The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SpaceX clean room
SpaceX second stage Kestrel engine assembly clean room. (credit: Ken Gosier)

Interview: a tour of SpaceX (part 4)

Elon and Arnold

Sam Dinkin, The Space Review: How would you characterize the city of El Segundo?

Dianne Molina, Marketing Manager, SpaceX: There’s a main street. It’s very Mayberry [North Carolina, the ideal small town fictionalized in the Andy Griffith Show]. At the same time there’s multi-billion dollar industry here: Raytheon, Chevron, and Mattel.

TSR: Chevron—that’s where the name of the city came from: El Segundo, the second Standard Oil refinery, in 1911. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could get the attention of Governor Schwarzenegger.

Molina: You know, he has come by.

TSR: He was so excited about the stem cell initiative. I wrote a column about having a California Mars shot (“Vote yes on Prop 2001”, The Space Review, November 8, 2004). Put in on the ballot.

Molina: He and Elon are acquaintances. Arnold has a great after school program: Arnold’s All-Stars. They had about 200 of them visit and outnumbered us. We did a great tour for them.

TSR: Can anybody take a tour?

Molina: We’re not open to the public. As my time is getting more and more limited, it may be cut back even more.


Molina: Here is a pump that we talked about, and the ablative nozzle. It has been difficult to get the right performance, as [VP of Propulsion] Tom Mueller will attest. If you picture the engine sitting on top of this, this is the base of the rocket.

Ken Gosier, Space Frontier Foundation and amateur photographer: This is reusable. You recover it after each time right?

“Elon is very committed to driving the cost lower. The reuse part of the vehicle is a key part of bringing the cost down.”

Molina: Everything below the interstage is what we recover. Obviously valves and different portions of the engine will not be reusable. It’s somewhat of an experiment.

TSR: What he said is, “If it can take thousands of pounds of hydro pressure, then it ought to be able to take a little seawater.”

Gosier: And the impact and everything. Supposedly, they grab the shuttle rockets and they refurbish them, but I have in mind that’s an onerous process. You have to do a lot of stuff to make them flightworthy again.

Molina: Partially, it’s an experiment for us to see how much it’s going to take and the cost. Elon is very committed to driving the cost lower. The reuse part of the vehicle is a key part of bringing the cost down.

TSR: Once he gets all the business, everyone is going to do what he is doing and he will have to do something new to stay ahead of them.

Molina: That’s the big push on Falcon 1, one of the things we wrote in our release: that we will be the only semi-reusable other than the shuttle. Once the shuttle retires—

Gosier: I don’t know specifics. They fish the shuttle rockets out but then they have to go and they have to do almost as much work as they have to do to build them to make them flight worthy again.

TSR: They have stir the fuel and cast it and set it in there. These guys are just using liquid.

Molina: It is little less complicated, but it should not be underestimated what it’s really going to play out to in terms of time and cost. Human cost, too, of our labor.

TSR: They said, “$50,000 to fish it out of the sea and after that we’ll find out.” He said the sticker price doesn’t include any reuse.

Gosier: Oh really? So it’s pretty conservative.

Molina: We are looking for that cost to go further down.


Molina: One thing to note is we still have a lot of empty cubicles. We’re constantly hiring. A number one priority for Elon is getting the right people. It has been a difficult process because the standards reach so high. We’re still always looking for great folks.

TSR: If you make an announcements that you are going to lower your standards, call me up.

Rick Tumlinson, Space Frontier Foundation: We’ve had some people coming to our conferences, post-graduate student types who come to our conferences who are looking. I will send some information on them. Really sharp kids.

Molina: Send them to my attention. Send them to the web site. We want a cover letter and a statement.

Bill Boland, Space Frontier Foundation and winner of VIP tour: Do find there’s a problem in hiring finding the necessary skills, but don’t find the culture?

“This is what people who work here have been saying: ‘I never thought a place like this existed.’ Our welders to our VPs saying, ‘this is the best job I’ve ever had.’”

Molina: That’s it on the nose. It is extraordinary here. This is a good distinction to make too. I am one of five administrative folks who don’t have a hand on the rocket. Elon always refers, to big big laughs, to “Signal to noise ratio”. It certainly gets the laughs. That’s a big commitment that Elon has. Not having a lot of managers, but having a lot of doers. All our VPs have a hand on that rocket and are solid engineers. Even Gwynne Shotwell [VP of Business Development] has a hand. She’s an engineer.

We have a lean administrative team, which is interesting from my perspective. Even for myself, I would have never dreamed I would fit here as much as I do. It’s beyond my training. It’s more of who I am, how I think, and how I work.

TSR: It’s kind of a California culture, a dot com culture transferred to aerospace or is it even more than that?

Molina: I think it’s more than that. It’s a lot of type-As. Elon has extraordinarily high standards. The ones who fit here have even higher standards for themselves.

TSR: Is there a lot of yelling with type-A’s?

Tumlinson: It’s goal oriented. It’s a cultural thing.

Molina: You have a common goal. It’s beyond the egos. Elon always says that. Especially as we get closer and closer to launch. Do not get defensive if somebody questions your work. No one ever launched a rocket thinking it was going to fail, that their part was going to fail or their system was going to fail. Don’t be ego driven. It’s been one of the hardest things to set aside. Just do it for all the other individuals who have been working so hard to create this final product.

Gosier: There are no wrong answers, only questions that nobody asked.

Molina: So many folks who come from 10 to 20 years of experience in the industry. Talk to any one of them at all, they say—

Tumlinson: —this is paradise compared to Lockheed Martin—

TSR: —compared to any corporation anywhere.

Molina: This is utopian for me. This is what people who work here have been saying: “I never thought a place like this existed.” Our welders to our VPs saying, “this is the best job I’ve ever had.” It’s amazing to be around that energy every day and we feed back on each other, the highs and the lows.

TSR: It’s like Heinlein’s Destination Moon. “Let’s forget all the usual stuff we go through and just do it.”

Boland: “Just do it.” Nike in space, “Just do it.”

Molina: Potential sponsorship time.

Tumlinson: Are you guys open to interns?

Molina: We do. That’s on the web site. It’s not a full-blown program. We have a great VP of Human Resources, Jerry Fielder. This last year, we’re at the biggest number we’ve ever been, which is about two per department.

Boland: Is there an age limit on interns?

Molina: I think the youngest I’ve seen is probably—

Boland: Who is the oldest?

Molina: Umm.

Boland: This is a trap.

TSR: Say over 40, Bill wants to apply.

Molina: It’s no joke. It’s no secret. The responsibility that a lot of us have here would not exist at another aerospace corporation at this point in our careers. That’s exhausting and daunting and exhilarating in so many ways. For example, stating your case to your boss, and your boss saying, “I think you are right, but I need a little more. Show me that you are right.”

Boland: Where do you go from here?

Molina: From my perspective, there are a few things about this as far as ideas go, in terms of perception and the communication of it. The visuals are so impactful. There are so many things that I never dreamed I would see that I see here. But that’s just part of—it’s part of the ride too. It’s so exciting. I believe in the people here. I believe they’re doing what they’re doing the right way, the best way. It’s a dream. It really is.

Engine assembly

Molina: This is a Kestrel engine in process. Just to give you an idea, this is a 7,000-lb. [31,000-newton] pressure-fed system vs. Merlin, which in its original iteration is a 75,000-lb. [334,000-newton] thrust engine at sea level. The Merlin 1B that we are starting to roll out, which will power the Falcon 9, will be 85,000 lbs [378,000 newtons]. There are some more announcements coming out on the propulsion evolution of SpaceX. There’s a whole lot of exciting things happening over here. Assembly. On the other side, Merlin assembly.

TSR: You could probably license these.

Molina: There has been some interest in purchasing our engines. There have been discussions on that. It’s interesting to think about that.

TSR: You hit your performance targets and the weights.

Molina: Initial development is always the hardest part of it. Some of the most wrenching moments have been down in our testing facility in McGregor, Texas, but some of the most exhilarating at the same time. Being in that bunker, you can still feel it. You are underground, far away.


TSR: How often do you take the show on the road to Texas?

Molina: I go whenever customers are going down or maybe media is going down, when stories are being done that are local. I haven’t been down in Texas for a few months.

Tumlinson: How has the Texas government treated you guys?

“Initial development is always the hardest part of it. Some of the most wrenching moments have been down in our testing facility in McGregor, Texas, but some of the most exhilarating at the same time.”

Molina: Very well. McGregor is an interesting place. I am not a big fan of Texas right now. I am from USC [which lost to University of Texas in the Rose Bowl the day before the tour]. Brian is an SC person too. If we look like we are a little down, that’s the reason. They’ve been great. Elon was looking for the right facility. It’s a former government testing facility—a huge employer that pulled out, I think, in the early nineties. It devastated the economy. Certain parts of it look fairly run down. They have been very welcoming. We’ve asked them to do things that no one has ever asked them to before. They’ve been very accommodating.

Tumlinson: Texas doesn’t realize you are there on the state level. All they can look at is Johnson Space Center.

TSR: They don’t realize that this is going to be “Aluminum Valley”, that this is going to be a big money thing. If you prove out your technology, you’ll be launching every day.

The message

Molina: That’s another thing I always bring up with folks too: the marketing angle. I think this is a language that we all speak. It’s such a phenomenal industry in terms marketing. There are phenomenal images and phenomenal interest in it, especially at the grassroots, meeting children. What happened to them—and so many of us—is that were children and were interested in it, and lost it. I have got it back for quite a while.

TSR: You have so much press for just completing your first sale.

Molina: Absolutely.

TSR: I think space is over covered. That is why I am starting a space company, SpaceShot.

Tumlinson: It can’t be covered enough.

Molina: The hardest part of my job is educating media to cover it better, to cover it smarter, to see SpaceX in a different light.

TSR: I’ve got a space journalism prize. This will be the second year.

Molina: That’s huge.

Tumlinson: Yesterday, I was on the phone with Forbes. They are diving in big time, doing a whole series. Someone probably woke up over there, probably Steve [Forbes]. So that this isn’t boys and their toys. This has a bigger cultural context: human settlement. I know Elon wants to go to Mars and settle Mars. That’s it, the bottom line. There’s a lot of opportunity.

“The hardest part of my job is educating media to cover it better, to cover it smarter, to see SpaceX in a different light.”

Molina: Griffin said something I found interesting from the SpaceX perspective. People ask me questions about NASA outreach, public affairs, and perception: how you’re going to get public buy-in to these huge audacious plans that have huge dollar signs attached to them. He addressed it very well. NASA hasn’t done it well, but should have in terms of outreach and public affairs. Doing a better job of helping folks look at it from a different perspective is really important to do.

Tumlinson: They can’t have a focused message because they have a bad product. They are selling Model A’s to people who are driving Priuses. NASA can’t sell what it does.

Molina: They could.

Tumlinson: They could try. In the end they have a bankrupt message whereas you guys have a real message.