Intelligent Machines

Rocket Road

SpaceX wants to become the commercial heir to NASA.

When NASA stops flying the space shuttles later this year, the United States will no longer have a vehicle to carry humans to space—unless commercial industry can fill the gap. Last year, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) became the first company to send a spacecraft into low Earth orbit and have it reënter the atmosphere. The flight is part of a partnership with NASA, which has awarded SpaceX $1.6 billion for at least 12 flights to carry cargo to the International Space Station. But SpaceX’s goal is something far greater: a NASA contract to carry humans to space.


Preparing for its first test flight, the Falcon 9 rocket sits at SpaceX’s launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida (above). Approximately 55 meters tall and four meters wide, the two-stage rocket is powered by nine hydrocarbon Merlin engines. It is made of an aluminum-­lithium alloy and a carbon fiber–­aluminum composite.
Here, a carbon-composite interstage of the rocket is shown undergoing final assembly in California. The four black containers hold parachutes used to return the first stage of the rocket to Earth after separation from the second stage, which carries the vehicle to its targeted orbit.
SpaceX carries out more than 80 percent of its spacecraft design and manufacturing in a 550,000-square-foot facility (above) located on Rocket Road in Hawthorne, California. The company, which was founded in 2002, moved into the building in 2008. Here, engineers work on the avionics and control systems for the Falcon 9 rocket.
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The Merlin engine (above) operates on a gas-generator power cycle, using kerosene and liquid oxygen as propellants. Its injector design was first used in an Apollo spacecraft and has a long history of reliable spaceflight. The engine’s combustion chamber and nozzles are regeneratively cooled to increase thrust without increasing mass.
SpaceX’s capsule for carrying cargo and crew to space is named Dragon. It will use as many as 18 thrusters for orbital maneuvering and attitude control. The thrusters are mounted on the spacecraft in groups of four and five. Here, an engineer inspects the thrusters, which were fabricated in a clean room, before they are sent to SpaceX’s testing facility in Texas.
The California facility houses an engineering model of the Dragon (above). The reusable capsule can transport payloads of up to 6,000 kilograms and seven crew members to low Earth orbit. To carry humans, it will include life-support and launch-abort systems.
SpaceX’s second Dragon test capsule (above, under construction) is scheduled to fly later this year.
The Dragon capsule’s heat shield is intended to protect the spacecraft during reëntry into Earth’s atmosphere. At nearly four meters in diameter, it is the largest such shield to be used on a spacecraft. It has a carbon-composite structure, shown here, that supports heat-shield tiles. SpaceX worked closely with NASA to develop the tile technology. Each tile weighs about a kilogram and can withstand temperatures up to 2,000 degrees Celsius.

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