HOW ROCKETS ARE MADE (Rocket Factory Tour - United Launch Alliance) - Smarter Every Day 231






Hey it's me Destin, welcome back to Smarter Every Day

I love rockets

If you've been around this channel, you know that about me

and today is like the best day ever

because we're going to learn how to build rockets.

Just down the road from Huntsville, Alabama

there's a city named Decatur.

And in that city, there is a rocket factory owned by

a company called United Launch Alliance,

and that factory has been cranking out incredibly reliable

rockets for years.

Because these orbital rockets have some of the

same technologies in them as ballistic missiles,

the knowledge about how to build them is protected.

In the United States we have a set of regulations called ITAR

International Traffic in Arms Regulations

Because of ITAR, nobody's going to let you walk

into a rocket plant with a camera and film things.

They can't risk that stuff getting out and breaking the law.

So there has to be an incredible amount of trust

between the parties that want to film things, and the people that own the plant.

Thankfully, I was given the opportunity to build that trust

with ULA, when I went and watched the launch of

the Parker Solar Probe, and I met the CEO of ULA on the launchpad.

If you haven't heard of this guy, Tory Bruno,

then you're in for a treat.

He's a legitimate rocket scientist who know his stuff inside and out.

It was at this launch that Tory and I built trust with each other.

Like, this guy is the real deal.

The tour we're about to go on has never been done on the internet,

Tory literally takes us right up to the line of what he can show us,

and all along the way he's answering my technical questions,

and he's letting me explore the factory.

So here we go, let's take the first ever online tour of

the United Launch Alliance rocket factory in

Decatur, Alabama, with the CEO of ULA.

Tory Bruno.

Okay, we've got Tory, mic'd up now, -Hi!

and you're gonna show me the rockets that are - Yes, yeah

fabricated at this facility? What do we have?

Okay, so we've got an Atlas V on the side,

this is kind of our workhorse, and it's in the

five meter payload fairing configuration.

So that's what we're talking about here,

it also has its SRB's on the side, which is sort of its

maximum lift version.

When it's got all five of those, we call it the beast.

- And this is the Delta IV Heavy, and this is what

you--thank you again, for letting me -Yeah, of course

participate, or at least see the Parker Solar Probe

Yeah, that was fun huh

-And that's fabricated here in Decatur?

Yes, yeah so three core rocket, you know literally

literally three rockets kind of bolted together,

and it is our largest rocket; it's physically the largest rocket

in the world right now,

and it is what we used for Parker Solar Probe.

-And this is what I want to talk about, -Yeaaaaah

this is Vulcan, and this rocket has never flown.

Never flown, not yet.

And you're going to see, the first flight vehicle hardware

in the factory being fabricated when we go in there today.

-Today -Yeah

Okay! -So this is our brand new rocket,

you can think of it as kind of a derivative of those

two in a way, so it'll be large

5.4 meter diameter, so a little bit bigger than Delta,

it can take six SRB's, it's a huge cavernous payload volume for

the spacecraft, and this rocket has 30% more lift capability

than this big three-core monster.

-So when you say six SRB's...

Six of them, yeah. -And that's just to get out of the Earth's gravity well

Yes, right, exactly.

-Can we go see the stuff?

Yeah, let's go see it.

Okay, we're at a rocket factory, let's do it.

-We're gonna peel off to the right here Okay

Okay I'm seeing the grid here

Yeah, so this is a barrel section from the booster over your head,

actually from an Atlas.

And I'm going to walk you down to the end of the factory where

this first gets made; it's the first thing we do

Raw stock comes in the back door,

gets machined, puts this curve in it,

and then we'll walk you all the way through to a completed version.

-That's awesome

Okay, so there's something unique about the north Alabama area here,

correct me if I'm wrong, but there's a little triangle:

there's a nuclear power station,

there's a steel mill,


and there's also a rocket factory like in a triangle.

-That's true And then you got a river running between them


and so you can bring in steel, you can make a rocket

using the power from the nuclear plant, -Yes

is that why you're here?

That's part of why we're here, but it's

also because of the talent that we have here with

University of Alabama and the other Alabama universities

and the technician programs they have here;

you just get an awesome workforce.

And with the river, which is only a mile from here

down Red Hat Road, we have the dock for our rocket

ship, so we can transport our rockets out to the launchpad.

This is the rocketship Tory's talking about;

ya see? Says so right on the side: "Rocketship.

Rocketship navigates its way through several rivers

up to the Mississippi River, down to the Gulf of Mexico,

and then it heads to whatever pad the rockets will launch from.

You should come back sometime and do the ship.

Yeah, I should ride on the ship. Is that a thing? -Yeah

Can you do that? -Yes that is a thing

Okay we're getting on a golf cart, and

we have to cut cameras because we're going to pass

uh, not "secret stuff", but things we can't film.

Right? -Right

Okay, cutting the camera off

Ok we're on the golf cart, and I've obtained permission

to film straight up so you can't see "that"

which is pretty neat.

Ok so,

I can't talk about that right now, can I

No, we can't show it to you, but I can tell you what it is

That's a Delta payload fairing

so one of the smaller versions of the Delta's payload fairing

and then you're passing by a heat shield here that would

protect the RS-68 engine,

from its own plume during flight.

Ok... this is almost emotional.

I mean, you know what it's like to sit in class and study

this stuff, -Oh yeah, sure

and then...

cause you went to Cal Poly right?


Yeah, so this is me looking at all the stuff I've learned about

and finally getting to see it.

It's on thing to see it on the pad, but uh

it's almost like a holy experience.

Yeah well, you're inside where it's actually happening,

where it all gets put together.

Okay I'm starting to get the smell of the machine shop,

the manufacturing, the cooling oil, -Yep

smell. -You got it

It's my understanding you're about to show me how to

build a rocket from scratch.

Yes I am.

Okay, excellent, so we're going to the door, right?

Yes we are

Okay this is what I wanted to see, here at ULA:

This is the door.

I can't even get--it's a wide angle lens--so that's the door

where the material comes in, right? -Right

That's where the raw aluminum plate and other materials come in,

and then this is the receiving area,

and as they move that way turn into a rocket.

So we're about to build a rocket by going

that way in the plant.


-Okay, I'm game let's do this.

Alright let's do it.

And this is an active manufacturing facility,

so you're just going to have to deal with the audio,

there's a lot of tools running.

Yeah, sorry about that, but, ya know, building rockets.

It's good

Oh wow, that is...

that is really--can I go touch that?

Yeah yeah, absolutely.

This is a very, very expensive, piece--is that aluminum or stainless?

-That's aluminum Aluminum


-And is that fabricated here locally?

-That's imported? No, yeah we buy that from a supplier

and then it's shipped here, comes in through the big door,

if you will--and then we machine it down,

we're going to remove, more than two thirds of the material

while retaining about ninety percent of the strength

-in certain dimensions, right?

And I will show you that, yeah

-Okay, got it

So this is our raw material, and uh, we're going to go

make a rocket.


And so, all this is aluminum? That is a-- -All this is aluminum

That's a unique dimension, you normally don't see

plates of aluminum that wide and that long.

No, so this is actually made especially for us in these dimensions,

so that we can turn them into the barrel; the propellant

tanks of the rocket itself.

-Okay, so, so you're tooling up an entire foundry of some type

or a mill, a rolling mill. -A rolling mill.

Okay, gotcha

So I'm going to show you a couple of different things

before we get to the machine,

so starting here with the raw stock of 7000-series aluminum

it'll eventually become a round rocket barrel,

this is just after machining, and I wanted to point this out to you,

because, this is our old style of grid that we machine in

called an isogrid, and you're familiar with what an isogrid is--

-Isogrid, yes

Right? So we have isentropic properties when we do the stress analysis,

and you can see the triangular patterns in there.

That's not actually the ideal pattern for a rocket barrel,

but it is what the analytical tools--the finite element analysis tools available to us

when we designed the Atlas and Delta in the nineties,

were available to us, and that's why we have that pattern.

Vulcan will be better, because the tools are better and you'll see the difference

when we walk down the line.

-I have never thought about that

So literally because in the nineties the FEA analysis could

solve a triangle easily, -Yes

that's why the isogrid is a triangle.

-Exactly I would've never thought that

so, so basically if I understand correctly,

you--can I touch this?

Yeah, touch if you want.

I'm going to ask you that every time -Yeah, that's alright

So basically because you can compute the force coming

in one member, -Yep

to a node and the forces coming out the other member

that's how you arrived at isogrid.


-Okay, fantastic

Yeah it's sort of an interesting thing,

in the real world, how the engineering tools that are available,

dictate the kind of designs that we use.

Got it. What's your safety factor on flying here?

Oh, so it depends on what part of the rocket we're talking about,

anything that would be pressurized when people are around,

it has a higher safety factor

than what is not, but the factors we work with in

flight are anywhere from 1.1, to never really higher than 1.25.

Got it, yes. I mean it's very different than like,

designing a railroad car where your factor of safety might be

7 or 8.

Oh no, yeah.

And a factor of safety is, if you can compute the stress

that the thing will break at, you design it to 1.1 times that

Right, 10% more load carrying capability, and really a factor of safety

is really a factor of ignorance.

You have a factor of safety because you're not truly

sure what might happen to it in the field,

so you give yourself just a little bit more.

And you talked about rail,

big tractors are another one;

we have big factors of safety like 7 times, 12 times,

when we do rockets, we like to keep it closer to like

just 10%, maybe 20%, cause we can't afford the weight.

Got it, because every every 1000th of an inch that you put in this webbing here,

over the course of a huge part like this,

you're talking tons on the whole rocket.



Exactly, and this is a booster plate, and so

every seven pounds of that costs me a pound of spacecraft.

-So how long does it take to machine that?

You have the tools here to machine this isogrid.

Yeah this is about a two day operation altogether.

Is this curled like a potato chip in this direction,

or in this direction?

In the long direction.

-In the long direction

And you're going to see that operation as we walk

to the other end. -Nice

That's what the twenty-five-ton brake presses are for.

Yeah, cause if you're curling along the long direction,

you require a tremendous amount of force,

and you have to have alignment to keep it straight during the bend.

Exactly -Okay

Is that a pressure vessel? I mean would that hold pressure

or would there be a liner on the inside?

It is a pressure vessel, but actually on the booster

because it's liquid propellant, most of the pressure

is at the bottom just coming from hydraulic head.

We only have a few PSI of gas on top

to keep the propellant down against the outlet feeding

it into the engine.

Got it.

This is not something I expected to see.

These guys are--they appear to be putting--are they washing?

What are they doing?

They are. So the first thing that happens to those big plates,

is we plane them--we make them flat--and so these

guys are going over an operation that's just been done,

they're cleaning it up, they're looking for any

imperfections, and what you're going to see in the factory

that I think is really cool; you know we're building rockets

we're at the pinnacle of technology, and you're going to see

high tech robotic operations, but mixed in

you're going to also see craftsmanship,

with people who are very skilled, and have great attention to detail

like these guys. They're going to go over every inch of that thing

and make sure that the automated machine that

planed it, didn't leave any features we don't want.

So if like a piece of the tool broke or something like that -Exactly

Shattered, whatever.

Yeah so, are these your fly-cutters here?

Yeah, basically end mills, some of them are side mills,

but yes.

Gotcha, am I allowed to look at this fly cutter?

Yeah yeah, go ahead, sure.


Isn't that cool?

I love machining

It's a secret passion of mine

Yeah me too

So you went to Alabama, right?

-I did

So do you guys do a lotta sorta machine shop time in your engineering degree?

-Not a whole lot, but we do take a class or two,

for my undergrad I did that.

But my dad had an old lathe and mill in the garage

when I was growing up.

-Cool Yeah that's cool stuff

The other thing I'll share with you,

you can see all that flow down there,

we actually recover all these chips

so even though we're going to take the majority

of the material away by machining it off--subtractive manufacturing--we

capture all of it, we send it right back to the supplier

and it comes back to us in a plate a month later.

-That's awesome

That, is that coolant?

That's coolant but it's mostly water.

Mostly water, so it's capturing the chips.

That's a tremendous amount of water flow!

Yeah, well, chips are heavy.

[Both chuckle]

It's hard to get a scale for that.

It's hard to get a scale for that, but that is a lot of fluid.

Oh, there's a whole river of coolant there.

-Oh yeah, you can see it

Are you looking for places where the tooling broke?

No we're looking for chips or,

debris that might be on it,

we only have about a 5000th of a thickness,


So, a small chip would be outside of the tolerance zones.


Thank you very much, my name's Destin.

-Jeff Nice to meet you Jeff.

Nice to meet you

That's cool, the human story is what's really cool

to me, that's amazing.

-Me too

Here's one that, uh, I think this guy's actually running.

So you can see way down there where the cutting head is,

These are actually the plates for Vulcan flight two,

-Really the second Vulcan that'll go.

So you know what we outta do is we outta, like,

steal you a chip down there, so you'll have a chip from the Vulcan rocket when it goes to space.

-Can I, can I stick on in my pocket?


-Ok, I'm gonna-- It's a little sharp, be careful.

-I'll be careful, I'll take a little one

Nothing to see here

It's okay, you be careful.

A chip from Vulcan, here's your chip.

Guard it with your life.

-Alright we're in trouble but don't tell anybody

We're in trouble but don't tell anybody,

Tory Bruno said it was okay if I stuck a chip in my pocket.


these machine are CNC, correct?


Okay and, are these specially made machines, or

because usually you, you don't plane a surface that -They were, yeah

wide. -No, generally when you're in this kind of factory

you're going to see tooling that comes from big tooling manufacturers,

but it has been designed especially for this application.

so all of this is custom stuff.


-So for example, the head here it probably

normal, but the ways on the machine,

this is incredibly long for a mill.

Yes, exactly, very very long, and very large.

-Gotcha Very, ya know, big width.

That lets us do more than one plate at a time.

-So if one of these machines go down,

what does that do to you?

That would be a big impact, but fortunately we have more than one,

so we would always still have the other machines running.

And so what would happen is we'd get it fixed

and then we would catch up on an off-shift.

-Because I've kept up with your launch record,

and you always meet schedule,

is it because you have redundancy built in to

this part of the process?

That is part of it. So yes, this factory was actually built

with the idea in mind of building as many as forty rockets a year,

and so we have so much capacity, it's easy for us

to kind of make up for little challenges like that along the way,

cause nowadays you fly maybe twelve or fifteen times a year tops.

-Right, okay. So you're not at capacity.

No, not even close.

-But you want to be, this is a commercial for that.

Yes we do, yeah we do.

Okay so that moment right there where Tory Bruno is

joking about the capacity of his rocket plant;

it reminds me of a very specific moment in an audio book I love called Seveneves.

Now the beautiful thing about Smarter Every Day being

sponsored by Audible, is I can use moments like that

to go to Nashville and introduce you to someone

I've been wanting to meet for a really long time.

Okay so we're going to drive a couple hours away,

and we're going to meet a lady named Mary Robinette Kowal.

She was the narrator for Seveneves by Neil Stephenson,

and she did an amazing job, listen to the first line of the book:

"The moon blew up without warning, and for no apparent reason."

Let's go talk to Mary Robinette about this book.

What a cool place to meet someone for the first time.

I'm Destin, you doing alright?

Yeah I'm doing great, nice to meet you! -Good to meet you, you doing ok?

Okay, this is Mary Robinette Kowal -Hi!

who is an amazing narrator of audio books.

-Thanks You are!

I've spent, like, well over twelve hours with you,

mostly in a tractor but that's another story,

but, the book that I want to tell people about is called "Seveneves"

by Neil Stephenson. And this looks like it was a challenging book to narrate.

It was more than a little bit challenging,

it's, uh, technically completely accurate,

it's got this huge international cast,

so basically something hits the moon--they never figure out what it is

shatters it, and that causes them to have to get off the planet

real darn fast, because pieces of the moon are going to start raining down,

and causing destruction for five thousand years.

Mass destruction -Mass destruction!

This is why I wanted to do it on this video,

because Tory Bruno is talking about building more rockets,

but you've also written a book yourself,


You've written many books, but there's one

in particular that's similar to Seveneves,

"The Calculating Stars", yeah I slam an asteroid into

Washington, D.C. in 1952 which kicks off the space program, fast!

Also building a lot of rockets, a lot fast. -A lot of rockets

There you go, so go get one of these two books,

she's kind of downplaying that a little bit

you've won the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, and the Nebula.

That is correct.

For that book, that's a big deal to win all three. -It's three

Go get her books,


Which one would you recommend?


Seveneves? I'm going to recommend your book

even though I haven't read it,

I'm guessing its' going to be amazing

It's called?

"The Calculating Stars" -The Calculating Stars

Okay, that's it, let's go back and build more rockets with Tory Bruno.

Here we go:

Yeah so if anybody needs their own personal rocket,

Tory's your guy.

Oh yeah, just let me know.

So you remember we were looking at isogrids down there

and we were looking at those Delta panels,

so if you look at this panel that's being machined,

you can see that they're rectangles.

So this is an orthogrid,

which is not symmetric, but we're able to do that now,

because the engineering analysis tools are better.

And so Vulcan switches to orthogrid, takes about half

the amount of time to manufacture,

and these panels will actually be stronger.

so as I look along the orothogrid

here, so

you're gonna break it along the long side

so this is gonna be a really long skinny

potato chip looking thing. -Exactly

So what happens when you're breaking along that line?

Because you have a section in the middle of the webbing

That's gonna have the most stress


But along the longitudinal webbing

you're gonna have, it's gonna be difficult there.

So actually the way the break process works

is we'll bring it in flat,

and as we break it, we're moving just a small amount of material each time

and we roll the part in and out,

so the amount of strain and work hardening that we get

is actually very uniform across that width

-Okay. Got it.

But the issue that you brought up is one of the reasons

why that's done by people. It's a hand operation.

So there's no CNC on the curving of the brake press,

it's all craftsmanship. -Really? That's amazing.

So, so these are Vulcan?

Yes, these are Vulcan panels

these panels are going to space.

-Wow, it's got a lubricant on it, it feels like.

From the machining; from the machining process. -Got it.

-And so, the orthogrid, just looking at it,

the webbing looks thinner, so it looks like it's much more light-weight.

It is, yes.

Are you allowed to tell me a percentage?

I can't give you the number yet, -Okay

ask me next year. -Okay, I'll do that

But it is absolutely lighter weight and stronger than the old isogrid design.

And it takes half as long to make.

-Why does it take less time to make?

You can see how much simpler that pattern is,

So the CNC machine has more straight runs in a simpler pattern,

and it just... it's that much faster to machine.

So those are fancy space saw horses?

Yes they are, yeah.

[Both chuckle]

So these are the panels that have been machined,

they've been cleaned up a little bit.

And they're getting ready to go into these

25-ton brake presses, bump presses in order to

potato chip them, up into a curve.

-Okay, those presses right there?

Those presses right there.

-Okay, so I'm noticing that there's no hydraulic pressure in the center of the press,

There's just a really... it's a strong back. -Right

It's a strong back.

-What is the technical term for it?

Strong back. -Is it really?

Yeah! -Okay, awesome

So, so, can I look at this and then look at that?

Absolutely. -Okay am I allowed to walk over there?


So you can see that these guys actually have

a little bit of curvature along their length;

we're going to actually take that out.

That helps up form the curvature along this axis,

more evenly.

So it's sort of an intermediate manufacturing step, if you will.

-Is it done on purpose, or is it a function of stress relief?

It is done on purpose. -Oh okay, gotcha.

Of course this is, again, isogrid. -Isogrid, got it.

So this is Atlas V?

Right. -Okay

So at some point you have internal stresses

in the material. -Yes

Do you have an oven here to anneal?

No, we let them do what's called "artificial aging of aluminum,"

so 7000 series will do that,

so we're going to put a certain amount of work hardening in here,

and we like that--we actually like the properties that gives us

and then what the--sort of--room temperature artificial aging

does, is even that out for us.

So we're entering the space of--I notice you're saying hello to everyone;

people know you, don't they?

Yeah, oh yeah. -That's cool

So, we're entering the area where we've got this tooling here,

that's holding this stuff. These are the guys--oh they're actually doing something now.

Yeah, so that's a, you know that's a skirt

and they've just manufactured it, just put the curve into it,

we can walk over there; we'll let them finish what they're doing

we can talk to them if you like. -Okay. Yeah that'd be great

This is a finished part here? That's Vulcan. -Yes. Vulcan flight hardware right here,

It takes five of these to make a complete barrel,

for a methane tank, and then another five on top of that

will be the liquid Oxygen tank.

And we're going to show you friction stir welding

which is how these are joined.


Alright, so here is our two 25-ton bump presses.

So this big beam in the center is very very stiff,

that's why it's so tall, because the hydraulics are on the edges.

And what the technicians are going to do--our craftsmen--are going

to take one of these big, flat panels on these roller carts,

and they literally have patterns that are pre-formed,

that we've made, and they're going to roll them in and out,

and have that knife edge come down and hit it,

and slowly, potato chip it up,

while they're matching it to the physical pattern,

until they have it just right,

and so we saw all this high-tech computer computer controlled machining down there,

now this is pure craftsmanship where they're going to do it by eye and by pattern,

and achieve very tight tolerances in doing so.

-Do you have any plans to computer control this in the future?

No, this is a process that you will always get

better results doing it by hand.

That's amazing! So, oh I didn't even think about

having to hold the material as it comes out.

-Exactly, yeah.

Let's walk down and you'll see one,

they're working on that one right there.


That's a skirt, which is why it's short.

Hey guys!

So, so one question I have Tory is,

as they lift the part,

obviously it's being supported by the top,

it's going to deflect. -Yes

So how do they know if they--oh it's pressing now. -Yeah, so you can watch.

-And you'll see.

See now, they're lifting it a little bit.

Bumping it again.

So now they're making another adjustment,

and they're going to bump it again.

This is all done by eye and by hand.

You could do this with a, sort of a remote controlled operation,

but you could not get the same lightweight tanks out of that,

you'd have to work with much thicker pieces of metal,

and you wouldn't have as high a performing rocket.

So I notice, she's looking with her eyes,

she's operating--is she operating the press with her foot?


She's operating the overhead crane, -Yes

and also that-- -She has what's called a "walk along" or a "creeper,"

just like you would have, say, on your truck,

to tighten a fence or to get yourself out of a ditch,

she's doing all three things at once,

while watching the curvature she's creating in this part.

She is fully engaged.

Oh yes.

That's amazing.

Don't look at us, don't let us distract you--

should we go away? We're distracting them. -Yes yeah

Let's go let's go let's go

Yeah we don't want to have the uh, "Destin and Tory Discrepancy Report" on that.

[Both Laugh]

And here's finished product.

And this is all for Atlas,

as you can tell by seeing the isogrid,

and then we're going to walk down the aisle and

we're going to show you how these get joined together

into a tube.

--the welding? Oh! I almost forgot

Yeah we want to go to chem processing, right?

-Oh yeah, is this where stuff is anodized? Yeah

Let's go it, yeah yeah yeah.

Okay, so now we're in one of the world's largest plating facilities,

or chemical processing facilities,

where we're going to etch the panels down,

so that we have a very consistent high quality known surface,

and then we'll anodize them, which is plating

to create a very thick oxide layer,

to give the aluminum corrosion resistance and a little bit of hardness.

-Oh that is a very specific tool there.

Yes it is.

-To hold that part.


You know all this, Destin, but this is sort of,

classic, bare aluminum and it automatically forms

its own Oxide layer right away, which is why it's sort of white in color,

but we don't get very good corrosion resistance naturally,

especially from a 7000-series aluminum,

because it's not very thick.

And it tends to be porous, and so that's why we anodize it.

-That's bad for fatigue, right?

Yes, yes, very bad.

So we can get a phenomenon called stress corrosion cracking for example

If we allow corrosion to be present in these kinds of materials.

So is this the chemical milling process before you anodize?

No that will all happen inside the booths we're gonna take you to.

This is really for cleaning

because we're gonna - you know there's a lot of machining activity, there's a lot of chemicals that are going to be involved.

And so we like to have a known condition when it goes in and out of the tanks.

And this particular dome is in here to be inspected.

Look at that!


So what am I looking at?

So you're looking at us rinsing and washing a ring, before it comes further down to this booth which is actually an inspection booth.


So this is pre-anodization.


So just to connect the parts, we made the part down there. Pulled it up on this crane, pulled it over here,

Brought it over there and inspected it one more time

We're going to take it down there and clean it.

We're going to inspect it, and then we're going to go around where you can't see right now and anodize it.

and we're going to drop it off the other side?

and then when it's all done, it'll come down the other side.


So this is like the rainbow arc of anodization!

Yes it is! Yeah.

Ok, cool.

So Shannon, what's your role here?

So, I work on the commercial crew hardware, -Okay

I'm in the production engineering group, so I work with the design team and the technicians,

to interpret the drawings, and make sure they're building it correctly.

Give them all the procedures and processes they need.

-What kind of engineer are you?

So I'm in the production engineering group,

so manufacturing engineering.

How's it going?

That's the thing about working at ULA,

you never know when the CEO is going to walk in on you while you're cleaning the floor.

[Both laugh]

So you said Sulfuric Acid to do the etching?

Yes, and that's part of the plating, so anodization always

uses, typically one of three acids,

you use Sulfuric, you use Chromic acid, or other organic acids,

so that's part of it,

because that releases the Oxygen in the bath,

some of it bubbles off, but the rest of it ends up attaching to the material,

creating that corrosion resistant layer.

-So this is a vat that you would dip the part into?

Yes, in fact here we are.

Here's our Sulfuric Acid anodization,

so there's a part in there right now that's going to sit there for a prescribed amount of time,

it's heated, and then we're passing current through it

because ultimately this is actually a plating process.

See, here's our DI (deionized) tap water rise,

that we were talking about.


So you literally put the part in there and you give it a shower.

Give it a shower!

-That's awesome!

Holy cow, that's intimidating.


-That's intimidating... Keep your hands out of there.

[Both laugh]

We'll plate, we'll rinse, we'll plate again,

we'll clean, then it goes out where you were before, for inspection.

Here's what they look like when they come out,

so you can see that sort of characteristic green/bronze

color of an anodized aluminum surface.

And as they naturally age it'll become more and more bronze,

so when you see an Atlas rocket on the pad,

and you look at the booster, it has that very distinctive bronze color,

this is why, because of what we just looked at here.

Maybe we'll just let you peek over the edge, would you like to?

-Yeah that'd be great.

So at this point we've finished plating, cleaning, and inspecting,

and here are the panels, lowered down from where we took that last shot.

-And now what?

Now they're going to get friction stir welded together into barrels,

forming the body of the rocket, and the propellant tanks.

-So one question I have about this next step, is

when you weld something, usually you tack it together all around the perimeter

before you do the final welding, because the heat will draw it up

-Right So how do you account for that here?

So we fixture it, we hold it in place mechanically, because the

interesting thing and the reason you want to do a friction stir welding

is because you don't melt any material.

In conventional welding, you bring the parts together,

and then as you say, you tack them to hold them,

and then you fill in that gap with filler material

that you've melted.

It fuses to the parent material

melting it a little bit too, and then you get a heat-affected zone,

and that entire weld joint has different mechanical properties

than the original material.

But when you friction stir weld, you never melt anything.

You bring the parts tightly together,

and you bring a head that spins, and literally stirs the material together as it moves.

That gives you a stronger joint, which means you can

thin down the entire part, and get a much lighter weight

higher performance structure.

-So what is the head made out of, that can withstand the higher temperatures?

So the heads are always made out of tool steel,

high strength materials that can stand that

over and over and over

we're welding aluminum so we just need that difference.

-So the melting point of aluminum is so much lower than the head

-Yes of the tool part...

and it never quite melts.

It gets warm, it gets a little soft, because of the heat generated through the friction,

but we never actually erase all of its mechanical properties,

like you do with a classic, conventional fusion weld,

you literally melt the material.

And I'm not allowed to film this, and I'm not allowed to film that...


What if I peek over there, can I peek...? -You can peek

Peek over there, but it was blocked out

so people couldn't see that.

So now, those big plates that you saw machined and you saw bent,

and you saw anodized, have to get friction stir welded

together into a barrel to form an Atlas booster,

or in the case of what you see over there

right now is the Vulcan first flight liquid oxygen tank.

-That's it, okay so that is the first vertical assembly of Vulcan.

-Right, and so that tank will go to space,

and it will lift the Astrobotic Peregrine Lander back to the moon,

which is our first mission on Vulcan.

-Really? -Yeah.

I didn't know you had a lunar mission. -Yeah yeah, that's our first mission.

That's awesome, okay! -Yeah it's super cool we're really excited about that.


So what you're seeing here, is uh,

five--these are actually Atlas, but for the version that's Vulcan,

five of those big panels that start out flat and thick,

machined down, they're fixtured up in there,

and if you look right there you can see that sort of bright aluminum stripe that runs up it,

that is a completed friction stir weld.

-And you have a rotary stage at the bottom that's

turning it, and so you have the weld on one side. -Right, cause we're going to do

one, two, three--it takes five of those panels to make a Vulcan, so

we've gotta do five, we've got to do all of those welds.

-Wow So we'll rotate it, then we'll do another one,

rotate it, do another one.

And over there is a finished Atlas barrel, if you'd like to

kinda see what it looks like. -That would be great, yeah.

So these are friction stir welds?

Yeah, so this is an Atlas tank, and by the way you can--maybe it's a little hard to see

from down on the ground, but this is a lot smaller than that big beast over there.


And so here's our classic isogrid pattern--

-What's our diameter on Atlas?

So Atlas is a little bit closer to 3.8 meters,

and this is a 5.4 meter diameter rocket on Vulcan.

-Got it So even just a little bit bigger than Delta.

-That's a lot more volume payload.

Oh yeah, yeah so r², you know the math.

-Yeah, so like, it's better to order one large pizza than two medium pizzas,

-That's right and so when you have a large rocket,

you get more than just two small rockets.

-You got it. That's the easiest way to say that.

Okay, so this is a friction stir weld?

-So here's a friction stir weld, so you can feel that.

-Yeah, you can feel where it heated up and grew a little bit.


We just bring these parts tightly together,

we bring a head down that spins very very fast,

it heats it, softens it, stirs it together without ever melting it,

and we just run all the way down the length of the barrel,

and that's how we join them together, and we get a stronger part, and a lighter rocket.

-But do you do that on both sides?

I guess my question is, do you have a tool on the outside, and the inside?

-Yes, you have to react against something,

so there is such a thing as a self-reaction friction stir weld,

and I'll show you that too, -Okay

but for these parts yeah, you have to react it against

so you don't just push the material through.


So now, we're going to look at a different friction stir welding process called "circumferential",

cause we're going to attach a dome or a barrel,

self reacting friction stir welding, where we don't have

to have something holding the part up from behind.

-It seems like that would be difficult though, because like

when you have a hammer and you're hitting something on an anvil,

You know, it squishes and molds the metal together against the anvil. -Yes, right

But if you're just pushing, how does it not just push out the other side?

-Well it has to do with how we fixture it,

and some very clever things in the friction stir weld head,

which is why I'm not going to let you film it.

I can't film it? -No.


You cannot look at that part at the end of this big assembly up there, that's the weld head.

-Which part can I not look at? Yeah this guy right up here,

so the end of that. -That part I can't look at?

Don't look at that. -Okay, got it. [Both laugh]

-A little video magic

This is why we're taking your card.

-This is why you're taking my card, because of ITAR.

It seems like you would be more prone to fracture on the back side.

-You are, there are some..."tricks and techniques" to making this work well,

especially a self-reacting process like this one, where you don't have any support,

to uh, you know protect that joint.

-And what's the advantage of doing that?

You can, seal a tank? It's like when you sew a pillow together,

that last stitch is important, but you have to do it from outside the pillow.

-One of the things we have to deal with is, when you come around,

because of the way that head works, you actually leave a terminal hole.

So where you terminate, there's a hole that penetrates the tank,

that we then have to later seal up as well.

But it's worth doing that, because this process is so fast.

-This tooling here holds, everything... So a big tank like the tube we just filmed

would come all the way down here, where

where we would either have a dome or a ring,

that would then get the friction stir weld to put it all together.

-On the circumference? On the circumference.

-Got it, so there's two different operations:

there's a longitudinal friction stir weld, and there's a circumferential one--

-Exactly Okay friction stir weld.

In fact you can see a dome over there that's being set up for its

attachment. -So that's a smaller tank, so would that be oxygen?

Yeah that's Atlas, that's just the dome.

That's just the dome attached to its ring, it'll get attached to a big long barrel.

-Gotcha, sounds good.

Okay! Alright and--there's an X-Ray booth to X-Ray joints,

and then there's also a uh,

a pressure booth where small bottles get pressurized,

and then outside this building there's a booth where we put pressure and fluid in the big tanks

to make sure everything seals, just like any kind of normal pressure vessel process.

-So this is, humans know how to make pressure vessels,

so you build it, you weld it, you seal it, and then you take it up to a certain pressure

above what you think it's going to see, and then that tests it and you come back down

and then you fly it.

You got it.

[DESTIN VOICEOVER] After the booster's assembled, the plumbing is installed,

the insulation is applied as necessary, and the rocket engines are mounted.

We weren't able to film details about the engines themselves,

But they're made offsite by a variety of different sources.

[ON-SITE DESTIN] It's really interesting being able to peek inside and see

the isogrid and understand where we started with the plate.

-Yeah That's pretty fascinating.

Alright so we built the booster, now we're going to talk about the second stage of that rocket.

-Okay The part that goes to space.

So the technology we had before that we walked through,

was aluminum; rigid structures, very high performance.

but on a booster, you could afford seven kilograms of inner mass before it costs you

a kilogram of spacecraft--on the upper stage it's literally one-to-one.

So we switched to an even higher performance technology,

so now we're going to walk the Centaur line; our very high performance upper stage.

We use stainless steel-- -To be clear, the Centaur is like,

it's like the tractor, it's the heartbeat of American space kind of, right?

-Yeah yeah, so it is in fact the highest performance upper stage ever flown,

it is the last stage of the rocket that takes the spacecraft, all the way into space

and into its destination orbit. -Gotcha, okay.

Alright so this is a gore(?),

and these are kinda fun, these are gonna be resistance welded,

you can't friction stir weld them because the material is too thin,

and shaped into a dome--and you can touch this if you want, Destin.

That's it.

Oh my goodness.

And that's a pressure vessel? -That's a pressure vessel.

And it's going to be huge, -Okay I had no idea, I--

it'll be over 3 meters in diameter, 40ft long.

-So, I can just tell you this, like,

I've done the math to say, if I have a certain thickness pressure vessel,

it'll be this much weight, but it's a totally different thing to actually feel it.

-Oh yeah It's like uh...

It's just nothin', it's nothin'... -Nothing there, nothing there.

That's amazing, ok I can understand.

-Half the thickness of a dime. Wow, okay,

-Yeah That's incredible!

So, you put these together in a sphere?

We'll put those together in a dome, and then there will be a cylindrical section that's almost 40 feet long,

and then another dome on the bottom.

So this stuff comes in in big coil rolls, almost like you would buy sheet steel,

you know at Home Depot or something.

And then we stretch it, and then we cut it into those shapes,

and even as thin as that is, we'll actually machine it still, kinda honing it,

to get even just a little bit thinner than we can buy it.

So these are sharp edges so be careful.

They came off a big roll, and we've laid it out, we've cut it,

we're gonna stretch it, -It's all stainless steel?

Stainless steel. -So these are--are they called mandrels, or

no not mandrels, what are these called?

These are dyes.

-Yeah so these are dyes, and they're going to be used to stretch it and cut it

for those gore(?) shapes that you saw for a dome. -Okay

That really gives you a sense of how little material and the margins you're playing with here.

-Yeah. And then we didn't talk about it, but uh,

the 5-meter composite payload fairing for Atlas used to be made in Switzerland

by a company called Ruag,

they're going to make the Vulcan 5-meter payload fairing,

and so I asked them--this is another one of those strategic business partnerships,

to take their factory out of Switzerland, and it's actually on the other side of that wall.

-Really, so you brought the factory to America? Brought the factory to America.

And there was enough volume there that they were totally on board.


One of the strategies for having a very succesful first flight on Vulcan,

is to fly it before you fly it.

-With parts from Atlas?

You got it. So lots of the technologies on Vulcan could be flown on Atlas,

and so we'll slowly start bringing them into Atlas over the next year,

we'll fly Vulcan payload fairings on Atlas,

We'll fly a lot of the same technology you just saw, pretty much everything but the BE-4 engine,

will have flown on Atlas at least once before we try it out on Vulcan.

-Gotcha. I notice you have pictures of the commercial crew all over the walls here.

Yes, yeah so we're flying people, that's a whole other game,

you know, 135 in a row is, we're very proud of that


when it's a person up there, when you can shake hands with the payload,

you know, talk to them and meet their friends and relatives,

it's a whole other thing.

And so they've been to the factory many times, to see their rocket,

and it means a lot to my employees to know them,

and to know that we're flying people, and so we're just that much more careful,

and we have pictures of them everywhere to sort of remind us,

you know that's Sunny, and that's Nicky. -Sunny's amazing isn't she

Yeah, yeah. -She really is.

Here is, sort of the, completed product.

Stainless steel, you can see, just look at that. -I didn't ask, I'm allowed to touch, right?

You can touch it, yeah. -Okay.

Okay, is that machined after it's welded?

-Before, yeah before. Before, okay.

So you make a groove maybe. -Yeah

Gotcha. -And we actually plane the whole surface.

So as thin as that was, what you saw over there, we actually plane it and thin it out just

a little bit more; we want it a little thinner than you can buy it.


The cool thing about Centaur is, you know a booster... is typically 80% mass fraction.

And... most upper stages get, 85-ish.

Centaur is around 90, so literally the highest performance upper-stage ever.

Okay, so we saw the dome, that's the cylindrical tank that the dome will be fitted to.

One on the top, one on the bottom,

and the one on the bottom is where the engine will be.

-Is this the same thickness metal we're talking about?

It is, yeah so that giant thing you're looking at, 40ft long, half the thickness of a dime

You see all the rings? That's all tooling, so that we can support that shape,

so it doesn't just collapse on its own.

And when we actually put the domes on it, we'll have to grab it at either end and stretch it,

or pressurize it depending on where it is in the factory.

-Oh okay so, it's the opposite of a bulk(?) buckling problem.

You have hoop stress and you have ring stress. Ring stress is the issue here.

-Exactly, exactly. Okay

Wait, am I saying that right? Axi--okay.

So you have axial stress and you have ring stress, ring stress is the problem here.

-So you could think of it as a longitudinal buckling problem if you want,

because the weight of the structure itself would overcome the stiffness,

and it would--you'd start with a hoop and it would just kinda buckle like this on the top and fold in.

-Gotcha, awesome. But we have the same friction stir welding idea there?

No, so this material is so thin that you cannot friction stir weld it.

So this is all done with resistance arc welding instead, and on Centaur III,

which is what we fly on Atlas today,

this is a labor-intensive operation. 180,000 welds,

they're all setup by hand,

so it takes many many hours and quite a bit of time to build this sort of "Ferrari" of an upper-stage.

-Yeah. Vulcan will be robotic and automated.

-Really, that's amazing.

Dome on the front, dome on the back, tank,

the engine--well there's not a dome on the back, that's where the engine goes.

-So there will actually be a dome, so that you have a sump to collect propellant in

to draw it into the engine, so you don't waste as much propellant,

and what you can't see on the inside is a bulkhead, to separate

the liquid oxygen and the liquid hydrogen from one another.

-Got it.

So, where are the engines at, are they here?

-Uhhhhh... let's see.

Have we got an RL10 open out of a crate that we could show him?

-We're gonna go upstairs. Okay--oh! Yeah so, we're gonna--

so there's a final assembly that gets done in a clean room. -Okay

And that's the best place, so we'll look down, you'll see a whole bunch of them,

they'll be engines, that'll be better.

Okay, so this is the final assembly area for Centaur,

this is a clean room, that's why we're up here,

the people down there who are on break right now would be in bunny suits.

So you're looking at the business end, those red covers are on the bottom of the nozzle of the,

RL10 rocket engine.

And you can see that you have a standard configured one with a single engine,

-Right there Right there, but to its left you see a dual.

-Okay, that's strange.

That Centaur will carry astronauts to space.

-That one will? That one will.

-That's amazing Yeah

-That's a pretty big deal, so how do you--I mean that changes everything about how you operate

the thing. Have you ever flown a dual-engine Centaur?

We have, but it's been decades.

-Really? And so this is reintroducing a,

kind of a historic but one configuration we haven't done recently.

-So this right here, I'm seeing, that's Mars 2020 right there?


-So that's the Centaur that's going to take Mars 2020 to Mars?

Yes it is, yes it is.

-So you do the bulk of the heavy lift or the, I guess the "far push" you could say,

with Centaur.

We do, yeah so the booster's job is to get you into space, typically depending on the payload

but typically you're not quite orbital at the end of first stage burn,

and then Centaur will take you orbital, bring you to your parking orbit,

and then once you're lined up correctly with, you know the right sort of argument, of

perigee, then it will send you off on the final burns to get you lined up for wherever you're going,

and in this case it's interplanetary missions, so we're going out to Mars.

-So, the brains that drives the Centaur, where is that at?

Are you integrating GNC at this point?

We are. So on the back end of that is a flight controls computer,

and you know inertial measurement sensor and other sensors,

uh rate sensors that are the guidance system; they're always attached to the upper stage

obviously because if you attached them to the booster and it separated,

you would've lost your brains.

So they're always up here.

Okay, final assembly.

-It is and I'm not--so yeah this is, this is the big show, right?

This is the big show, we call this the "great hall of rockets", because as you can see,

There's rockets way down there and they just keep going all the way to that big roll-up door,

they're in final assembly, and when they get to that door,

They roll outside, down to the Rocketship, and off to the launchpad.

-So, this gentleman over here is doing final assembly on a rocket?

He is absolutely doing that, yes he is.

-That's amazing, and so wow just having a person for scale is pretty impresive there.

Yep. -That's amazing, so what are we looking at?

These are Deltas on this side of the aisle, and Atlas on this side,

and way down there we'll walk you back down there, but Vulcan will start

at the far end of the Delta line and slowly work its way down,

eventually replacing Delta entirely.

-So Delta and Atlas are being phased out, correct? Yes, yes.

So do you know the number of missions you have left for each one?

I do!

-Okay, are you allowed to talk about it?

No. -Okay. [Both Laugh]

So the last question I asked Tory was very interesting,

and before I show you that though, I want to say, you should be following this guy on Twitter.

He has a legitimate, technical engineering answer for everything he's asked.

He's very engaged in the space community, it is legitimately fun to watch Tory Bruno

interact on Twitter. So there's that.

Now if you're into space, you know that I didn't ask two things in this video.

I didn't talk about engines very much, and I also didn't ask about Tory Bruno's

competitors. I did that; that's over on the second channel.

He gave me really good answers, if you want to hear what Tory Bruno thinks about

those two things, go to the second channel, link in the video description,

also a link to Tory Bruno's Twitter.

Okay, let's get back to the last question I asked Tory on this tour.

I have noticed that there's not a lot of stuff in this plant that's going to low Earth orbit.

-That's correct And,

and uh, that's intentional?

Yes, our specialty are the higher-energy, more difficult orbits,

things like Mars 2020, an interplanetary mission. -Right, and that's...

Literally right there, yeah, but we don't call it Mars 2020, here.

-What do you call it? We call it Mars 2020...20,

-Why would you do that? Because it's our 20th trip to Mars.

-Really? That's amazing Mhm

-That's impressive! So your job is to get it there, Yes.

And then what happens with the payload at that point?

So it'll re-enter, it'll come down to the surface of Mars, as you mentioned it's a rover.

We really set it on its way, so Centaur is no going to go all the way with it to Mars,

we're going to put that energy in, as an escape velocity here at Earth,

greater than "1c3", as we say in the technical world,

and then that will carry it all the rest of the way,

it will establish its own orbit and land.

-That's impressive, that's what I like about Tory, he knows his stuff.

So thank you very much for this tour! -Oh yeah, you're welcome.

This was absolutely incredible,

I've lived near this plant my entire life; well I guess it hasn't been here my entire life.

But as long as it's been here, I've lived near this plant and always wanted to come inside, so

thank you very much for extending your flight and giving us this tour, this was amazing.

I'm glad you came by.

Thank you so much! -You bet

Super duper thank you, for watching this video.

It's a long video, but it's so special. I mean I've loved rockets forever,

Always have, always will, and this is like rockets and manufacturing--the Venn diagram right there that sweet spot,

this is what this is for me, it's wonderful.

So thank you for watching this video. If you feel like this type of video earned your subscription,

one way you can signal that to me is by subscribing. You can click on the subscribe button

and there's a little notification bell; if you click that, it'll notify you when I upload, and that'll encourage

me to do more stuff like this.

Big thanks to ULA and Tory Bruno, you trusted me with your rocket factory,

so thank you very much!

Also, you can support on Patreon, if you're into that

sort of thing. I've got something coming up in

the near term, that the Patrons have made happen,

and it's fantastic.

audible.com/smarter or text the word "smarter" to 500-500,

I recommend "Seveneves" or Mary Robinette's book "The Calculating Stars",

Yeah, that's about it!

I'm just really happy, and very grateful, and thank you for being here with me.

That's it. I'm Destin, you're getting Smarter Every Day. Have a good one, bye.