Interview: a tour of SpaceX
by Sam Dinkin
|“I think it’s a fascinating situation what’s happened at SpaceX in terms of the perception of lateness. It’s still one of the fastest rocket developments in history.”|
Molina: Totally. It’s been tremendous. From my perspective, people in my industry sometimes try to make things that aren’t a story newsworthy. In fact, I don’t have to tap dance like that. This is genuinely historic, this is genuinely newsworthy. It’s amazing.
TSR: It’s more like a scandal where you have to hold people back from asking for all the details.
Molina: Absolutely. We have so many folks who are covering us who have a close eye on us who don’t normally cover this industry.
Molina: This is the main building. This is where SpaceX started. Not a stick of anything in here. Within three months, a phenomenal team of people starting to coalesce. One of them being our VP of manufacturing [Bob Reagan], who came in from his own business—a real character—started bringing in the great machinists that we have, the great welders that we have, fundamentally turning the aerospace industry’susual modus of operating—of outsourcing a lot of the machining and manufacturing—and bringing that in house. Elon looking at the business plan, [thought] the initial investment is worth it for quality control, cost, and efficiency. Fundamentally shifting that mindset is a huge thing. The beauty of it.
You can see some of our structures. This [building] has now shifted from being our main production building, main development building into active production. It’s officially the structures building. The beauty of what Elon has set up and what Bob has set up is that engineers can walk a few steps and talk to the machinist creating a part. That kind of tight design-manufacture-test loop is one of the things that allows SpaceX to do the remarkable work at the remarkable rate that we are doing it as well. Our test facility being a huge part of that too. That’s a real testament to Tim Buzza who is our director of testing and operations too.
TSR: That’s a lot of employees to hire.
Molina: We have grown 300% in the last year. We are up 160 employees right now.
There’s a lot of aerospace testing vendors around here. All of a sudden you hear booms. They’re doing some testing. A few folks are actually not too pleased with us because [we have taken] not only the manufacturing [in house], but we’ve taken some of the [testing] in house as well. They’re like, “Why aren’t you using us?” We’re like, “We can do it.”
TSR: So you’ve taken advantage of your proximity to LAX to be noisy?
Molina: That’s funny. It’s a great to be able to say [to our customers,] “We’re five minutes away from LAX so why don’t you come out for a meeting?” Elon, who was in Northern California when he started PayPal and Zip2, relocated his family to come down here because he really wanted to be in the heart of aerospace and draw from the best talent.
|“…engineers can walk a few steps and talk to the machinist creating a part. That kind of tight design-manufacture-test loop is one of the things that allows SpaceX to do the remarkable work at the remarkable rate that we are doing it as well.”|
Let me give you a background on the limitations for photos due to ITAR restrictions. We’re going up around propulsion and assembly. The tanks are sensitive; shooting directly into the tanks. There are proprietary concerns with that so we can’t do that. Overshot views are fine. ITAR goes to [an] extreme level. People can be walking around. On the soles of their shoes, there’s aluminum and they can take that back and create a rocket.
Rick Tumlinson, Spokesman, Space Frontier Foundation: I’ve never done that before.
Molina: I know. I would love to be MacGyver like that, and create a rocket out of something on my shoe. It’s a challenge doing what I do, in having so much foreign media be interested in what we do and just having to do that nice dance with them as well. Limit them, but be open to them as well. It’s a challenge.
TSR: You have to draw some paint and say “International Here”.
Molina: It’s more of a concern for a launch.
Molina: This second building is Falcon 1 now. The integration doesn’t take place at the launch pad.
Just to give you the background on how the vehicle leaves here. It is totally integrated here for a Vandenberg launch. [L]et’s take two scenarios. For a Vandenberg launch the vehicle would be fully integrated as it was for the test fire that we did. That would mean Merlin mated with a first stage engine, Kestrel. The second stage faring empty, fully integrated, placed on the where the rests is. It gets towed out. [It’s] a tight maneuver.
TSR: What are you going to do for the Falcon 9?
Molina: That is a puzzle I don’t have to solve. It’s going to be a challenge. We do not want to do something else. We’re really committed to the city. The city’s been great for us. It’s really difficult. I think we’d have to create our own facility in El Segundo. There’s been talk of [moving Falcon 5 manufacturing and assembly to where] the Howard Hughes Spruce Goose used to be out by the marina [in Long Beach]. There’s been talk about there’s a lot of warehouse space could culminate for us going out in Long Beach. [Elon] doesn’t want to go that far south. A lot of things are in the works. Falcon 9 is definitely an issue at the facilities we are currently at. Falcon 1 leaves here on the transporter, basically a trailer, goes up there. [We] do the integration work up at Vandenberg, encapsulate, do the testing we want to do. Very easy to implement.
For Kwaj, it’s a slightly different scenario. A more visually stunning scenario. We got the vehicle out to the platform. That was April. We still weren’t through with the development. Merlin wasn’t mated. Kestrel wasn’t mated. You can visualize shrink-wrapping the first stage to protect it from the arduous trek out to Kwaj’. I got to go out there and see it going onto the barge out of Long Beach. So many dreams and so much hard work on the barge. Seeing it sail away.
We did most of the integration work down in Kwaj. The integration work with Merlin, obviously, with Kestrel, the encapsulation work with the Air Force Academy folks. We brought the vehicle down after the last attempt. We brought people down after the last attempt. We have not demated the whole thing. It is still fully integrated.
TSR: What are you going to do for a LOX solution so you don’t have to have LOX troubles any more?
Molina: I think we really addressed that this last attempt with the new containers, better containers. That generator works, but it’s temperamental. It needs to be supervised. No one has the time to sit there and baby-sit the temperamental LOX generator. Logistically, we always knew [that] being in the Pacific wouldn’t be ideal. It is a deal in the sense of we don’t have the same schedule conflicts that you do up at Vandenberg.
TSR: There’s [also] more throw weight to equatorial orbit.
Bill Boland, Space Frontier Foundation Advocate and winner of VIP tour auction: Are you carrying [cremated remains] on this flight?
Molina: Not on the first flight. We do have a relationship with Space Services International, formerly Celestis. They were going to be on this vehicle but then they weren’t. A lot of their folks want to go from Vandenberg.
TSR: How much per pound?
Molina: I don’t think it breaks down that way. It’s [$200k].
TSR: So suborbital alive or orbital dead. $200k.
Tumlinson: Oh, god.
Molina: That’s interesting—
Tumlinson: —an interesting way to look at it.
|“I got to go out there and see it [the Falcon 1] going onto the barge out of Long Beach. So many dreams and so much hard work on the barge. Seeing it sail away.”|
Molina: [Celestis is] a neat group of people. Charlie [Chafer, CEO] is looking at a huge market of interest in Japan. Really capturing their imagination. A lot of really interesting stories. Young kids who have a desire, an interest in space, who are terminal. Their parents think it’s fitting. They’re really into space. It’s a really interesting product.
Boland: I am trying to figure out how he makes money out of that.
Molina: I can see it from my perspective because he does what I do. He’s a phenomenal PR person. Sometimes it’s challenging to work with because our goals are separate. I think the media interest in them is separate from ours. So that’s difficult to negotiate sometimes. The bottom line—the reason that [VP of business development] Gwynne [Shotwell] and Elon are interest in having them on board—anything that’s exciting the public about space is what SpaceX is after. Recaptures the imagination.
TSR: I am sure he wants to see every life event of every sort out in space. Birth, wedding, everything.
Molina: Absolutely, he makes no bones about this. He always asks me, “Dianne, does that sound too far out? I really think it’s important for folks to be multi-planetary.” To certain folks this is going to be so beyond how they think, their day-to-day lifestyle, that it will sound, “out there.” He’s aware of that.
Tumlinson: It’s hard. That’s what we do. That’s our job.