"My Tour of SpaceX Yesterday" in Humanizing Tech
What the future of Space looks like from the Earth
One of my good friends, Anthony Thompson, afforded me the opportunity to take a walk through the SpaceX factory and headquarters in Hawthorne California yesterday. This is where the rockets are built, tested, and inspected before being driven to launch facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, McGregor Texas, or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The first thing you notice upon arriving and parking across the street is how small the building feels, especially for a place that makes giant space rockets. In fact, it’s no bigger than a standard mall parking garage and maybe even smaller than some of those.
It takes up part of a city block, as you can see below, with the right edge of the photo also representing the right edge of the building. You can see a truck pulling out of their side driveway.
After walking up the driveway, there’s a security guard standing outside the single entry/exit door on the left. On the right side there’s a number of outdoor tables, benches, a soda machine and sandwich shop. At about 6pm there were maybe 10 folks outside eating, chatting with one another, and tapping on their cell phones. All pretty standard stuff.
Further back towards the end of the small driveway, there was a small forklift next to the industrial sized water bottle crates and a part of the building that wrapped around. It was branded SpaceX along with the front of the building.
Most days, starting at 6:30pm, employees are allowed to bring friends or family into the building. There were maybe 30 people waiting in line outside for the opportunity last night.
But before you get to wander about inside, there are a few stipulations.
- You have to take a selfie with a white iPad (oh, hai).
- You must enter your name, email address, phone number, name of the employee you’re visiting, and your employer’s name (Piksel).
- Agree to have your driver’s license or passport photographed.
- Agree to not take any photos or videos inside the facility.
- Wear a guest badge around your neck, that you also can’t take a picture of.
Once that is over, a friendly woman waves you through and you’re off to explore with your employee chaperone.
II. The Tour
Walking down the first hall you’ll notice a series of large photographs hanging on the right wall. They show you images of a rocket launching and the Dragon capsule floating in Low Earth Orbit (LOE). As you continue down the long white hall, you pass through two blue metal doors and are taken into the main room.
Immediately to the right is the real Mission Control Room. This isn’t the one you see on the live stream, which is just a set for Hollywood PR purposes. Nope, this one is the real deal.
It’s enclosed in clear glass, has about 30 desks, each with 3 computer monitors, and a giant projected screen enlarged on the far white wall. The projection is of a computer screen showing maybe 7 windows of varying complexity, from a live stream to technical readouts. You might see a lime green blowup alien sitting at one of the desks, which otherwise is completely empty.
Across from that is the open-air lunch/dinner room with a coffee and espresso bar. The music is pumping, playing relatively recent hip hop. As we walk over to get a Landing Gear Latte, we walk directly under 2 things.
The first is the first Dragon capsule that was in space, complete with the re-entry burns on the cork-board undercarriage. Jutting out of the left wall is a giant carbon fiber leg that holds the rocket up before launch. It’s the real deal, bolted into the side wall showing a giant graphic of a rocket to give you the sense of scale of the real deal.
I found the below picture online, which is right above the lunch room. It shows the Dragon capsule I described along with the real Mission Control room behind it to the right.
The leg itself is probably 4 humans tall. The Dragon capsule is smaller as it represents the tip of the rocket and, as Elon has described before, is about the size of an SUV interior. So again, these things are big, but not as enourmous as you would expect.
We grab our coffees and head down the walkway that runs through the center of the building. The entire place is basically one giant room. It’s completely open air. Most of the machinery isn’t more than 10 feet tall, about the height of a regulation basketball hoop. That’s including the long cylindrical middle sections of the rocket, which are broken into, I believe, four pieces. They lay on their side so they can fit in the building and worked on easily.
There are different stations, a few clean rooms, and the floor and pillars are all painted white. Sure there’s a little dust and scuff marks on the floor, as you might expect, but overall it’s a clean experience. Looking up, you see the I-beams criss-crossing the roof complete with blue-painted hoists that can hold extremely heavy loads. One on the very far wall says “2o Tons”. That’s 40,000 pounds for those keeping track.
There are long dark stripes painted on the floor of either side of the walkway along with a few roped off areas. They get alot of visitors and this just helps keep people from wandering into employee work stations. There’s work benches, machine parts, half-assembled rocket engines, spare parts, and all manner of things happening. You realize it’s mostly for your safety and employee focus.
On the left side of the walkway is a semi-clean room where the carbon fiber is made. Two big, long tables have large lasers that precisely cut out the material. A worker picks up the pieces, turns around and places each piece individually on another long table. A thin sheet of carbon fiber is strong in one direction, like left-to-right or top-to-bottom, but not both. Thus, you need a computer to help layer these pieces together for maximum strength. Another machine helps with this process, projecting an outline of each piece, from a laser above, down onto the table so the worker knows exactly which orientation to place the cutout.
On the right side of the walkway is a fully-assembled Falcon 9 rocket engine. That number 9 stands for how many of these engines exist on a single rocket, as shown below.
I noticed a guy standing on a step ladder in shorts, a hawaiian shirt, and a small flashlight inspecting the top part of one of the single engines. Software controls each of those little half domes, allowing it to change the direction it’s pointing by 5 degrees in any direction. The computer does this automatically to stabalize the downward force so the rocket doesn’t just fall over and fly sideways. Later, I saw the little unused half-domes lying out a bit further into the building, colored bright copper.
As we walk past these areas we reach another section. On the right side is a clean room with the Dragon capsule that will take the first people to space. The workers wear hair covers, shoe booties, and coverings for their clothing to minimize particle interference with the product.
On the left are the big cylinders that hold the rocket fuel lying on their side. A machine was analyzing the width of this cylinder, likely looking for flaws or inconsistencies in the forming process.
Our friend, who was giving us the tour, works in the testing (QA) department. It’s his job to design crazy new tests for stressing the metals and parts to their breaking point. SpaceX has to “over-design” the parts and materials to withstand extremely high temperature variations, going from the heat of 9 rocket engines exloding on the ground to the absolute zero freezing point out in space. Insane pressures in the engine compartment are another breaking point for the rocket.
Apparently the Russians are the only ones in the world to have developed a closed engine system because you have to design for extremely high pressure to hold the liquid oxygen and kerosene, ignite it, then push it out the spout. SpaceX and NASA currently use an open system which lets a little bit of that fuel out during the firing process, which reduces overall pressure in the compartment. The reason you want the closed system is one of efficiency. It doesn’t waste fuel, which means you don’t need as much of it, which means the rocket is lighter and costs less. It’s an engineering problem.
I imagine that they are using machine learning techniques to create new space age materials that are stronger than steel to withstand this amount of pressure, but I digress.
Past this is a room dedicated to 3D printing exotic materials, likely using extruding. They have samples lying on the window outside the glass that tourists can look at and inspect. It felt light, but strong. Maybe titanium? One, when you hold it up to the light, shows the precision of this machine, with a millimeter-thin criss-cross pattern.
Apparently the machine prints two materials at the same time to make this happen: one is the main metal with the criss-cross, the other is a “holding” solution that allows the main metal to harden. It’s then dipped into an acid bath and the holding solution melts away.
Why is this important? Because it saves weight, which saves fuel, which saves money. And if you remember the single reason why SpaceX got to this point over the last decade and continues to book deals with NASA is because they build reliable rockets for a fraction of the cost. Try $60 million instead of $300 million. You can read more about it on the SpaceX website.
Finally, at the very end of the hallway is a giant circular machine that looks a bit like the Stargate. It won’t transport you to a different Egyptian dimension, but it does allow for welding the giant fuel cylinders together by heating up both sections and fusing the metals at an atomic level.
Other areas in the building that we didn’t walk through include the suspended glass offices that overlook the entire plant floor, along with the other corporate office space where the PhDs and admin staff work.
III. The Culture
The first thing that I noticed outside of the building and was then echoed inside the building was the number of people wearing SpaceX gear. Hats turned forward and backward. Different colored t-shirts and black dry-fit like polos. Some fitted tees with “Occupy Mars” emblazoned on the front.
These aren’t company sanctioned uniforms, they’re just casual clothing that the employees can buy with their own money, at a discount of course. Nobody forced them to wear the brand. They did it because they believe in the mission of the company.
Through my days in management and board consulting, my days in the startup and technology industry, and my travels around the world, I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve never been inside a company headquarters, not even Google’s campus, where the people are literally there 24x7x365, wearing the gear, and physically building stuff because they are driving towards something bigger than themselves. Bigger than their company.
It’s for the survival of our species, folks. Got a back-up plan for how we survive if an extinction-level event comes hurtling towards us in the form of an asteroid? Nope. All of life is forever wiped out.
Even if we can get a few people to space right now, they can’t survive. Humans, plants, animals. We’d all be goners.
Corporations call it risk mitigation. These people call it a mission.
IV. The Machine That Fed Us
The funniest part of this entire experience, and something that the employees joked about, was the machine we had to use to get our dinner.
It was a standard vending machine with those little circular metallic rings that spin to release a bag of chips or candy bar. Only this one held little plastic cards. You swiped your credit card, then waited for about 3 minutes while each individual ring spun and spun and spun. It then moved onto the next ring that spun and spun and spun. Then onto the next ring. And on and on across three rows until it got to one near the bottom that still had dinner cards left.
5 minutes later, you grab your card from the catch down below, then walk about 100 feet back towards the entrance where the food area is. Here’s the kicker. You don’t even scan this keycard. You show the gal behind the counter that you’re dropping it into a slotted box, then tell her what you want for dinner. In the place building the most sophisticated technology on our planet, this is the eating situation. A bit ironic, maybe. But I’d prefer they spend their energy addressing the space outside earth, not the space in my stomach.
I ordered the Tilapia, a few sides, and got a drink from the soda machine. They had different meat and vegetarian options. The selection changes daily and the food was tasty for the price. At $5 for dinner it’s better than you can do at Subway so as you might imagine some folks eat there for every meal.
We ate dinner and chatted, while the hip hop continued to keep the energy of the place alive. The speakers started booming, this time with something a little more ratchet.
🎶 Move your body like a cyclooooooneeeeee 🎶
It’s at this moment that you realize you’re basically inside a tech startup. The only difference is that this specific startup is going to space. And not just space, but all the way to Mars.
They don’t have a gift shop, but you can order products from their eCommerce shop. But I’m not one to leave without a souvenir. So…look mom, I got a cup!
Before leaving, while my friends were chatting, I began to think about my impressions of the experience. It left me feeling like we’re all just a bunch of humans hacking our way into existence. Here were a bunch of men and women building a space ship, but using the same fundamental science that has existed for a century: the combustion engine.
Of course, there are more stresses and harsher environments that you need to control for, but I couldn’t help but think it’s time for another innovative leap.
Similar to the way I feel about ripping into a human to hack out cancer or lace up an organ feels neanderthalic, building a big tube of “gasoline” attached to a bunch of engines feels very 1900.
I thought that if we could approach the problem from a different angle we could solve all the problems that these people are working on. No need for lots of fuel. No need for space age materials to handle the pressure of high-intensity combusion to push up all that weight. No need for the most important part (the cargo and people at the tip of the rocket) to be the smallest part.
Instead, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could “science the shit” out of this problem and devise some technique that “folded” the gravity or space just above this ship? Somehow make this space more gravitational than the earth and then puuuuullllll our ship up ever so slightly. Then doing it again, to move us up a few more inches, then again and again until we escaped the pull of Earth’s gravity.
I guess what I’m imagining is some sort of Gravity Drive. Clearly this doesn’t exist and is some real science fiction. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if it did.
As we’re getting ready to leave, we notice that the place is still buzzing with activity. Mind you, it’s 8:30pm at this point and people are still working. This isn’t working in the sense of sitting behind a computer and typing. No, these people are cutting carbon fiber. These people are welding. These people are on a step stool inspecting rocket thrusters. These people are building.
We leave them be, head out the same doors we came in, and say our goodbyes. As we walk down the driveway to cross the street to our car we notice the address, 1 Rocket Road, and something else.
Across the street, is the employee parking ramp. There are about 4,000 people who work at that location, which makes me wonder how they all fit. But there, firmly affixed to the structure is a giant image.
What’s that? Oh, looks like the planet Mars, rising off into the distance. After watching the employees scurry about in their “Occupy Mars” t-shirts it finally hits home.
Every day when you leave SpaceX, you’re reminded not just where you are, but also where you’re going. It’s not a job. It’s not a career. It’s a mission.
And this one is going straight to Mars.
from Stories by Sean Everett on Medium http://ift.tt/2aC6nrq