The Space Exploration Technology rocket factory is a large, white hangar-like building near Los Angeles international airport, with a parking lot filled with late-model motorcycles and Tesla electric cars. The vast metal structure once churned out 737 fuselages for Boeing. When you get through the front doors, past security and a cubicle farm stretching the width of the building, there it is: Science fiction being wrought into shape, right in front of you.
Right in front of all the workers, too. The company’s two-floor cafeteria is practically on and overlooking the manufacturing floor. Designers and accountants can eat lunch watching technicians build space capsules and rocket stages. There’s a lot to see: Rockets, like good suits, are bespoke objects, hand-made to order; a SpaceX tour guide says much of the work is too precise for robotic assembly.
Visitors can’t snap pictures—the technology is considered sensitive to national security. An enormous robot encircles a carbon-fiber shell that enfolds a satellite mounted on top of a rocket, using sonic waves to test for invisible imperfections. Human workers align nine rocket engines in an octagonal frame before they are installed into the enormous aluminum tube; others use a crane to lift a large panel and move it between workspaces. Even higher overhead, the first Dragon space capsule to leave the atmosphere and come back again hangs as a trophy. Mounted beside it is a project still in development: An enormous metal arc, one leg of a landing tripod large enough for a rocket.