SpaceX — short for Space Exploration Technologies Corporation — was founded in 2002 by entrepreneur Elon Musk, the world’s richest man as of 2022. Its goal: to reduce the cost of space missions and make it more feasible for human beings to live on other planets. Since its founding, SpaceX has helped usher in an era of commercial spaceflight. And it’s achieved a number of firsts for a private firm working in the aerospace industry.
SpaceX has the distinction of being the first private corporation to successfully negotiate the launch and subsequent return of a spacecraft in orbit around the earth.
It is also the first private firm to dock a space vehicle with the International Space Station.
Additionally, SpaceX remains the only private company so far to launch an object in orbit around the sun. Moving forward, the firm has plans for a global satellite constellation to provide internet services for people on earth, known as Starlink. And it wants to put humans on Mars within the next decade.
Along with SpaceX, competitors like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have transformed the space industry in the past two decades, redefining the meaning of innovation and speed in a previously government-only domain marked by bureaucratic inefficiency and budget overruns.
The Early Years of SpaceX: Faster, Better and Cheaper
SpaceX’s stated mission is to reduce the cost and increase the reliability of space launches. To achieve this, it began developing a new launch vehicle soon after it was founded. The rocket — named Falcon I —was a two-stage, liquid-fueled space vehicle designed to send small payloads into orbit.
In late 2008, SpaceX successfully built the cost-effective rocket and launched it into orbit. Its success came after a series of failed test flights and site delays. The Merlin engine used on the Falcon I proved to be revolutionary in terms of cost and performance and was soon powering other SpaceX projects.
In August 2006, SpaceX won a National Space and Aeronautics Administration (NASA) contest that gave the company funds for the building and demonstration of a spacecraft that would service the International Space Station. In 2010, the company was awarded a $1.6 billion NASA contract for cargo delivery services at the ISS. SpaceX had to carry a minimum of 20,000 kgs into space.
By the time the NASA contract was awarded, SpaceX had developed a new model of the Falcon series, since Falcon I was not designed to carry heavier payloads into orbit. The rocket — named Falcon 9 — was also a two-stage, liquid-fueled launch vehicle powered by Merlin engines.
Development of the Falcon 9 started as early as 2007. And SpaceX carried out its first test flights in September 2008. In addition to being more powerful, the Falcon 9 had a rocket stage that was partially reusable, which was an industry first.
SpaceX in the Age of Commercial Spaceflight
In 2010, the Falcon 9 was successfully launched by SpaceX, marking the beginning of a new age in space technology. Along with the Falcon 9, SpaceX developed the Dragon capsule, a reusable spacecraft that took flight aboard the Falcon 9 in 2010.
In 2012, the Dragon capsule became the first commercially built spacecraft to attach to the ISS. Dragon transported cargo weighing thousands of kilograms to the ISS on the maiden flight. SpaceX is now working on Dragon II, which will be capable of carrying humans into space.
Falcon Heavy is a three-stage rocket powered by nine engines at each stage and has the highest payload capacity of any operational launch vehicle in the world. During the maiden Falcon Heavy flight, two of the three first stages of the rocket landed successfully back but the third fell into the ocean. That Falcon Heavy placed into orbit around the Sun a Tesla Roadster, an electric car manufactured by the sister firm of SpaceX.
In May 2019, SpaceX launched sixty small satellites into orbit around the earth on board the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. The mission, codenamed Starlink, envisions the eventual deployment of thousands of such satellites into a low-earth orbit for providing potential customers down on earth a low latency, high bandwidth internet service.
A new Dragon capsule, the Crew Dragon, completed its maiden test mission into space in March 2019, flying to the ISS. A new iteration of the Falcon series, named Falcon Super-Heavy, is also in the works, which will be capable of carrying over 200,000 pounds of payload into low-earth orbits. The new rocket will carry a new spacecraft, the Starship, to take humans to the moon and Mars.
SpaceX is among the fastest-growing providers of space launch services in the world and has been involved in over 100 space missions worth $12 billion to date. In addition to commercial launches, the company has contracts with the US government as well. The ultimate aim of the company, however, remains the dream of carrying humans to Mars and other places in the Solar System — a goal that the ambitious Musk has reiterated that several times.
Update: On May 30, 2020, SpaceX made history by becoming the first private company to send humans into space.
Correction: Due to an author error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly described the March 2019 launch of the Dragon capsule as a “crewed mission.”