Inside SpaceX's Texas Rocket-Testing Facility

April 8, 2014 – 12:36 pm

spacex mcgregor first stage testShortly before 7 a.m. ET this morning, SpaceX engineers in Hawthorne, California, will be watching their monitors as the Dragon spacecraft makes its final approach to the International Space Station. As the on-board Draco thrusters make a final few bursts to maneuver towards the ISS, another team of SpaceX engineers in McGregor, Texas, will be watching to see if the small engines they tested extensively will perform as expected and steer the spacecraft within reach of the station's robotic arm.

Many of those same engineers are undoubtedly also busy reviewing data and images from Sunday's launch.spacex mcgregor merlin test stands About 79 seconds after lift-off, one of the nine Merlin rocket engines suffered a failure and had to be shut down during the ascent. That same engine had been fired on a test stand above the central Texas grasslands and performed perfectly before it was even considered to be counted on for Sunday's launch. But as SpaceX is fond of reminding us, this is rocket science and things don't always go as planned

spacex mcgregor second stage testWhile SpaceX builds all of its own rocket engines and thrusters at its Hawthorne headquarters, before they can fly, they must pass through McGregor where the company tests each new engine off of the assembly line, as well as those being developed for future missions to orbit and beyond.

McGregor is like many small towns in Texas. It is located just south of the once anonymous town of Crawford and McGregor High School's football stadium features a fair amount of seating for a town of less than 5, 000.

spacex mcgregor merlin 1dBut there is one thing McGregor residents experience that is unlike any other Texas town. Every so often its inhabitants hear and feel the rumble of rocket engines as the air around them pulses courtesy of one of the biggest employers in town. And SpaceX is expanding.

"We're building more test stands because we're ramping up production, because we have this big manifest in front of us, " says SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Grantham.

The seven test stands are in constant operation. The facility in McGregor currently operates 18 hours a day, six days a week. Engines are fired, stages are pushed and pulled, and Dragon capsules are taken apart and inspected. The company's headquarters and factory in sunny southern California gets a lot of the attention, but most of the noisy, dirty and critical testing work is done just outside this small central Texas town nestled in amid the farm fields.

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