Featured Image Source: SpaceX
SpaceX is in the process of developing its next-generation spacecraft. It will be a two-stage launch vehicle, consisting of Starship (a spaceship), and a rocket booster called Super Heavy. Starship will be capable of conducting voyages to the moon and Mars. Super Heavy will only be needed to take Starship out of Earth’s atmosphere. It will be capable of returning from space in order to be reused. SpaceX has developed some of the world’s most technologically advanced rockets. The Falcon 9 rocket’s first-stage booster is capable of being launched, and return to land vertically on autonomous drone ships at sea in order to be reused again. No one in the rocket industry has achieved that level of reusability. Making Starship reusable is key towards decreasing the cost of spaceflight to make life multi-planetary.
Starship’s development is partially funded by Yusaku Maezawa, a fashion entrepreneur who dreams of going to the moon. Maezawa booked Starship’s first crewed flight, it will be a circumlunar voyage scheduled for the year 2023. SpaceX has an ambitious deadline to meet. The rocket company is manufacturing a production line of Starships at its South Texas assembly facility located in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville, TX. Elon Musk, founder and chief engineer at SpaceX, says a high iteration rate is needed to make rapid progress in the development of Starship. To rapidly innovate, many vehicles must be manufactured and tested rapidly. Therefore, the company aims to ramp up its production to build one Starship per week. “Production is at least 1,000 percent harder than making one of something. At least 1,000 percent harder,” Musk said. This year, the company manufactured three stainless steel prototypes of the craft, two imploded during pressurization tests. They are currently working on the construction of the fourth prototype of Starship, SN4. Each prototype will undergo a series of tests, and improvements needed towards developing a space-ready vehicle. SpaceX aims to conduct a debut test flight this year. The first launch is expected to be 150 meters, followed by a high-altitude flight of 20 kilometers.
Starship fuel header tank pic.twitter.com/CVj8057CY6— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 6, 2020
SpaceX engineers developed new machines to aid in the construction of Starship prototypes. Engineers made a new welding tool called a "knuckle seamer" with the purpose to speed up Starship dome tank production and improve weld quality. Ars Technica reporter, Eric Berger, described the tool:
“The knuckle seamer looks something like a giant zipper that articulates over the front and back of a dome, like a taco shell around its filling. On the front, the seam to be welded is designed to line up along the zipper, which clamps down for a precise fit. Then, in about 10 minutes, an automated torch will trace down the length of the curve, providing a precise weld. Following this, the dome is rotated to bring the next seam into view.”
Engineers also developed a "shielded X-ray machine" to inspect their welding quality. Usually, X-ray teams must clear the work area when using radiation, so, 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.
"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 ArsTechnica. "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."
Ars Technica reports, he issued a meeting with his employees at 1:00 a.m. in February, to plan on how to speed up Starship production at the Boca Chica factory. His engineering team explained they needed more people to take-on work shifts. Forty-eight hours later, SpaceX hired 252 workers, doubling the construction workforce at that factory. Musk dreams of colonizing Mars in his lifetime. He runs 24/7 operations to develop a spacecraft that could make it a reality. During a keynote conversation at the Satellite 2020 conference last month, Musk stated:
"I hope I'm not dead by the time people go to Mars. [...] If we don’t improve our pace of progress, I’m definitely going to be dead before we go to Mars. If it’s taken us 18 years just to get ready to do the first people to orbit, we’ve got to improve our rate of innovation or, based on past trends, I am definitely going to be dead before Mars."
Next month, SpaceX will conduct its first crewed flight to the International Space Station aboard the upgraded Crew Dragon spacecraft. It will liftoff atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, carrying NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.