IamA former SpaceX engineer intern AMA!
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. https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BgykXmJCcAAlONc.jpg 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.