Why Darby Dunn Moved From SpaceX ‘Mother of Dragons’ Program to Fusion Building

  • Darby Dunn worked for a decade at SpaceX holding a few engineering and production roles related to rocket construction. In one of those situations, she was informally known as the “Mother of Dragons” for her work on the SpaceX starship named Dragon.
  • For the past four and a half years, Dunn has worked for Commonwealth Fusion Systems, where she was part of the team working in the business fusion industry.
  • CNBC traveled to Devens, Massachusetts, to tour the company’s campus, and while there, spoke with Dunn about her role and her journey.

Darby Dunn, Vice President of Operations, Commonwealth Fusion Systems.

Image courtesy of Commonwealth Fusion Systems

From March 2009 to December 2018, Darby Dunn He held a few engineering and production roles in the SpaceX.

“In one role in particular, my unofficial title was ‘Mother of Dragons,’” Dunn told CNBC in an interview in Defense, Massachusetts. “In that role, I was leading the construction of our new manufacturing facilities for Dragon chariot crew. “

Dunn says that while she’s been overseeing production of the Dragon spacecraft, SpaceX has gone from ramping up production to making its first spacecraft, then regularly sending cargo to the International Space Station aboard.

Building rockets is a very cool job. But in January 2019, Dunn started working on Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a startup trying to commercialize nuclear fusion as an energy source. Fusion is the way the sun and stars produce energy. If it could be harnessed here on Earth, it would provide nearly unlimited clean energy.

But even now, fusion is still widely seen in the realm of science fiction.

Darby Dunn with a SpaceX Dragon rocket.

Image courtesy Darby Dunn

Dunn says she made the switch from building rockets to working to make fusion energy a reality because she wants to see the impact her efforts have on her life.

“I very much think SpaceX is going to make life multiplanetary,” Dan, 37, told CNBC at the end of May. “I don’t know how much of that I’m going to see in my lifetime.”

But Dan has spent large portions of her life living in California, where SpaceX is headquartered, and has frequently seen the effects of climate change in the form of wildfires and mudslides caused by heavy rain.

“For me, it was about wanting to use my energy to clean up the planet instead of getting off it. So that was the big shift for me to come to CFS,” Dunn told CNBC.

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Joining Commonwealth Fusion Systems in the early stages, as the tenth employee, allowed her to see a different phase in the company’s growth journey as well.

“We are a 5-year-old company with 500 employees,” Dunn told CNBC. “I joined SpaceX when it was 6 years old and had about 500 employees. So I was really able to see the whole era that I couldn’t experience at SpaceX and do it at CFS.”

Commonwealth Fusion Systems campus in Devens, Massachusetts.

Image courtesy of Commonwealth Fusion Systems

The main difference between the two jobs is the maturity of the respective industries.

“The aerospace industry has been around for a long time. So building a rocket engine, the mechanics of which look really similar, the structure itself, or the physics of how it works, it’s all very well thought out and very well understood,” Dunn told CNBC.

Melting machines It has been studied in academia and research labs since the early 1950s, but the entire industry is in the early stages of trying to prove that the science can have commercial applications. Being part of that excitement was a big draw for Dunn.

Of course, there are plenty of skeptics who say that industry is the equivalent of tilting Don Quixote at his windmills. But Dunn says her time at SpaceX prepared her to face the skeptics.

“When Elon said publicly that we were going to launch rockets and land them from space, everyone said, ‘It’s not possible! You can not do that! Dan told CNBC that SpaceX’s response was that the laws of physics said it was possible and so they were going to prove it.

“It took many tries, a lot of learning, a lot of iterations on our software, many failed attempts to get out of the boat—and then we did it. Then we did it again. And we did it again. And we did it again,” she said.

Darby Dunn, Vice President of Operations, Commonwealth Fusion Systems.

Image courtesy of Commonwealth Fusion Systems

“Now it’s gotten to the point where you’ve seen the aerospace industry shift to say, ‘Well, why don’t these other companies also lend their rockets from space?'” It completely changed the way people looked at it. They said at first, “It just wasn’t possible. Then, “Well, it’s possible.” And now he says, “Well, why doesn’t everybody jump?”

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Dan looks forward to being part of this kind of transition for the fusion industry in the Commonwealth.

Dunn is the Vice President of Operations, which covers manufacturing, safety, quality and facilities. It helps the Commonwealth move from research and development to large-scale manufacturing and production.

Dan told CNBC that the company emerged from research at MIT and the company’s goal is to build 10,000 fusion power plants around the world by 2050.

First, however, the Commonwealth has to demonstrate that it can generate more energy in its fusion reactor than is necessary to start the reaction, a key threshold for the fusion industry called “ignition”. To do this, the company is currently building a SPARC tokamak – a device that will help contain and control the fusion reaction. The company plans to operate it in 2025 and show net power shortly thereafter.

To build a SPARC, the Commonwealth needs to make a lot of magnets using high-temperature superconducting tape.

The advanced manufacturing facility located on the Commonwealth Fusion Systems campus in Devens, Massachusetts, is where the magnets are manufactured.

Image courtesy of Commonwealth Fusion Systems

“The cool part about this building is that its concept started as a doodle I drew on a chalkboard three years ago,” Dan told CNBC. “To see the steel beams go up, the walls go up, the concrete pour, it’s a whole vision come to life, which is very exciting.”

To fund the construction, the Commonwealth has raised more than $2 billion from investors including Bill Gates and Google, Khosla projects And lowercarbon capital.

Even as the Commonwealth figures out how to make a single magnet, Dunn is leading her team to develop manufacturing processes that can eventually be scaled up to an automobile assembly line-like operation, she told CNBC.

Moving quickly is a priority for Dunn and the rest of the team. After building its experimental fusion machine, SPARC, the company aims to build a larger version called the ARC, which it says is Going to connect electricity to the grid. The goal is to bring ARC online in the 2030s.

“The most important thing I think about a lot is the time, how fast we can go,” Dunn told CNBC. “The faster we can build the magnet, the faster we can build the SPARC, the faster we can get it running, the faster we can get the net power, the sooner we can get to our first ARC. So I guess that’s probably the item I’m thinking of more than any other.”

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Darby Dunn at Commonwealth Fusion Systems’ advanced manufacturing facility.

Image courtesy of Commonwealth Fusion Systems

Speed ​​matters because critics argue that it will take so long for fusion to function as an energy source to meaningfully contribute to the very urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Leading climatologists The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said To go beyond “no or limited” warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels would require a 45% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 compared to 2010 levels and to reach net zero around 2050.

“I asked myself, ‘Why am I doing a merger instead of something that’s going to be published next year?'” she told CNBC. “For me, it has to do with the fact that fusion is the most energy-dense interaction in our solar system.”

But she doesn’t think merger should be the only solution.

“I’m a big believer in solar and wind and a lot of other renewables – we desperately need those. We need those that are deployed now. We need those that are deployed all over the world,” Dunn told CNBC. “But I don’t think it will be enough to get us to 2050 and beyond.”

Electric cars, heat pumps, green steel, and green cement all depend on having plenty of clean electricity. Dunn’s focus is building the energy sources the world will need in the decades and centuries to come.

If the Commonwealth was going to offer this solution, Dunn would first have to make a large batch of high-energy magnets.

“My personal opinion is I’m going to keep going – keep building. And we have a poster in the back drawer that says, ‘Keep calm and keep going,'” Dunn told CNBC. “No matter what the outside world says, we work every day for our mission Of obtaining pure positive energy from the merger. And I’m looking forward to proving that to the world in two years’ time.”

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