SpaceX has disrupted the space industry…
When you send a rocket to space, that rocket is exposed to different forces: gravity, changes of pressure, changes of temperature, aerodynamics, and acoustics. These forces produce responses in the structures of the spacecraft, following Newton’s second law of motion (F = ma), which make it hard to propel and navigate. These responses can also be detrimental to the systems and astronauts onboard.
Given this harsh space environment, the development of spacecraft is complex, requiring various design and analysis cycles to meet the required technical specifications for mission success. The process involves lead designers who develop the initial design using computer-aided design (CAD) software. This design is then sent to various groups of technical experts, which conduct a series of analyses and tests. These analyses and tests produce data and analytics that assess the performance of the design against each technical team’s specified requirements. This process is repeated until the spacecraft’s design meets all desired performance indicators. See Exhibit 1 below for the full spacecraft development cycle.
Figure 1: Spacecraft Development Cycle
Through this development process, SpaceX has innovated in a variety of areas:
Data for Development
SpaceX reduced the cost of access to space by a factor of 10. This cost reduction is mainly driven by its investments in specialized software and digital platforms to increase efficiency of the above mentioned process through improved data management. These CAD and finite element analysis software, for example, store rocket assemblies and databases that are shared across various teams of experts through a centralized repository. The software is fast, which encourage engineers to perform rapid iterations of both its virtual prototypes. The centralized nature of databases also promotes communication and collaboration of SpaceX’s teams, thus removing silos.
The abundance of data through the development process also allows SpaceX to identify bottlenecks and assign resources to specific efforts as necessary. Data also allows real-time monitoring of the development cycle, something that was not easily accessible in the past given the legacy of the industry which utilized analog systems and processes developed during the space race of the 1960s.
Finally, the data-heavy development process enables innovation of more sophisticated and advanced systems. As data analytics reveal the impact of multiple variables in the performance of a rocket, engineers are able to make better informed decisions about design specifications and constraints. SpaceX, as an example, has developed and flown various reusable Falcon 9 rockets (see Figure 2) thanks in part to its digital development approach.
Figure 2: Reusable Falcon 9 rocket
Data for Manufacturing
Technicians on the SpaceX shop floor look at data and models to better understand a rocket’s inner workings through its manufacturing and assembly. This is particularly helpful for seeing the specs of internal systems, such as electrical wirings, thus improving efficiency. Data creates an intelligent factory setting, in which physical and virtual assets are utilized to drive better performance.
Data also enables the adoption of new manufacturing processes, such as 3D printing. These new manufacturing processes require big data inputs, and ultimately enable SpaceX to more vertically integrated, which is part of the company’s business model (SpaceX currently produce over 85% of its launch hardware in-house). This allows them to further reduce costs, thus helping them achieve their mandate.
Figure 3: Dragon Crew Operations
Data for Operations
SpaceX also utilizes digital twins in its operations, which are virtual representations of physical assets. These digital twins utilize virtual simulation and real-time data to rapidly evaluate and monitor systems and optimize its operations through the use of data analytics.
Digital twins enable operators in Mission Control to have a real digital replica of SpaceX’s Dragon vehicle (Figure 3) to monitor its status – trajectory, loads, propulsion systems, etc. – from data received from the hundreds of sensors integrated in the spacecraft. This data ultimately increases reliability and safety of SpaceX’s Dragon and other vehicles.
In conclusion, SpaceX has been able to maximize the impact of its data in the development, manufacturing, and operations of its spacecraft. This is the result of heavy investments in end-to-end development systems that enable the monitoring and deriving of insights from its development cycle – this improving efficiency and driving innovation. Additionally, data enables improvement of their manufacturing and assembly processes and the adoption of new techniques such as 3D printing. Finally, SpaceX has been successful at utilizing digital twins to track and monitor its systems while in orbit, thus improving safety and performance.