Jun 23

A Visit to the Future of Spaceflight

I recently went with a number of my colleagues from TSTC on a visit to the SpaceX rocket test and development center in McGregor, Texas (about 30 miles from TSTC). SpaceX is arguably the leader in commercial space development and having them in our area is quite an honor. As I have mentioned before SpaceX has also hired some of our graduates.

SpaceX chose the McGregor site because it has 14,000 acres that was once a Naval Ordinance site, then a private/military missile test and development site. The acreage and the infrastructure couldn’t be recreated anywhere else economically. For example, the tripod pictured below was built for rocket engine static testing.


My memory is that we were told it had the capacity for up to six million pounds of thrust. I’m not so sure that I heard right. The first state of the Saturn V had a little over seven and a half million pounds of thrust. Since the SpaceX Merlin engine makes around 100,000 pounds of thrust, and their biggest rocket has nine Merlins in the first stage, they should have plenty of room for error!

This tripod was used to test the Merlin 9 last November. It caused quite a stir in the area because it happened after dark and could be heard and felt for many miles. The tripod and tower on top can clearly be seen in the YouTube video of that test:

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Other useful ‘leftovers’ at the site include this bunker, now filled with computers (running Windows and National Instruments Labview) to monitor testing.


We also got to look at this airframe stress tester.


I wasn’t sure about snapping the picture. We had been told not to take pictures of things “that looked like they might fly” (especially the engines). Our guide pointed out, though, that this test stand was right next to the road! The rocket is filled with inert liquid nitrogen to test the strength of the whole system. It seems like a good idea not to use the actual liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene for this test.

Speaking of liquid nitrogen and liquid oxygen, it should come as no surprise that SpaceX has a lot of cryo tanks around the property:


All SpaceX engines are built in California and shipped by truck to Texas. They are tested and assembled into vehicles at the McGregor site. They are sent out from there to the launch sites (like Omelek Island in the Pacific or Cape Canaveral).

Conclusions about technicians from our visit:

  • SpaceX has a great need for technicians electrical, mechanical, and aircraft technicians with good computer skills.
  • We currently teach almost everything needed for a well-rounded aerospace technician, but we need to rearrange and combine some curriculum.
  • These folks work hard long hours. If a test takes 16 hours, they work through it. Dedication and work ethic are very important.

Having been privileged to visit NASA in Houston a couple of times with higher-level status (we got to sit in the REAL shuttle simulator and meet astronauts), I was struck by the difference at SpaceX. Their “Vehicle Assembly Building” is a steel building that looks like any commercial building or barn. They are doing on a shoestring what NASA did with billions. (The picture below came from the Wikipedia article on SpaceX):


Despite the relative lack of resources, we were told that Mars was their ultimate goal. Satellite launches and International Space Station resupply missions are just steps toward that goal. I hope I live to see them make it!

2 Comments so far

  1. Dan Vest August 12th, 2009 8:20 am

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