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Space Technology

An Inside Look At the SpaceX Rocket Factory 50

Posted by Soulskill
from the pretty-pictures dept.
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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An Inside Look At the SpaceX Rocket Factory

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  • Minimal? (Score:5, Funny)

    by grommit (97148) on Wednesday June 03, 2009 @10:05AM (#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?

    • by jg42122 (1571769)
      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.
  • increase productivity. Everyone knows ramen is brain food and people code better when sleep deprived.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      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.

  • Little bit concerned about the launch technology [dilbert.com]

  • No Sh!@ (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater@gmail. c o m> on Wednesday June 03, 2009 @10:21AM (#28195427) Homepage

    "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!@ (Score:4, Informative)

      by IANAAC (692242) on Wednesday June 03, 2009 @10:36AM (#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: (Score:3, Informative)

      by camperdave (969942)
      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: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by wramsdel (463149)

      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.

    • 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)

    • by neumayr (819083)
      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.
    • 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... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Celeste R (1002377) on Wednesday June 03, 2009 @10:22AM (#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... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Kjella (173770) on Wednesday June 03, 2009 @10:58AM (#28195939) Homepage

      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... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Rei (128717) on Wednesday June 03, 2009 @12:40PM (#28197445) Homepage

        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.

        • by lgw (121541)

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

          • by Rei (128717)

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

            • by lgw (121541)

              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.

      • by dpilot (134227)

        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 i

  • 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 ro
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      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: (Score:2, Informative)

        by raymansean (1115689)
        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.
        • by Tisha_AH (600987) <Tisha.Hayes@gmail.com> on Wednesday June 03, 2009 @01:04PM (#28197843) Journal

          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?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 03, 2009 @10:36AM (#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? (Score:4, Informative)

    by oddaddresstrap (702574) on Wednesday June 03, 2009 @10:35AM (#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]

  • Government Turf? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by flyingfsck (986395) on Wednesday June 03, 2009 @10:37AM (#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: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Krommenaas (726204)

      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?

    • by jollyreaper (513215) on Wednesday June 03, 2009 @12:28PM (#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.

      • by mikeee (137160)

        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. :)

  • by Anonymous Coward

    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

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