This week I recalled one of my favorite television moments. During an early West Wing episode, one of the president’s advisers, Sam Seaborn, argues for the extension of NASA funding. After several minutes of heated banter, his counterpart asks why space travel is so important when we have so much trouble to deal with here on planet earth. Seaborn paused, and then spoke distinctly.
“It’s what’s next.”
This week, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) announced it was tackling what’s next. With news of war, earthquakes, and nuclear fears, the news that SpaceX is planning to build the largest rocket since the Saturn V--well, let’s just say it’s been too long since a headline made me smile.
In 2008 The FABRICATOR covered this private company that’s taking a unique approach to space exploration. SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the Internet tycoon who sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002, has plans for the company to do what the government has done, only better and for less money. As he told the Los Angeles Times, "We're embarking on something that's unprecedented in the space industry. This is territory that has only belonged to the U.S. government--with its tens of billions of dollars."
In December the company became the first private enterprise to launch a spacecraft into orbit and have it return fully intact. The feat has given the company credibility. After the Space Shuttle retires, NASA plans to contract out to private companies to carry payloads into space. The U.S. Air Force has its eye on private contractors too. If SpaceX successfully builds and launches its 22-story behemoth of a rocket--dubbed the Falcon Heavy--the company may prove itself a pioneer of a new, private space industry.
Most significant, extensive in-house fabrication is helping the company drive down costs. Powerful equipment bend INCONEL® tubes. Longitudinal joints are fixtured into the firm’s friction-stir welding system. Its sprawling Hawthorne, Calif., facility is the same in which Vought Aircraft Industries once fabricated Boeing 747 fuselages.
The structure and work environment resemble that of a high-tech startup, not surprising considering the company founder’s background. Designers don’t “throw a concept over the wall” to manufacturing. Indeed, there are few physical walls in SpaceX’s building, and this reflects the firm’s collaborative culture. A designer with an idea can walk over to the manufacturing engineer, talk about it, and then go to the floor to see if it will work.
I’m glad to see such work going on for one of the grandest human endeavors. So much technology today depends on satellites, so payload-carrying rockets will no doubt be needed as NASA steps to the sidelines and the government cuts costs. On top of this, the company is developing its Dragon spacecraft capable of carrying humans into space.
As these projects--and, for that matter, the company name itself--suggest, the company wants to do more than haul freight. It’s about exploration, and space is what’s next.