"We are in it for the long haul to make this vehicle as great as possible."
NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins meets with employees at SpaceX on Monday.
HAWTHORNE, Calif.—Across the cavernous rocket factory, the buzz, whirr, and whine of various machinery never ebbed. Even when the president of SpaceX and four blue-suited astronauts strode confidently onto the factory floor Monday afternoon and took up microphones to address several dozen reporters, the incessant work inside the SpaceX Falcon 9 hatchery continued.
On one side of the factory, technicians produced rolls of carbon fiber and built myriad payload fairings, which cannot yet be reused during a launch. To meet its cadence of a launch every other week, SpaceX must build at least two of these each month. Another section of the factory fabricated the Merlin 1-D rocket engines that power the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage. And in another large white room behind glass, several Dragon spacecraft were in various states of completion.
So when Gwynne Shotwell stopped in front of this Dragon clean room, held a microphone aloft, and welcomed her “extraordinary” astronaut guests to the factory, the noise did not abate. Rather, it seemed to crescendo as Shotwell raised her voice to introduce the crew of SpaceX’s first human mission, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. Likewise, the din continued as she welcomed Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover, crew members for the second flight of the Dragon spacecraft.
For his part, Glover acknowledged the background bedlam as cameras clicked and reporters crowded around to hear him and the other astronauts speak. “All of that noise in the background,” he said, “that is the sound of amazing things happening.”
This proved a nice moment for the upstart SpaceX, which has muscled its way to the center of the aerospace industry during the last decade. Now, finally, the company created to fly humans to Mars had its first astronauts. They smiled and waved. And while, nominally, they were here to help design their ride to space, the regular visits to this factory by astronauts serve another, deeper purpose.
The upstart rises
On Monday, SpaceX invited reporters to its factory for an astronaut event. This was the first time media was invited inside, en masse, in more than four years, when company founder Elon Musk first unveiled the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Much has changed since then. The Dragon will no longer land propulsively, on the ground, but rather will splash into the sea. And SpaceX didn’t quite make Musk’s timeline of crewed flights, which had a first launch goal of 2016.
Even so, SpaceX has made remarkable progress on the crewed Dragon. At this point, SpaceX remains the clubhouse leader in the effort to return human launches to US soil and become the first private company to launch people into space next year, with a timeline running a few months ahead of Boeing and its Starliner spacecraft.
The progress seems all the more remarkable because of SpaceX’s startup status. Back in 2011 when the company joined the commercial crew competition, SpaceX had barely flown an orbital rocket. By contrast, Boeing has a century of aerospace experience, playing a major role in nearly all of NASA’s human exploration programs since the dawn of the space age.
SpaceX has also done so for significantly less money than Boeing. Musk’s company offered to finalize development of the Dragon spacecraft and fly six operational missions to the International Space Station for $2.6 billion. For the same service, Boeing sought, and received, $4.2 billion. At such a lower price point, Ars asked, could SpaceX even be profitable?
“Knowing I could have bid more, after the fact, I sure wish I would have bid more,” Shotwell said Monday, with a laugh. She then turned serious. “But that doesn’t change the fact that we’re doing this job. I hate to talk about profit when we’re flying astronauts, but this will not be a losing proposition for SpaceX.”
Safety, she emphasized, was the paramount aim, not profits.
Leashing a Dragon
During the event at SpaceX, engineers guided reporters through various displays. Outside, under a resplendent blue sky with the rolling hills of Palos Verdes in the distance, media was invited to crawl into a low-fidelity mockup of the crew Dragon spacecraft. This was a roomy vehicle, especially in comparison to NASA's current ride to the space station, a cramped Soyuz with a capacity of three. The Dragon will comfortably carry a normal complement of four for NASA, but seven seats can fit inside.
On the second floor of its main factory, where astronauts have trained in recent years, SpaceX also showed off two simulators publicly for the first time. This marked the first time SpaceX has revealed details about the controls and the interior of its crewed spacecraft.
The cockpit simulator demonstrated the controls that Dragon astronauts will have at their command. In comparison to the space shuttle and its more than 1,000 buttons, switches, and controls, the Dragon capsule has a modest array of three flat screens and two rows of buttons below.
These touch screens selectively display the necessary controls during flight and are the primary interface astronauts have with the vehicle. Below are two rows of manual buttons, 38 in total, that provide back-up control of the spacecraft. Many of the buttons are situated beneath clear panels, intended to never be used, because they are often the third option after the touch screens and ground control of the Dragon.
One control stood out—a large black and red handle in the middle of the console with “EJECT” printed in clear white letters above it. This initiates the launch escape system, which rapidly pulls the spacecraft away from the rocket in the case of an emergency during the ascent into space. It must be pulled, then twisted. Normally the flight computers would initiate such a maneuver, but the prominence of the escape system handle underlines its importance. Notably, after the vehicle reaches orbit, this control becomes “deadened,” such that accidentally pulling it in space would do nothing.
SpaceX engineers also facilitated tours of their Dragon simulator, the highest-fidelity spacecraft module they have for astronaut training. The entire interior of the vehicle emulates the real spacecraft, complete with flight software and a life-support system.
The four astronauts, Behnken, Hurley, Hopkins, and Glover, have begun flying to Hawthorne on nearly a weekly basis to train in the simulator, flying everything from nominal missions to moderate failure modes and even simulating the complete loss of cabin pressure or other emergencies.
“Being able to fly the first flight of a vehicle as a test pilot is a once-a-generational type of opportunity,” Hurley said. “But I would also say that we have a lot of work left to do, and we are in it for the long haul to make this vehicle as great as possible for our friends back in the astronaut office, that maybe haven’t even gotten hired yet, but they’re going to fly on this vehicle someday. We take that job very seriously.”
A deeper purpose
Astronauts play an important role in designing spacecraft. They don’t have much say about the engineering guts of the vehicles, but they do provide input on accessibility of the controls, comfort of the vehicle, and overall safety. Behnken, Hurley, Hopkins, and Glover are all more than qualified to do so, as they are all engineers in addition to being test pilots.
Beyond training and advising, however, visits like the one Monday serve another, perhaps still more important purpose for the astronauts, NASA, and contractor companies. They offer a stark reminder that real humans, with real spouses and children, will climb into these vehicles to test all of the hardware that should work in space but cannot be guaranteed to work in ground simulations. There is only one way to find this out for sure, and that is to go fly.
Shotwell acknowledged this. Every customer is important, she said, but then expressed confidence that the spacecraft and rockets flying humans into space would have 7,000 “extra sets of eyes” on them—the current number of employees at SpaceX.
Asked by a reporter what he feared most about spaceflight, Glover, the only rookie astronaut, did not hesitate. “The only thing I’m ever afraid of is not coming home to my family,” he said. “That was true on deployments on a carrier, and that’s the same thing I feel now. That’s the only thing I truly fear.”
Later Monday, hundreds of young, exuberant SpaceX employees gathered beneath the first Dragon spacecraft to ever fly into orbit, located in the main entry to the SpaceX factory. On a small stage, Shotwell asked each of the astronauts to briefly introduce themselves.
Four astronauts, Gwynne Shotwell, and Benjamin Reed on stage inside the SpaceX factory Monday.
Glover, again, returned to his family during his brief remarks. “The thing I want you to know about me is that I’m married and I have four beautiful daughters, and that’s the most important thing.” For 10 seconds, the crowd cheered and clapped at this.
Spaceflight is a matter of physics and engineering and machinery. But when payloads are people, the humanity of the enterprise really hits home. For a brief time, the resonance of that message on Monday seemed to drown out even the constant banging and whirring of a factory that never seems to sleep.