After nearly ten weeks hidden inside the company’s Port of Los Angeles tent, SpaceX’s main BFR manufacturing tooling made another brief appearance on July 1, showing off a new support structure and equipment that enables the entire device to spin and easily lay down layers of carbon fiber to construct the first Mars rocket prototype propellant tanks.
Based on photos taken of the large composite production equipment – known as a mandrel – in April 2018, as well as a photo released by CEO Elon Musk around the same time, it appears either that major modifications were made in the past two months or that an entirely new tool has been delivered to the dockside tent over the same period of time. Given that the shipment of the first hardware and its arrival at Port LA itself managed to slip beneath the eyes of local observers, there certainly is no reason that the same thing couldn’t be repeated. The mandrels and other production tooling SpaceX has acquired from Ascent Aerospace are likely shipped to their final destination disassembled.
More relevant, however, is the probability that SpaceX will need more than a single mandrel to produce BFR ship and booster prototypes on anything faster than geological timescales. In fact, if (very) rough size estimates produced from Musk’s shared photo are correct, two (or even three) 16-meter long mandrels would almost perfectly mesh to create the Spaceship’s own massive 48-meter length, although the reality would be far more complex than a simple feat of 1+1+1 thanks to the complex front and rear shapes of the BFR upper stage.
Two mandrels would also ensure that SpaceX is able to rapidly prototype, test, and re-prototype BFR hardware while the company refines designs and moves into full-scale flight hardware production and flight testing, at least at the prototype phase. Recently, several BFR and Mars rocket-focused job postings were spotted with specific requirements related to composite-composite and composite-metal joining, a young but rapidly advancing subset of skills necessary to efficiently and economically produce massive structures primarily made up of composite materials.
Boeing’s 787 program, composed of 50% composites, is a strong example with each fuselage broken into a number of smaller segments that are later joined together with tolerances on the order of 1/5000 of an inch to avoid damage to the composite sandwich structures within. Long-lived, reliable, and resilient segmented composite structures are thus well-established as a viable solution, although Boeing is one of precious few entities able to lay claim to such mass-production successes. Ultimately, SpaceX does not need to start from scratch (even if they could, or still may) in order to successfully build the ultra-reusable Mars rocket they aspire to.
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