SpaceX show off their Falcon and Dragon nurseries

by Chris Bergin

SpaceX have published a series of photographs showing an array of launch vehicles and spacecraft currently in production for upcoming missions. The images – showing what is the nearest thing to a nursery for spacecraft – were taken at SpaceX Hawthorne production facility, which has increased its manufacturing capability to match the company’s busy manifest.

SpaceX Rocket Overload:

SpaceX are currently in the final stages of preparation for the debut launch of their upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 from their Space Launch Complex -4 (SLC-4) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Z612The rocket – sporting new Merlin 1D engines – recently passed its hot fire (or static fire) test at the second attempt, with a Launch Readiness Review (LRR) upcoming. This meeting will confirm the launch date, which is currently targeting the opening of the launch window on September 29.

The mission to launch the CAScade, Smallsat and IOnospheric Polar Explorer (CASSIOPE) spacecraft – a made-in-Canada small satellite from the Canadian Space Agency – will be a major test of the numerous upgrades to the Falcon 9, with CEO and chief designer Elon Musk warning the probability of failure is significant.

However, there is enough confidence in the longer, more capable, Falcon 9 v1.1 that engineering teams at SpaceX’s Hawthorne base have pressed on with fabricating numerous launch vehicle stages for what is a very busy upcoming manifest for the company.

SpaceX released undated photographs from the factory floor, showing several launch vehicles in various stages of their infancy, as the company continues to increase the manufacture of rocket hardware.

“SpaceX has increased production on its upgraded Falcon 9 vehicle. More than 70 percent of each Falcon launch vehicle is manufactured or assembled at the SpaceX Hawthorne production facility, which allows SpaceX to avoid the pitfalls associated with single-source parts dependency and gives the company competitive advantages in quality, cost and schedule control,” the company noted.

Z3AAccording to L2 information, the photos show Falcon 9 v1.1 first stages F9S1-008, F9S1-009 and F9S1-010, along with the qualification tank that was returned from SpaceX’s Rocket Development and Test Facility in McGregor, Texas.

Renamed F9R-1, this stage is undergoing Octaweb Integration operations ahead of engine installation, with silver material providing radiation shielding around the aft. Attachment areas for what will be its landing legs are also visible.

With all of these cores lined up next to each other, SpaceX portrayed the imagery as a sign of how they are streamlining processing via commonality of design and production.

“Ease of manufacturing is inherent in the Falcon 9 design. Each Falcon 9 is identical, regardless of the type of mission it will fly – from low Earth orbit to geosynchronous transfer orbit to resupply of the International Space Station. Commonalities in the vehicle’s subassemblies also facilitate rapid production.

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“For instance, the second-stage tanks of the Falcon 9 are a shorter version of the first-stage tanks and use most of the same tooling, material and manufacturing techniques.

“The second-stage engine is a modified, vacuum version of the engine used to power the first stage. The fuel tanks feature a common bulkhead design for the liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene. Falcon 9’s propellant tank walls and domes are both made from an aluminum-lithium alloy.”

Z313If the view of numerous launch vehicles all tucked together on the factory floor wasn’t enough to cause rocket fans to drool, SpaceX also showed off numerous Dragon spacecraft, all in various stages of production.

“As the only operational vehicle capable of taking significant amounts of cargo both to and from the International Space Station, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft is already a critical piece of the American space program,” added SpaceX.

“With at least 10 more station resupply missions over the next couple years, and with development of a human-rated Dragon and DragonLab underway, production of the Dragon spacecraft has increased significantly.

Z4The family of Dragons pictured includes four of the spacecraft set to visit the ISS, ranging from the SpX-3/CRS-3 Dragon – set to launch to the orbital outpost early in 2014, through to the SpX-6/CRS-6 Dragon – currently manifested for a December, 2014 mission.

Two more Dragons are shown, both aiming to be the pathfinders for SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Program aspirations, with a drop test Dragon along with a pad abort Dragon weldment.

According to L2 information, the only noticeable differences in the Crew Dragon weldment are that the aft cylinder is a few inches longer than on Cargo, and there are clevises machined into the edge of the forward bulkhead to receive SuperDraco thrusters.

Also, the pad abort Dragon won’t be launched on a Falcon 9, but from a special launch mount at SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral.

What is probably the most impressive aspect of the photographs is that all of them were taken at the same factory. Most space industry companies have a main production facility as a production hub, but with a lot of hardware – such as the engines – shipped in from other facilities and contractors.

Z5While SpaceX are already America’s leader in producing new rocket engines – with nine riding on each Falcon 9 core and 27 set to be utilized on each Falcon Heavy launch – the factory’s capacity will be able to accommodate the production of as many as 40 cores each year.

“To accommodate a high production rate, the facility’s manufacturing footprint has more than doubled to almost 1 million sq ft. SpaceX produces more rocket engines than any other U.S. manufacturer and the SpaceX factory is one of the largest manufacturing facilities in California – large enough to fit two complete Falcon 9’s end to end along the short length of the building.

“With a floor plan designed around mass production, the factory is already set up to eventually achieve a pace of forty cores annually.

“No other American company is mass producing spacecraft at the same rate.”

(Images: via SpaceX and L2’s SpaceX Special Section is now a dedicated sections, covering all missions and developments – and now includes over 1,000 unreleased hi res images from Dragon’s flights to the ISS.)

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