) assembled in a Everett, WA. The article mentions the Hawthorne facility having a "massive hangar". The real thing is gigantic (eg: 90' ceiling).
http://www.boeing.com/commercial/facilities/ [boeing.com]

Re:747 assembly plant? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28197291)

Pretty sure this is an old McDonnal Douglas hanger. So it Would have been acquired by Boeing in the 'merger' but never used for 747s, maybe MD-something-or-others or DC-somethings.

But I'm pretty sure aircraft were built here. Tesla (Musk's other cool start up) designed and built the Model S prototype here because they wanted DOE grants and to get those you have to operate n a repurposed industrial complex.

Re:747 assembly plant? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28199043)

> Pretty sure this is an old McDonnal Douglas hanger

I'm pretty sure McDonnell-Douglas wasn't in Hawthorne.

Northrop yes, McDonnell-Douglas no. (M-D's HQ was in St. Louis.)

Government Turf? (4, Insightful)

flyingfsck (986395) | more than 4 years ago | (#28195661)

Who does the writer think make the current crop of rockets - some bureaucrats in DC?

Space X is just another space vehicle manufacturer, same as Boeing and others.

Re:Government Turf? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28196037)

Except this one has a really hokey name

Re:Government Turf? (2, Funny)

Krommenaas (726204) | more than 4 years ago | (#28196905)

Who does the writer think make the current crop of rockets - some bureaucrats in DC?

No, they get the plans from the aliens who control our government. Didn't you watch the X files?

Re:Government Turf? (4, Insightful)

jollyreaper (513215) | more than 4 years ago | (#28197257)

Who does the writer think make the current crop of rockets - some bureaucrats in DC?

Space X is just another space vehicle manufacturer, same as Boeing and others.

By that logic, Google circa 1999 was just another computer company. The key difference I think is a younger company with less entrenched bureaucracy. It seems inevitable that companies will grow, expand, and become bureaucratic in time. Our defense conglomerates were once innovative and cutting edge but you get corporate mediocrity infecting any mature company. Boeing built the B-17 on spec because they felt the Army Air Corps would need it, there wasn't a contract. Think something like that would happen today? I think a part of this is the benign dictatorship of the company founder at work. This sort of influence can make or break companies to be true but it's certainly not going to be seen in risk-adverse corporate environments.

Google probably won't be immune to this sort of thing. Give it another 30 years and the founders will retire, then the management will be by consensus with corporate types who really don't understand the business and technology trying to make the safest decisions possible to keep the gravy train going. Everything will be decision by committee and there will be enough red tape to stifle the brightest minds they can hire, snuffing out anything smacking of vision and innovation. That's what we're seeing at Microsoft right now. The only question is how long this sort of shambling, zombie-like existence can be maintained before the rotting skull is smashed in. With the American car companies, I'd say the rot set in by the 60's but wasn't fully apparent until the 80's when the Japanese started eating their lunches. After that point, the only question was how long it would take for them to fail. Turns out it was still a damned long time.

Re:Government Turf? (1)

mikeee (137160) | more than 4 years ago | (#28210987)

Boeing built the B-17 on spec because they felt the Army Air Corps would need it, there wasn't a contract. Think something like that would happen today?

Actually, General Atomics built the Predator and Reaper UAVs the same way - in fact, the first models were sold to the CIA and the Air Force wasn't interested until after that... but perhaps that makes your point, rather than disproving it. :)

Cool, what about space junk? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28196787)

Reducing the costs of space launches is great, now how about a plan for dealing with space junk?

Delivering cargo/people to the ISS (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28197245)

I'm glad to hear that SpaceX plans to provide transfer services to NASA between the time the Space Shuttle is retired and Ares becomes active. I believe the plan was to rely on the Russians or other country's space programs to provide us with transfers, something I don't feel terribly confident in. It's never wise to put yourself in a position like that where another country can deny delivering food or medicines if they decide they don't like your recent politics. At the very least, SpaceX gives NASA an alternative to consider.

Meh!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28198785)

The collapse of investment capital together with the prior overseas outsourcing and prior enslavement of many parts of the world for cheap labor, and low taxes (all of this after thousands of years of mediocrity), combined with comprehensive corruption in almost every tech sector means that whatever they do accomplish (not much in real terms) would never be as good as it could have been and should be. A few corporate thieves will launch into orbit for celebrity "fix the hubble again Tony". Nothing to see here.

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