Sen—Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX as the privately owned company is known, is preparing for its fifth launch in less than five months, a pace that will keep it on track toward its goal of 12 or more flights year, and a prelude to a launch rate of 20 or more missions in 2016.
The latest effort is a commercial mission for satellite manufacturer Thales Alenia Space and its customer, the government of Turkmenistan. Since SpaceX began flying its Falcon 9 rocket in June 2010, the company has flown 17 times, all successfully.
SpaceX’s goal is to maintain that perfect record even as it ramps up production to as many as 46 booster cores per year. The Falcon 9’s use one core each; the planned Falcon Heavy uses three.
“For the past three years we have looked at the vehicle architecture and the production processes and have been establishing the capacity to be able to achieve those goals … of 46 cores per year, ” said Andy Lambert, SpaceX vice president of production.
“Production output is a mix of a number of things … the facilities you install, the quantities of facilities, the number of people that support those facilities, the number of parts you demand and naturally the working hours and days that you have based on the cycle times of those production processes.
“If you take those five variables, you can influence those at any point in time to dictate your actual output at a point in time. What we did very early on was look to establish as rapidly as possible the facilities to achieve that output and in almost all areas of production are ready,” Lambert said.
SpaceX figures it can manufacture 16 Falcon 9s and 10 Falcon Heavy rockets per year with its Hawthorne, California, factory running two shifts of workers five days a week.
SpaceX isn’t building rockets at that pace yet because right now it doesn’t have the manifest to support it. That’s likely to change if the company successfully woos some of the U.S. military’s launch business from United Launch Alliance, the Lockheed-Martin and Boeing partnership that currently has a monopoly on the lucrative U.S. national security satellite market.
Lambert, who joined SpaceX in 2012, previously worked as manufacturing director for BMW in the United Kingdom, where he honed so-called “lean manufacturing” practices.
“My approach is to utilize the lean manufacturing principals that make great manufacturing companies great, and that is purely to remove the waste from the process,” Lambert said.
Also key is to be able to recognize and respond quickly when production processes are disrupted.
“Any production process has bottleneck areas, but you attack them and resolve them in hours, not days or weeks,” Lambert said.
“The only concern I have is what don’t we know,” he added. “If there are flight anomalies (or) test anomalies then we have to react to those rapidly for the continued success. It’s those anomalies that we will be paranoid over. Being a young company and only wanting to ever demonstrate true reliability, we need to make sure we truly understand every issue to its full root cause before proceeding and launching. That has been our history to date and our activity to date, and that has delivered the results that we’ve obviously demonstrated.
“As you get into a faster rate, your ability to resolve those issues will dictate the pace. And that’s if they occur. That’s why it’s an issue of what’s not known that will give me greatest concern, rather than what’s known,” Lambert said.
SpaceX’s goal of 46 rocket cores per year is based all new production. The numbers might change if the company is successfully able to recover, refurbish and refly its boosters.
“It’s likely that we’ll need to go through a lot of investigation of a returned vehicle to understand the full refurbishment requirements. We would do a lot of analysis, physically, of that vehicle to understand if what we predicted would occur actually occurred and make our assessment from there afterwards,” Lambert said.
“Given what the vehicle is going through—the heat loads, eventuallay the speed that we actually finally approach the ship and land on it—all those things could have varying degrees of load into the vehicle. We would want to be assessing how close to what we’ve modeled has actually occurred and if there are any signs of something different.
“Those environments are so harsh and so variable depending on the mission and return trajectory, that there’s a lot for us still to learn on that front,” he added.
SpaceX’s next attempt to land the discarded first-stage of a Falcon 9 rocket will come in June when it launches another Dragon cargo ship on its way to the International Space Station for NASA. Falcon 9 missions to put communication satellites into geostationary orbits some 22,300 miles above Earth require too much lifting power for the rockets SpaceX currently flies to guide themselves back for a landing.
An upgraded Falcon 9, which presumably could land back on Earth, is slated for a debut mission in June or July this year.