SpaceX borrows Tesla's tent factory strategy for new Starship production HQ

SpaceX is rapidly building a giant tent almost identical to Tesla's tented assembly line to build Starships in South Texas. (NASASpaceflight - bocachicagal)

Confirmed yesterday morning by CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX has copied Tesla’s approach to factory expansion and is building a giant tent to upgrade its South Texas Starship production facilities.

A big step towards more traditional aerospace-style manufacturing facilities, SpaceX has contracted the same company used by Tesla to create a fourth general assembly line (GA4) in a giant tent outside its Fremont, CA factory in 2018. Instead of Model 3s, however, Sprung Instant Structures (Sprung for short) is rapidly raising a large tent that will eventually allow SpaceX to fabricate and weld more Starship parts and sections in an enclosed environment, an improvement from the current practice of building prototypes out in the harsh environment of coastal Texas.

In typical fashion, Musk believes that the new enclosed production facilities – just a collection of shipping crates as of December 18th – could be ready to begin manufacturing Starship parts as early as next month, and the progress Sprung has made makes it unusually hard to fault his optimism.

Likely taken in mid-December, aerial photos taken by pilot and photographer Sam Sun help sketch out a rough view of the prospective Starship factory. SpaceX appears to have almost entirely foregone a concrete foundation for the new tent, instead opting for lines of steel shipping containers that likely add a bit of height at the cost of structural stability.

According to figures printed right on one of Sprung Structures’ many shipments of materials, the initial building will measure approximately 45 meters (150 ft) wide, 77 meters (255 ft) long, and 18 meters (60 ft) tall. While Tesla’s GA4 tent is the same width and (mostly) height, it’s an impressive 280 meters (915 ft) long – almost four times bigger than SpaceX’s newest Boca Chica addition.

While the shipping container foundation is definitely a bit of a risk a mile from the Gulf of Mexico, it does mean that SpaceX might actually be able to move the shell of its new Starship factory if the need arises. SpaceX is in the midst of expanding its Boca Chica lots, potentially giving the company a lot more space to grow its enclosed factory down the road. The simplest possible expansion available would basically double the length of the existing structure, making it more like 150-180 meters (500-600 ft) long.

December 20th, 2019. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
In classic Sprung Structure fashion, the company has almost completely finished the shell of the new Starship factory in perhaps two weeks, pictured here on December 30th. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Regardless, even the current 150′ x 255′ enclosure will end up offering more than 38,000 ft² (3500 m²) of factory space once finished. Depending on what its primary purpose is, SpaceX could probably fit 5-8 stacks of 5-6 rings each (10-11m tall) down the center of the tent, with room for maybe 10-24 additional stacks of 2-3+ rings (3.5-5m tall) in the space remaining. The middle line of hypothetical rings could produce the entire barrel section of 1-2 Starships simultaneously, leaving perhaps 3-4 large sections to be welded together out in the elements or at SpaceX’s new wedge-shaped windbreak.

Of course, the facility will likely end up being mixed-use, potentially offering enough space to simultaneous fabricate all subsections of a single Starship prototype before they are assembled elsewhere.

Ultimately, Sprung is now in the process of installing a large quantity of insulation inside the tent’s walls, indicating that SpaceX’s South Texas welding crew may soon be blessed with a climate-controlled work environment. Meanwhile, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk believes that Boca Chica’s new tent could be complete and ready to begin building Starship hardware as soon as January 2020, while he says that the next Starship prototype – now known as Starship SN01 (serial number 01) – could be ready for flight testing just one or two months after that.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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