Code Name: DragonRider


It sound like somebody in Avatar, doesn’t it? Or the code name of the evil plot hatched by the most nefarious James Bond villain yet?

No, it’s just the project name for SpaceX’s effort to launch commercial crews to the International Space Station. DragonRider was one of the nuggets that Abhishek Tripathi revealed during a talk at the SETI Institute in Mountain View on Wednesday night. The SpaceX engineer gave an overview of his company’s work and some insights on what it is like to work there.

Tripathi came to SpaceX from NASA after frustrated with working largely on PowerPoint slides for future projects that weren’t getting off the ground. He found the California-based start-up intimidating at first; there were so many brilliant, mostly young people around that he wasn’t sure how he fit in.

To work at SpaceX, you have to be really committed. If you’re not at the stage in your life where your willing to put in lots and lots of hours, the SpaceX is probably not the place to be, he said.

SpaceX has a very flat management structure with similarities to Silicon Valley tech companies. Everyone — including Founder and CEO Elon Musk — works in cubicles, which makes meetings and communications much easier, Tripathi said. And one usually finds oneself working on many different aspects of the project instead of just a narrow area.

And what is the key to both low prices and high reliability? Vertical integration and intensive testing. The person who designs a component walks it over to the machine shop and follows his creation right through its use. Extensive testing is done at every stage of the process, and lessons learned flow back through the process.

Tripathi, who is working on Dragon, said that SpaceX remains focused on being able to launch the freighter to the International Space Station as planned in late November despite the scheduling problems caused by the recent loss of a Russian Progress vehicle. That failure has caused a delay in crew rotation, meaning that a crew trained to grapple and berth the Dragon won’t be on station until late December.

On other subjects, Tripathi told the audience that SpaceX is in active discussions with NASA about landing a Dragon spacecraft on Mars with a soil sample drill. He also said that while Falcon Heavy will launch initially from Vandenberg in California, it could launch from other locations — including Cape Canaveral — in the future. Whether it does is still to be determined.