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SpaceX Facilities Open 24 Hours to Deliver on Contracts

By | November 24, 2008
      [Satellite News 11-24-08] Space Exploration Technology Corp.’s (SpaceX) Hawthorne, Calif. facility is a remodeled Boeing hangar where engines for the 747 aircraft were once manufactured. The only elements left from the Boeing days are the track-mounted cranes dangling from the ceilings, but those cranes work on a different kind of engine now.
          SpaceX Director of Communications, Emily Shanklin took Satellite News News Editor Jeffrey Hill on a tour of the facilities and with Senior Mission Manager Max Vozoff, explained the design of the business and its products. “You couldn’t find a company more atypical in this industry than SpaceX. Things here move very fast,” said Vozoff.
          The main offices, located in the front of the facility are actually a series of cubicles with low walls packed into a single large room. Even SpaceX founder, CEO and CTO Elon Musk’s office is a cubicle. “We want the atmosphere to be very open,” said Shanklin. “The only people with closed offices are human resources and some of the high-level business offices.”
          The main production floor, in the back of the building, also is spacious and open as engineers, machinists and developers work side by side on the Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft. “It is important that our engineers see the entire process move along,” said Vozoff. “Engineers at some companies do not get to see the end result of their work. Once your responsibility leaves your department, you may never see it again. It installs a better sense of teamwork when you can see everyone working.”
          Shanklin said Musk was insistent on having the best personnel from each part of the building process available to him at all times. He even went so far as to purchase his machinist of choice’s entire operation and workforce and built them a workshop adjacent to the main facility.
          Engineers at SpaceX work on three separate shifts covering an entire day, which means that the rockets are constantly being worked on, and there are no windows or clocks. The company is not strict with structuring shift hours because they don’t need to be. “Workers here generally do not come in too early, because they all stay until they’re finished what they are doing,” Shanklin said. “Sometimes people leave as late as 9 p.m. It all depends on what everyone is working on.”
          The massive domes of the Falcon 9 are scattered about the production floor. One of the structures is being painted and prepped for its maiden voyage. “The Falcon 9’s 12-foot diameter is much more efficient because we can put it on a low-ride truck and drive it across the country on standard bridges and freeways without raising power lines,” said Vozoff in describing one of the ways SpaceX is attempting to cut the cost of access to space. “These little decisions that are made at a system level affect the end cost — both the development and recurring cost of the system.”
          Across the aisle, SpaceX’s Merlin engine, which was developed to use kerosene and liquid oxygen as propellants, and apparatus for the Falcon 9 are displayed. “Kerosene and liquid oxygen engines have been around for 40 or 50 years, however, they’re not the most efficient engine,” Vozoff said. “There are much more efficient propellants that you can burn, but kerosene is available for about a quarter to a fifth of the cost of gasoline. You can store it at room temperature and you can buy it anywhere in the world, which you can’t do with liquid hydrogen,” he said.
          Also displayed in the middle of the production room floor is a replica of the Dragon reusable spacecraft, being developed by SpaceX to transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. “After we retire the shuttle, we are going to be spending many hundreds of millions of dollars during the five-year lapse for the Russians to simply provide housekeeping services and basic transportation to and from the space station. This is a problem,” said Vozoff. “The Russians, being extremely good capitalists, are not likely going to keep prices at where they are now. They have already increased prices by 50 percent over the last two years with the Soyuz.”
          SpaceX, under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, aims to decrease the time gap between the shuttle’s retirement and NASA’s return to space transport independence. In 2005, NASA put $500 million on the table to establish a domestic, commercial and economical way of getting crew and cargo to the station.
          “There a couple of caveats to the $500 million,” said Vozoff. “First is that NASA wanted more than one solution. They wanted at least two companies to be working on these solutions. The second is that they were not expecting the portion of that money allotted to each company to be able to fund the entire demonstration. They were expecting the industry to find some of its own resources. NASA is not paying like a prime contractor like its doing for Orion. This is not a contract. Its an agreement and collaboration in which NASA sponsors the development. But we have a significant stake in it as we are putting up a third of the money ourselves.”
           Musk, who has $100 million of his own money invested in SpaceX, is responsible for the design and layout of not only the company’s products and image but the facility as well. He said it was important to create an atmosphere that would not only cater to experienced aerospace engineers but also generate enthusiasm among the company’s numerous younger employees, some fresh out of college.
          “We have a combination of people with decades of aerospace experience as well as people who are just out of school,” said Musk. “You need both. I think the industry needs to look more into hiring fresh out of college. You get a lot of energy and enthusiasm with somebody who is fresh out of school. They also introduce new thinking, new tools and new techniques that are developed over time.”

      -Photos by Jeffrey Hill

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