Howdy, Reddit! My name is Andrew, and I'm a mechanical engineer from Texas A&M. During the summer of '11, I had an awesome experience at SpaceX as an intern for the Structures department.
My school was having an engineering career fair with about 250 companies attending. Most of the companies were your standard oil and gas types, and I’m not the climb-the-corporate-ladder-type. I walked up to the SpaceX booth, handed them my resume, and told them I had no interest in any other company except theirs. I explained to them how I was the most hands-on, critical problem-solving engineer they were going to find in the sea of khakis walking around. It didn’t hurt that I happened to have a video on my phone of some static firings of large scale rocket engines I had recently machined.

About a month later I was called from an L.A. phone number, and more information was collected. They requested that I write a two-page essay detailing why I was the right candidate for the internship. I sweated over that thing for like a week. In the end, I tried to cram as much passion into my explanation as possible. It makes me sad that I couldn’t be an engineer in the golden days of the 1960’s and the Apollo era, but this was the next best thing. A few weeks later, I did a few phone interviews with some senior structural engineers. Tip: Google your interviewers; knowing their grad papers on torsional chassis stiffness clenched it. After getting to L.A., I learned that they collected about 8,000 applications for the hundred or so positions. Apparently they appreciated my passion and enthusiasm. The single factor that probably helped me the most was being a part of the Formula SAE car team at school. Literally 50% of the interns and a lot of the employees had been through a similar program. I absolutely advocate doing the program if you’re still in school. It prepares you so well for facing real work deadlines, budgets, and working conditions. #becauseracecar

At the time, SpaceX only had about 1,300 employees. They hired 125 interns and crammed them into one apartment complex in Venice Beach about two blocks from the water. We carpooled every day because not many people had cars. That definitely led to some people getting stuck at work and spending the night there!

The culture at SpaceX, at least while I was there, was fantastic. The caliber of people in terms of technical excellence and talent was the most impressive I've ever seen. Very rarely did I ever feel like I had a complete grasp on the problem I was tackling. It was a complete fire hose of real world engineering concepts no one outside of advanced aerospace would hear on a daily basis. I brought some structural theory books from school (Shigleys) and definitely used them. While cliché, the term I would use to best describe the engineers I worked with was passionate. They were there for the same reason we were there. WE WERE BUILDING FREAKING ROCKETS! I could never get over the fact that one could go downstairs and walk amidst Merlin engine bells and giant composite structures. Thai food, lots of coffee, and unlimited frozen yogurt is currently fueling the American private space race.

My particular role in the Structures department had to do with the solar panel assembly and the electromechanical widgets. My mentor threw down the challenge within the first couple hours of starting there. I think we had my first print to the shop within the first week there. It was a crazy, insane rush of CAD, prints, FEA, and manufacturing. Shipments from McMaster arrived twice daily, and it was a slow day if nothing went to prototype. The challenge of it all was the most fun. A lot of our parts are visible in this shot. There were a few fun incidents. The first was a scheduling nightmare. Our team was holding up a test that apparently had a $50k / day penalty. We worked for something like 30 straight hours and through the night to finish assembling the solar array for its deployment test. In the middle of the night, we realized that we were one titanium fastener short, and the inventory room was closed for the night (it was 2 a.m. at the time). There was no way we could burn 5 hours of time waiting, so my mentor decided screw it, scaled the 15-foot chain link fence surrounding the storage room, let me in, and we got the part we needed. He said he’d rather explain to Elon why he broke a rule than a $50,000 delay. Security sent him some nice screenshots, and his boss didn’t say crap.

Another fun time had to do with that same looming test. Back then the machine shop didn’t have any shifts running on Sunday. No matter who we pleaded with, we couldn’t get any approval to get someone to come in on Sunday to make some super-hot parts for us. They were my design, and I felt responsible for getting them done and didn’t want to be the cause of the delays. I ended up convincing the manager of the auxiliary machine shop to give me key-card access to the machine shop after hours so I could come in to machine the parts on a Bridgeport mill after hours on Sunday. I probably broke about a million HR and union rules with that one. It was one lonely intern making chips in a 100,000 ft2 shop, after having set off the building alarm badging in (security never checked it out). Needless to say, I tried to finish quick. Six hours later, I threw the parts down on my mentor’s desk. Win. The unspoken expectation there was that you knew what the hell you were doing. This was an immense privilege that was not taken lightly. Most of the interns got to do things that full time aerospace engineers wouldn't get to achieve with 20 years.

There was a lot of drinking, partying, and nerding out. In the end, I had 30 or so parts make it to A-rev and fly in space. It was an absolutely fantastic experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world. When I got the job offer, I had lunch with one of the VP’s and talked about it. He said I would be absolutely crazy for turning it down. In the end, I had to say no to the full-time offer. I chose instead to stay in Texas, get married, and work at a startup engineering firm. Now I work with electron beam fusion and advanced additive manufacturing. Definitely a good decision, though I still miss the grandeur of it all. Thank you Elon for the great experience!!! I’m happy to answer any questions.



Comments: 81 • Responses: 17  • Date: 

Spaceguy511 karma

That sounds insane compared to interning at modern day NASA

frbastiat5 karma

I feel bad for what the interns do on a day to day basis at Goddard. I can easily assume it is not what they envisioned when they decided they wanted to get involved with NASA.

Spaceguy52 karma

Working at Johnson... occasionally, an intern will be given an intense project that takes a lot of work and commitment. But the majority seem to feel they don't have enough work to do, that work is too slow paced, or that government regulations/procedures/bureaucracy makes it take too long to get things done. And just yesterday, I heard a civil servant (who was an intern who just got hired on full time) complaining that she felt she had nothing to do, which was boring her to tears.

enderfusion4 karma

Probably a waste of very good talent :( Most people are capable of so much if the environment is one that encourages people to perform. That was one thing that SpaceX did very well. There was no rules or strict hours for work. Nobody ever said you HAVE to stay all Sunday to finish this analysis job before the review on Monday. They made you 100% responsible and gave you enough power to get it done, the rest was up to you.

LUK3FAULK8 karma

Was there toppings with the endless frozen yogurt?

enderfusion7 karma

So many toppings.

KonradHarlan6 karma

get over on /r/spaceX !

enderfusion4 karma

Looks like I'm too new to post links to it. Repost for me? :)

klawd116 karma

Hi, first of all, thank you for giving us an insight on what it's like to work for SpaceX, it truly sounds spectacular, and I'm sure it must have been only a glimpse of all the grand things going on there.

My questions are: have you remained in touch with the people you worked with while you were there, and if so do you collaborate with any of them on occasional projects or such? Also, have you ever regretted the decision you made in the end?

enderfusion4 karma

I go out and visit some of my former roommates every once in a while. We're actually working on a few side projects together. Obviously they don't have too much spare time. I always try to keep track of the talented people I run across, you never know when a business venture will need their particular talent.

rpdv5 karma

Hail from a programmer considering going back to school for engineering/physics just to get my foot in the door at SpaceX.

If you can recall, do you have any stories/interactions with the programmers there?

enderfusion7 karma

I had a lot of sushi/sake with some labview programmers. They were cool guys that worked a ton. I remember they came in around 11am and worked till 2-3am most nights.

jlbraun-9 karma

Playing clicky-mouse in Labview is not programming.

Labview is what you hand engineers so they don't hurt themselves, it's like handing a dull butter knife to a 4 year old.


enderfusion13 karma

You realize SpaceX is the world's largest Labview application? Their entire launch infrastructure is built on it. Needless to say, they've got the skills to do automation in C++, but why would you for cycling control valves or creating PID control loops? Take advantage of the off-the-shelf hardware when possible. That's the difference between government and private companies.

Graftwijgje5 karma

Hey, awesome that you're doing this AMA!

Two questions,

From whom/with whom did you make those rocket engines? Was it fun? :P

How would you describe Elon's involvement in SpaceX? Does he sit in his office running all the engineering departments or does he come down and see how the work is coming along every so often? What's it like interacting with him ( if you at all had that chance ).

enderfusion4 karma

Just messing around by myself in the backyard. Some of the earlier nozzles we made were from the Nakka plans.

It was kinda surreal to just see him chilling at his desk downstairs after seeing all the press pictures online. I think back then (2011) he had more time to be at the office. We did have an intern lunch with him which was a long Q&A that was fun. He's much more of a conversationalist when he's talking to people one on one. Interviews aren't really his thing ;)

Spacedrake5 karma

Wow, you basically lived my absolute dream right there. What school did you go to that this career fair happened? Also, can you expand a bit more on what the Formula SAE challenge? What is it and what did you guys do?

enderfusion5 karma

It was all at Texas A&M. Basically the SAE program is a 2 semester capstone design course. It has one semester of design and one semester of build / competition. It’s absolutely crazy to think that a group of 20 random people can be put together, and in 7 months flat design and build a high performance racecar. The competition includes static and dynamic events. Design, cost, acceleration, skidpad, and endurance racing. The money is donated through different sponsors that you recruit. Almost all the fabrication is done by the students. There is a hard deadline. If your car doesn’t meet spec and run by competition, you don’t go.

BrokeDiamond4 karma

What's the minimum amount of education or training would one need in order to be able to perform competently at SpaceX?

EchoLogic11 karma

SpaceX don't hire people who can "perform competently". They hire people who excel in their chosen field of study.

enderfusion6 karma

Yup. Slack members of the team were weeded out pretty fast. They did fire some interns :-o It's definitely a young person's game with the amount of hours they ask form.

Bryndyn2 karma

Slack members of the team were weeded out pretty fast. They did fire some interns

That sounds mental. That pressure to perform has got to impact your performance in some way. Do they not worry that extremely competent engineers get put off before they have time to gel in?

enderfusion1 karma

People embraced the crazy. It motivated the crap out of me, of course it grated some people. I guess it's a tradeoff. Some of the other people went out to work at more traditional jobs were the pace was slower like Boeing or Lockheed.

andersonwal3 karma

Another question! How close do you feel that we are to commercial space travel based on what you've seen?

enderfusion5 karma

My question to elon during a lunch was, what point do you think private satellite launches will reach a saturation point in the market. SpaceX's current launch docket seems to say that commercial spaceflight is here to stay.

andersonwal2 karma

Thats a truly awesome experience! Did you ever work across Elon's other company Tesla Motors?

enderfusion3 karma

Never did have any interaction with the Tesla guys, I was always curious what was going on over there.

FuzzyStretch1 karma

Know anyone from GNC?

enderfusion1 karma

Is Niraj GNC?

molrobocop1 karma

Grats on the good experience. I've been pinged by their recruiters a few times to apply. (I work in aero composites) I just can't move to the desert or california.

enderfusion1 karma

We had some awesome composite wizards, both in design and build. It blew my mind to see 20ft composite barrels.

danceofthesugardicks1 karma

Hey I am also a Texas boy going to ATM next year for aerospace engineering. I was wondering if you could give me some more details about what you did and how you landed the internship with them. It's my dream to work for them and need all the help I can get to get there.

enderfusion5 karma

Do Formula SAE. Volunteer with the team from freshman year. Don't count on school to teach you anything but how to skim a textbook. Go out on the internet and teach yourself about composites, propulsion theory, control systems, material science. Be different! They want the I-piss-excellence mavericks of the engineering community.

Consider doing Mech instead of Aero. Aero is definitely the sexiest of the majors, but it's a lot harder to find work. Mechanical engineers have the freedom to go into almost any engineering sector. It doesn't work the other way around ;)

alpacaaviator2 karma

What is a good way to say on a resume that you have "self-taught" a lot of aerospace components? Or do you just incorporate that in an experience / activities section?

enderfusion6 karma

I would say it's a two part approach. They ultimately want people that can work as independently as possible. Often times you yourself "own" a piece of flight hardware. It is your baby to design and optimize, there is less working in large groups (inefficient). Learning a wide array of engineering skills is simply to have a lot of tools in your belt. One of the things that was particularly valued was my in depth knowledge of what could be obtained off the shelf from suppliers like Mcmaster. It was a git-er-done culture. What good is the elegant design that takes 10 days from the machine shop if the test jig could be assembled from Mcmaster parts that could be there by end of day. More technical skills to have in your tool belt are things that were taught in engineering classes, but perhaps were glossed over. The world is mostly bending and shear stresses!!! Know how to free body diagram, the importance of moment of intertie, and the tradeoffs between stiffness and strength. Know your ANSI Y15.4 drafting standard, know how to dimension a machine print or weldment. Know how to use Ansys FEA and how to back up your assumptions with hand calculations.

The combination of the “hard” and “soft” skills are simply tools that can be learned with time. It helps to have them and anyone can learn them given the time. That’s the 1st component. The 2nd is the ability to problem solve and execute. This is really the key. Understand intimately the tradeoffs between good, fast, and cheap. Practice breaking a problem down to its functional and performance requirements. It’s being able to self-manage yourself in the environment of an open ended design problem. Use the 90/10 rule, it’s not worth perfecting the last 10% if it comes at an exponential cost. Understand the fundamentals so you can confidently execute a design decision with little risk.

griphen1 karma

My questions:

How many times did you go to Taco Dollar?

How many times did Larry Mosse yell at you?

Did you ever have the chance to pee next to Elon?

Do you miss OakHood?

Edit: Oh yeah, were there any muggings or shootings outside the building while you were there?

enderfusion2 karma

Hahah good questions.

Enough :P Charming little place, with the bootleg dvd stand, cash for gold table, and the mariachi band across the street.

Don't remember larry yelling at me, but I definitely got chewed out for some weldment prints that I dimensioned "like they were damn flight parts".

I never had the privilege.

Like I miss 60hr-70hrs a week doing prints for jigs and fixtures!

Yeah this happened my first week there. Seemed normal for the area.