Featured Image Source: Elon Musk
SpaceX is working hard towards transforming humans into a multi-planet species, the rocket company aims to build a fully reusable spacecraft capable of performing long-duration voyages to Mars. Engineers have been working on the development of Starship, a massive stainless-steel craft that could carry 100 passengers plus 100 tons of cargo. They are currently manufacturing many scaled-down Starship prototypes to test out at the SpaceX South Texas facility located in Boca Chica Beach. Ars Technica's Eric Berger spent the previous weekend interviewing the founder and Chief Engineer of SpaceX Elon Musk. Berger shared via Twitter, "I spent last weekend in Boca Chica, Texas, visiting SpaceX's manufacturing facilities and speaking with Elon Musk. I have visited a lot of rocket factories, but I've never seen anything like this."
I couldn't take photos inside the tents, but let me tell you, they are bustling—full of people and hardware and purpose. From the outside, here's how much infrastructure has gone up in recent months: pic.twitter.com/KDHcsOXXyO— Eric Berger (@SciGuySpace) March 5, 2020
During the interview with Eric Berger, Musk said that manufacturing a production line of Starship and creating a factory will enable the rocket company to speed up the spacecraft's development. Musk explained:
"A high production rate solves many ills. If you have a high production rate, you have a high iteration rate. For pretty much any technology whatsoever, the progress is a function of how many iterations do you have, and how much progress do you make between each iteration. If you have a high production rate then you have many iterations. You can make progress from one to the next."
The SpaceX assembly site at Boca Chica is beginning an assembly line, Musk aims to build at least one Starship each week. They are designing a rocket production factory to eventually manufacture a Starship every 72 hours! So, their goal is to build about two Starship vehicles per week in Texas. Musk expects to reduce manufacturing costs to as low as $5 million per stainless-steel Starship vehicle.
Image Source: SpaceX
SpaceX expects to build at least 20 Starship prototypes this year. Each prototype will be designed to test out different features that will aid towards developing a space-ready vehicle. Last week, engineers conducted a cryogenic pressurization test on the Starship SN1 prototype that was expected to conduct a 20 kilometer test flight above Boca Chica. Starship SN1 was destroyed during the pressurization test, Musk said that during the test SpaceX teams figured out that, "There’s a puck at the base that takes the engine thrust load." Teams will now improve the welds under the vehicle.
There’s a puck at the base that takes the engine thrust load. Don’t shuck the puck!— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 2, 2020
Currently, they are rapidly manufacturing the second prototype referred to as Starship SN2. Parts of the SN2 vehicle will undergo pressurization tests to ensure the welding technique is improving. First, they will test out their welds by filling up the structure with water then conduct a pressurization test. We might not see a fully assembled Starship until their welds pass cryogenic pressure tests. Two Starship prototypes have been destroyed during pressurization tests, Musk previously explained that propellant dome tanks are the most difficult part of the craft to build because these stainless-steel domes must be light enough to not add on extra weight but strong enough to withstand highly pressurized propellant plus spaceflight stressors. According to Berger, building a Starship dome tank takes teams about a week, "1 or 2 days to tack up and fit steel sheets, 4 days to weld the sheets together, and 1 to 2 days for X-ray inspections and repairs."
Berger reports that in the course of four weeks, SpaceX developed new machines to aid in the construction of Starship prototypes. He shared that engineers have developed a new tool called a "knuckle seamer" with the purpose to speed up production and improve weld quality. Engineers have also developed a "shielded X-ray machine" to inspect their welding quality. Usually, X-ray teams must clear the work area because too much radiation could affect health, the process of inspecting an entire spacecraft's welds can take an entire day. The new shielded X-ray machine could help teams conduct weld inspections in a few hours. Musk aims to build a Starship factory to build many flight vehicles at Boca Chica. He believes that manufacturing more machines to do the job will be useful for Starship production, "If you’re just trying to make one of something, it can all basically just be made by the engineering team. But if you want to actually make something at reasonable volume, you have to build the machine that makes the machine, which mathematically is going to be vastly more complicated than the machine itself," Musk told Berger. "The thing that makes the machine is not going to be simpler than the machine. It’s going to be much more complicated by a lot. Things need to be translated into instructions that the average person can understand. You can’t have somebody with an engineering master’s degree from MIT hand-making every single part. It’s not possible. There just aren’t enough. MIT’s not graduating enough people."
To speed up manufacturing process, SpaceX has held several hiring events at Boca Chica to fill up four work shifts and enable 24/7 operations. Now the company has over 500 employees, they provide warm meals to everyone every four hours for free. The initial goal is to develop a flight-ready prototype that will be capable of flying 20 kilometers then perform a controlled landing with the power of its Raptor engine. Musk also aspires to conduct an orbital mission before the end of this year.