Bear Metal tours Blue Origin rocket factory

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Photo courtesy Blue Origin

Starship Enterprise stood before us as we entered the lobby. We crowded around the starship model actually used in making the first Star Trek movies. Then we noticed the full-size spaceship towering nearby. Shiny and bullet-shaped, it resembled the Victorian spacefaring projectile of Jules Verne’s fiction. Outfitted in steampunk fashion with brass and copper ornament, nineteenth century moonship shared space in the lobby with twenty-third century starship.

Tahoma High School’s robotics club was visiting Blue Origin, the rocket building company started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and headquartered in Kent. Our group of 12 students and 7 mentors were there to see the factory where the spacecraft are built which, according to plans, soon will take passengers on suborbital flights. Larger rockets will deliver satellites and other large payloads to earth orbit.

As we left the lobby and gathered on a balcony overlooking the manufacturing area, we were squarely in the twenty-first century. Spaceship crew capsules with large windows were in various stages of assembly. Rocket nozzles small and large were scattered about. Sturdy scaffold-like steel fixtures stood ready to move the rocket parts about. A rocket engine, small enough almost to fit in your garage, stood in their midst.

We put on safety glasses and followed our guide onto the manufacturing floor. The space was cavernous, covered by a ceiling high enough for rocket and crew capsule to stand upright. Nearby, a mockup crew capsule showed how the seats are arranged inside the capsule. High on the wall above us, an American flag overlooked the floor.

Over the next two hours, we learned about the welding technology used to build the rocket fuel tanks, and we saw a fuel tank with compartments for liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Our guide described the laser cutter, able to cut parts from the thickest metal. Club member Melissa Anthony was impressed by one machine. “I really liked the 3D laser sintering printer.” She was referring to a machine which fabricates parts from metal powder, and likened it to her home 3D printer, except it makes complex parts entirely of metal.

Our club is fortunate to have two numerically controlled mills for fabricating robot parts. Our mills, however, are dwarfed and outnumbered by those at Blue Origin. We spent several pleasurable minutes talking with the machinist at work there. It seems, though our mills are not in the same league, we speak the same lingo.

As we came to the end of our tour, our guide noted that he considers the FIRST robotics program, of which our club is a part, to be the best preparation possible for 21st century technology companies like his. The kind of problem solving we do as we build each robot is the same kind of problem solving required at Blue Origin. We thanked him for his remarks, and for the fascinating tour.

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