Visit to SpaceX

While attending the Responsive Space Conference in Los Angeles, I had an opportunity along with many others to visit the SpaceX facility in Hawthorne on the evening of March 9th and I had a wonderful time.

We were given a brief tour of the facility by Brian Bjelde, who began by showing us a full-scale mockup of the Dragon capsule. We also saw assorted other hardware connected with Dragon.

Then we moved on to see work on a Merlin engine underway. Despite the fact it was the evening, there were quite a few people at work, building engines, writing code, running tests and so forth.

We moved on and saw a nine-engine cluster of Merlin engines, that if I’m not mistaken will be part of the second Falcon 9 launch vehicle. I’ve seen the Saturn V and Saturn 1B engine clusters up close, and I was amazed how “tight” the F9 engine cluster is. I’m a little worried about the gas generators all exhausting into the freestream rather than being ducted into the nozzles as they were on the F-1 and J-2 engines, but time will tell whether that is an issue for F9.

Also there were some very impressive friction-stir welding equipment that are used to manufacture the propellant tanks for the F9. I saw a circumferential friction-stir welder, and Brian explained that two people can make an F9 tank in 19 days. That is very impressive and part of how they keep costs down. I also saw milling machines used to mill isogrid patterns in the metal stock used for the tanks.

In the rear of the building I saw huge cube-looking structures covered by translucent deep-blue sheets of plastic. Brian explained that that was where they did welding on upper stage engines that use refractory metals (niobium) that must be welded in inert gas atmospheres. I also saw tanks of argon that I figured were used in the inert-gas welding.

SpaceX was kind enough to treat us to hors d’oeuvres afterward and we could mingle and talk about what we had seen. Next to the cafeteria area of the plant was the Falcon control room with huge screens and computer consoles. A video of Falcon launch highlights and F9 launch preparations was playing, and gave you a sense of the excitement that was building as the first Falcon 9 launch was approaching. In the cafeteria area were two statues, one of “Iron Man” and the other of a Cylon that sure gave you a sense that you were in the cool “” world rather than in a stodgy, cost-plus government contractor facility.

I looked around at the employees that would walk by. Almost all of them were younger than me (35) and I couldn’t help but contrast that with the demographics I experience at NASA, where I’m practically a baby compared to my co-workers, most of whom are in their 50s and 60s.

There was an excitement and buzz in the air at the SpaceX facility. People are designing, building, and testing rockets. They’re going to launch soon. And I think they’re going to succeed. Even if it doesn’t happen at first–I think they’re going to succeed.

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MS, nuclear engineering, University of Tennessee, 2014, Flibe Energy, president, 2011-present, Teledyne Brown Engineering, chief nuclear technologist, 2010-2011, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, aerospace engineer, 2000-2010, MS, aerospace engineering, Georgia Tech, 1999

About Kirk Sorensen

MS, nuclear engineering, University of Tennessee, 2014, Flibe Energy, president, 2011-present, Teledyne Brown Engineering, chief nuclear technologist, 2010-2011, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, aerospace engineer, 2000-2010, MS, aerospace engineering, Georgia Tech, 1999
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17 Responses to Visit to SpaceX

  1. Who are the other two gentlemen in the picture Kirk?

  2. Josh Cryer says:

    Forgive this short and useless comment, but:
    SpaceX <3.

    Thanks for this post, sounds like you had a fantastic time. I have commented in the past to my #space comrades that, yeah, it's absolutely refreshing to see young guys behind SpaceX, not that older guys aren't able to produce, but that we need continued generations of this sort of science and technology, and you don't have that if you keep it in the older generations.

    Do you know if they are open to civilian tours? I'd be giddy beyond belief to get in one that.

  3. My colleagues Rich White and John London. John was the author of “LEO on the Cheap”, which I think at one time or another inspired Jon Goff.

  4. Kirk,
    John London (as well as Arthur Schnitt, who also wrote about “Minimum Cost Design” launch vehicles) was indeed one of my early inspirations. My thinking has evolved a bit since then, but I enjoyed rereading some of his book, LEO on the Cheap recently.


  5. Rich says:

    No photos …?

  6. No photos allowed inside.

  7. Josh Cryer says:

    Today, March 13th, SpaceX successfully completed a test firing of the inaugural Falcon 9 launch vehicle at Space Launch Complex 40 located at Cape Canaveral.

  8. googaw says:

    Congratulations SpaceX!

  9. Luke says:

    Can anybody tell me what is going on with the Falcon 1 side of their business? I seem to recall that back in 2007 their launch manefest had several Falcon 1 flights for 2008 and 2009. Now their launch manefest shows loads of falcon 9 flights for 2010, 11, etc. What happened to the falcon 1 customers and flights?

  10. Kevin Puetz says:

    From a little and google trolling: (the last 2007 version of the manifest) had 5 Falcon 1 flights:
    Flight 3, Malaysia: Razaksat, SpaceDev, Canada: MDA Corp., and Swedish Space Corp.

    Flight 3 and Razaksat have now launched (along with a flight 4 demo since flight 3 failed). MDA is still on the manifest (now as a Falcon 9 flight).

    I have found claims in various places[1,2] that both Spacedev and Swedish Space Corp are now getting the payload of the inaugural Falcon 1e flight, still on the schedule for this year. SpaceDev was buying the vehicle to resell it for lots of research microsats[3], not for a specific payload, so maybe they are both are flying on that same launch now? The 1e configuration can carry 1010kg to LEO vs Falcon 1’s 450kg, so the payload capacity should be there if spacedev didn’t really care what orbit they end up in…

    [2] (can’t find a better source saying spacedev is on the first 1e flight)

  11. Luke, they’ve replaced the Falcon 1 with the Falcon 1e.. From August 2009 the schedule for Falcon 1e flights has changed as such:

    * added ORBCOMM flights (2010-2014)
    * removed Swedish Space Corp. flight (2011)
    * added Astrium flight (2014)

    I believe back in 2007 there was the following Falcon 1 flights that never happened:

    * SpaceDev (2009)
    * MDA Corp (2009) – you may remember the press about this one.

    So yeah, other than the notorious schedule slips, it looks like they’re in good shape.

  12. Luke says:

    > So yeah, other than the notorious schedule slips, it looks like they’re in good shape.

    Good to hear! I don’t really know anything about the business of space – can anybody tell me how ‘bad’ the schedule slips are for the customers? I know with software engineering the relationship with the customer would be getting pretty frosty right about now. Is this all just considered part of parcel of space access?

  13. Luke, I assume the people who signed on before the first Falcon 1 flight knew what they were getting into.

  14. Gordan says:

    A related question that comes to mind after that reading the post – what was the rationale for ducting GG exhaust into the nozzle with S-IB and S-V when at altitude stuff would recirculate back up anyway? I read the designers didn’t want to have that fuel-rich exhaust readily recirculating, but where is the intrinsic harm in that?
    Also, does the gas generator and with it the turbopump also “feel” the atmospheric pressure dropping outside as the main nozzle does, and could that produce adverse effects on Merlin pumps?

  15. Gordan says:

    To clarify the above “adverse effects”, by that I mean the pressure from mutual Merlin plume interaction and recirculation which a single Merlin (like on F1) wouldn’t otherwise feel.

  16. masonstorm says:

    I think this is one of the few times imo when privatization is a really good idea. Whether we think it’s necessary or not, we need to continue to develop new forms of space travel and technology to facilitate it. What the ppl whose only argument is “we have too many problems down here to be worrying about this,” they fail to understand the two most important implications of aeronautical research. The first is for national defense… it’s bad enough that nasa has to rely on Russia to ferry them to the ISS. If we keep going at this rate, our disadvantage will only grow as they continue to develop new technologies in their space program while we pump the brakes on ours. Is air and space superiority something you really want the Russians to have? It doesn’t seem like a good idea for any one country to have, let alone one whom we have a sketchy history with. The second is that with aeronautical research comes a flood of new technologies, most of which are very applicable to us down on earth. For example, if it wasn’t for nasa, we wouldn’t have the chips that we use for non-invasive biopsies, solar energy, and a whole litany of other things ( has a good number of inventions that most of us don’t know came from our space program). And if you’re one of those ppl that are so skeptical (or cynical imo) that you still don’t think that any of the things on this list warrant a larger investment in a privatized space industry, just remember that while you sleep at night, you most likely have nasa to thank for that, too. If you use any type of home security system, chances are they use infrared and laser technology that came out of nasa’s research (just look at the adt home security infrared camera page. They even admit that the technology came from nasa!)

  17. If you have a friend that works at SpaceX, ask them to give you a tour.  It s a wonderful opportunity to see what the aerospace industry is up to. If you re not into all the specifics of aerospace, it s still really neat to see all the parts of the rockets, or just go get some free frozen yogurt lol.

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