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 “alt.space” 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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