Orange County Branch Newsletter

October 2015

Transportation Technical Group

SpaceX Tour Summary

By: Adrian Anderson, ASCE OC TTG

Much like the real world of launching a rocket into space, everything must come together just right and at the right time.  That right time came a week after our initially scheduled SpaceX facility tour date, and the fact that all 20 of our lucky attendees still arrived with just one substitution, speaks volumes to the popularity and interest in the SpaceX tour that was held on Saturday, September 19, 2015 at SpaceX’s home - Rocket Road in Hawthorne adjacent to the airport.
It was readily apparent that our tour guides, Theresa and Cam, were just as enthusiastic about hosting us on the tour as we were to be there since our 1 hour tour turned into well over 2 interest-packed hours!  Due to their sensitive government contracts, photos were not allowed inside, so the images you see are of the exterior of the building and from the tour briefing.  You can find other pictures online if you are interested in what we got to see.
Some of the few highlights were seeing the first Dragon capsule that returned from space, which was suspended overhead just inside the main building where they build and assemble the components of the rockets from the motors, to the first and second stage housings, to the Dragon capsules that will eventually ferry humans into orbit, and the various nose cones that house satellites and other hardware that are being deployed beyond our Earthly bounds. 
There was a full-scale painting of one of their Falcon 9 rockets on the wall complete with mock landing gear which will eventually make re-usability of rockets a reality.  The example cited for their reason to re-use rockets was, imagine taking a flight across the country, then having to scrap the plane after landing, that is what they are trying to avoid to bring costs down significantly for delivering payloads to orbit.  And after seeing just some of the steps and work involved to deliver a rocket from production to spaceflight, it does seem a shame to use it just once.
We were treated to a great overview of a typical rocket motor that produces 140,000 lbs of thrust, which is coupled to the OCTAWEB that holds an array of 9 of these powerful and ultra-efficient motors for the first stage.  The fuel that SpaceX uses is a refined kerosene/rocket fuel mixture that makes for a very stable mixture.  With this fuel type they can hold the rocket on the ground for 1 second after full ignition to test/verify that all systems are go, and if not, can abort the launch by turning off the “ignition”…something you can’t do with solid rocket fuel.  An interesting fact is that they use a small rocket engine to feed the fuel to the larger rocket through an impeller at a rate of about 70 gallons/second!  All their rocket motors are assembled in Hawthorne, tested in Texas, then after a successful test are brought back to Hawthorne to have their various sensors removed, parts cleaned/inspected/replaced so they can then be reassembled into the OCTAWEB and tested as a unit of 9 motors to ensure they function well together before being attached to a rocket for spaceflight.  A larger, single motor powers the 2nd stage of the rocket into orbit at speed (approximately 17,000 mph) and includes a much larger “skirt” made of thin gauge, highly expensive material to more efficiently direct the rocket blasts while in space.
We saw Dragon capsules being assembled, and large carbon fiber (CF) nose-cone fairings that are hand made in the factory using a template and cloth patterns that laser-guide the construction by showing technicians the orientation and location of the next piece of CF material to be laid down, no matter where the technician finished on the last business day. Then these large CF components are meticulously inspected and measured inch-by-inch with an automated robotic arm.  Some of the parts being designed by SpaceX engineers are not able to be machined, and for these parts their in-house 3D metal printer (once the largest in the world) can build the part using lasers that melt layers of metal together to exacting specifications.  It was fascinating to watch the video monitor of a part actually being made.
Nearby there were the 10’ diameter rocket housings that would be assembled into first and second stages, painted, and then fixed with truck wheels to be driven across the country to either Cape Canaveral, FL or Vandenberg AFB for launches.  The traditional separation of rocket stages was handled by pyrotechnics and was a typical source for catastrophic endings to flights.  So SpaceX prefers using pneumatics that push the first stage away from the second stage with the sensitive (and expensive) payload.  This greatly reduces the potential for issues at such a critical time during the spaceflight.
The next horizon for SpaceX is sending humans to Mars to establish a colony (about 2026 per online resources), and seeing the enthusiasm and how far they’ve come in a relatively short time, there is no doubt that they will eventually achieve their goals.
We would like to express our gratitude to our SpaceX tour guides, Theresa and Cam, for taking their personal time to provide us with an excellent tour that generated more than our fair share of questions and answers, and for inspiring awe in us all at the incredible feats of engineering being attempted and solved at SpaceX.