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What is SpaceX?

SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) is a space transportation and aerospace manufacturer founded in 2002 by Elon Musk. Musk is also the CEO of electric car maker Tesla. And most recently, he entered a deal to purchase social networking site Twitter for $44 billion in April 2022. After 18 months of development, SpaceX unveiled a delivery vehicle in 2006 under the name Dragon. It was soon followed with Falcon, which was designed to lift humans and cargo into orbit.

SpaceX has been a disruptive force in the worldwide launch industry as its launch services are less expensive than many of its competitors. It works closely with NASA to deliver cargo supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), as well as to launch satellites into Earth orbit.

One of the key differentiators from SpaceX and the NASA program is SpaceX's creation and use of reusable rocket launchers. Usually, NASA's rockets come in two or three stages. After the stage uses up its fuel, it is discarded and falls into the ocean.

SpaceX first described the concept of a reusable rocket in 2011. It completed its first successful launch and landing of a liquid-fueled rocket in 2015.

As mentioned previously, SpaceX has two rocket systems, Falcon and Dragon. Falcon 9 is the liftoff vehicle consisting of first- and second-stage rockets that propel cargo to orbit. The first stage propels the rocket into orbit and handles safely returning and landing the rocket on Earth. The second stage carries the payload into orbit but is lost on reentry. Falcon 9 can launch a Dragon capsule, a single large satellite or multiple small satellites into orbit.

Dragon is the payload carrier. There are two versions of Dragon: Cargo Dragon and Crew Dragon. Cargo Dragon carries equipment and other freight items, while Crew Dragon caries people. Both were designed to go to the ISS. Once done at the ISS, the craft detaches and falls to Earth, using parachutes to slow its descent. It is then recovered and prepared for reuse.

SpaceX charges $62 million for a Falcon 9 rocket launch, much cheaper than competitor startups like the European launcher Arianespace's Ariane 5 or U.S. rocket builder United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Atlas V, which can cost up to $165 million.

History of SpaceX

In 2006, before it had even flown a test flight, SpaceX received $278 million from NASA under the agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The program was created to encourage the development of private industry firms to build systems that could transport cargo to the ISS. It eventually received a contract for 12 flights worth $1.6 billion.

SpaceX went through years of trial and error before Falcon 1 made its first successful flight on Sept. 28, 2008. Falcon 1 was limited in load capacity at only 570 kg. Eventually, SpaceX produced the Falcon 9, which could lift Dragon and up to 13,150 kg of cargo.

Falcon 9 took its maiden flight on June 2010. After a few failures, it made its first cargo delivery to the space station in May 2012 under a test flight for the COTS program. Its first regular commercial flight to the space station took place in October 2012.

SpaceX produces another Falcon craft, Falcon Heavy. Essentially, the craft is three Falcon 9s tied side by side to lift an even heavier payload, up to 63,800 kg. It was first tested in 2018.

SpaceX has achieved several firsts in space travel, including the following:

  • Privately funded, liquid-fueled rocket (Falcon 1) to reach orbit (September 2008)
  • Privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft (December 2010)
  • Private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station (May 2012)
  • Private company to send a satellite into geosynchronous orbit (December 2013)
  • Private company to send a probe beyond Earth orbit (February 2015)
  • Landing of a first-stage orbital capable rocket (December 2015)
  • Private company to send humans into orbit (May 2020)

SpaceX has several competitors in the private aerospace industry, including Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and ULA.

Comparison between SpaceX and NASA

SpaceX is frequently compared to NASA. While they cover similar functions, they operate very differently.

NASA is a government-owned and -funded organization and subject to budgetary adjustments and changes, such as when budget cuts forced the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program.

SpaceX is a private, for-profit entity and thus is motivated to control expenses. It seeks both government and private customers, whereas NASA serves U.S. government interests. However, SpaceX's largest customer is the U.S. government, primarily doing cargo runs to the ISS less expensively than NASA.

There has been some effort to shift NASA back to deep space exploration and leave the low- to mid-orbit to private sector spaceflight providers, which has only recently become available in the last couple decades. As SpaceX has become a successful private space launch firm, NASA has shifted its emphasis to deep space exploration, such as with the James Webb Space Telescope launched in late 2021.

The future of SpaceX

Elon Musk has said multiple times that Earth's orbit is not the end destination for SpaceX. He intends to go past the moon, deliver astronauts to Mars and safely return them.

SpaceX's next step is a large rocket called Starship, which would have more than double the thrust of Falcon Heavy. It is a next-generation rocket designed to surpass the power of the Saturn V rockets that initially sent astronauts to the moon. Some Starships will be designed for Mars and moon exploration, space tourism and fast transportation around Earth. Others will be created for transporting large payloads, both for the Artemis missions to the moon and eventual Mars exploration.

SpaceX launched an uncrewed Starship rocket on April 20, 2023. However, around four minutes after takeoff, the separation from the spacecraft booster and rocket failed. The rocket tumbled toward the ground before exploding. However, SpaceX considers the blast-off a success and will continue to review data to see what happened before the next flight test.

Starship’s rocket will play a key role in NASA’s Artemis mission, which will send astronauts to the moon in 2025.

In April 2021, NASA announced plans to use portions of their budget for Artemis to hire independent contractors. SpaceX was contracted for $2.9 billion in exchange for the development and use of a lunar lander to be used by the Artemis astronauts.

Another SpaceX project in the works is Starlink, a global satellite internet network made up of thousands of satellites, which SpaceX is using to offer global high-speed internet.

This was last updated in April 2023

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