Recently you’ve probably heard some things about a Starship bound for Mars, NASA astronauts riding a Dragon, and Starlink broadband. These are all things to do with SpaceX and their upcoming plans for space travel. For a company that didn’t exist around 20 years ago, SpaceX has made giant leaps in not only becoming the world’s leading provider of launch services but also reshaping the space industry, which for a very long time, was dominated by national government agencies. SpaceX is definitely making headway in achieving its mission of making humanity multi-planetary. Below you can find a simplified description of what’s been happening and what is planned for Elon Musk’s rocket company.
What is SpaceX?
In 2002, Musk and friends traveled to Russia to buy a refurbished intercontinental ballistic missile. The Silicon Valley prodigy who made millions off internet startups wasn’t looking to start a business at the time. He wanted to spend a big chunk, or maybe all of his fortunes, on a stunt he hoped would reinvigorate interest in funding NASA and space exploration.
The idea was to buy a Russian rocket on the cheap and use it to send plants or mice to Mars—and hopefully bring them back, too. Ideally, the spectacle would get the world excited about space again. But Musk’s Moscow meeting didn’t go well and he decided he could build rockets himself, calculating that he could undercut existing launch contractors in the process. SpaceX was founded just a few months later.
What’s a Falcon 9 Rocket?
Musk initially hoped to make it to Mars by 2010, but just getting one rocket into orbit took six years. A SpaceX Falcon 1 orbited Earth for the first time on Sept. 28, 2008. This paved the way for a nine-engine version of the rocket, the Falcon 9, the company’s workhorse since its first launch in 2010.
Falcon 9 is a two-stage orbital rocket that’s been used to launch satellites for companies and governments, resupply the International Space Station, and even send the US Air Force’s super-secret space plane on its mysterious long missions. Over the past nine years, the company has flown more than 80 Falcon 9 missions.
What really sets Falcon 9 apart from the competition is its unprecedented ability to send a payload into orbit and then have its first stage return to Earth, landing either on solid ground or on a floating drone ship landing pad at sea, another SpaceX innovation. After a few explosive failed attempts, a Falcon 9 finally landed safely on Dec. 22, 2015, and a few months later, another touched down on a drone ship for the first time. Several recovered Falcon 9 rockets have since flown and landed again.
On May 11, 2018, SpaceX launched its first Block 5 Falcon 9 rocket, the “final version” designed to be reused up to 100 times with periodic refurbishments. In 2020, we saw multiple Falcon 9 boosters launch and land for the seventh time in their individual careers. Reusing the nose cone multiple times is also becoming routine practice.
A Real Life Dragon
SpaceX’s Dragon craft has been used to carry cargo to the International Space Station. On May 31, 2020, its Crew Dragon made history as the first commercial spaceship to send astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS. Dragon was also the first commercial spacecraft to be recovered after a trip from orbit.
NASA selected Crew Dragon, along with Boeing’s Starliner, to be the first spacecraft to carry astronauts to the ISS since the end of the shuttle program. The initiative suffered a setback in April 2019 when an unoccupied Crew Dragon exploded during a ground test because of a leak in the pressurization system.
Thankfully, the first flight of Crew Dragon with humans aboard was a success. Hurley and Behnken then rode the Dragon back to Earth a few months later, and another group of four astronauts, including one from Japan’s JAXA, took the second trip to orbit on a Crew Dragon in November 2020.
SpaceX: Mission to Mars
SpaceX grabbed heaps of attention in February of 2018 when it launched Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket launched from the US since the Saturn V that sent astronauts to the moon. Basically, three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together, the huge launch system sent a test payload consisting of Musk’s personal red Tesla Roadster in the direction of Mars. Two of the three Falcon 9s that made up Falcon Heavy also landed nearly simultaneously at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
More than 15 years after his initial trip to Moscow, Musk finally pulled off the international spectacle he had conceived in 2001, and he’s also built a viable business in the process.
The second launch of Falcon Heavy came on April 11, 2019, and was followed by the first successful landing of all three first-stage rocket cores. A third Falcon Heavy launch was conducted on June 25, 2019, and SpaceX took reusability a step further by catching the payload fairing (the nose cone that shields the payload during launch) using a ship equipped with a gigantic net. As for Starman, he finally made a close pass by Mars in October 2020.
The Final Frontier: Starship
SpaceX plans to use Falcon Heavy to launch some large payloads in the coming months, but it’s already at work on an even bigger rocket called Starship (previously referred to as BFR, Big Falcon Rocket, or Big F***ing Rocket). Musk hopes this even more massive rocket will be able to transport cargo and eventually human passengers around the world and the solar system. He envisions using Starship to ferry people on superfast international flights via space and eventually to bases yet to be built on the moon, Mars, and beyond.
A single-engine Starship prototype called Starhopper left the ground for the first time on July 25, 2019, hovering about 20 meters (66 feet) off the ground before landing a short distance away at SpaceX’s test facility in south Texas. This was followed by a few more hops in late 2019 and mid-2020.
The first high-altitude flight of a prototype that actually looks more like a rocket came on Dec. 10, 2020. The prototype SN8 successfully flew to a height similar to the cruising altitude of commercial jets and then performed a new flip maneuver to come in for a landing. It came in a bit fast, however, and the flight ended in a spectacular explosion. We expect to see a few more of these high-flying tests with the goal of getting that landing down and also reaching orbit soon.
Next Stop: The Universe
SpaceX isn’t just working on getting things into space. It has also started operating in space to bring the universe to us. In May 2019, the company launched the first batch of 60 small satellites designed to lead the way for a massive constellation of broadband satellites. The plan, dubbed Starlink, is to use up to 42,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit to blanket the globe with high-speed internet access. The company says the service could create a new stream of revenue to help fund its pricey Mars ambitions.
A second batch of 50 satellites launched six months later, with more to follow in relatively rapid succession. The scale of the project has some astronomers worried that a sky filled with thousands of satellites could interfere with their observations. The trains of newly launched satellites are easily viewable from the ground as they gain altitude. SpaceX says it plans to work with astronomers and take steps to mitigate Starlink’s impacts on astronomy, including launching satellites with a sunshade dubbed “visorsat” to reduce their reflectivity.
As the company worked towards its first 1,000 Starlink satellites launched, it launched a beta of its broadband service in the final quarter of 2020 limited to northern latitudes. The rollout is expected to expand in 2021.
SpaceX has achieved many firsts since the company’s creation. These include:
- First privately developed liquid-fuelled rocket to reach orbit: Falcon 1, 2008
- First private company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft: SpaceX Dragon, 2010
- First private company to dock at the International Space Station: Dragon C2+, 2012
- First vertical take-off and vertical propulsive landing for an orbital-class booster: Falcon 9, 2015
- First reuse of an orbital-class booster: Falcon 9, 2017
- First private company to send astronauts to orbit and the International Space Centre: Crew Dragon Demo 2, 2020
In 2022 (and excluding the three boosters SpaceX made no attempt to recover), every booster was successfully landed, with one booster, B1058, managing to land 15 times. Additionally, booster B1062 was refurbished in just 21 days between flights, launching twice in April 2022.
SpaceX: Plans for 2023
Last week, Starship launched for the first time its uncrewed Super Heavy booster from Texas. The dust has settled, but the work to clean up after the world’s most powerful rocket and get the next one flying in a matter of months is already underway. After the ship launched, it flew for approximately 4 minutes until it exploded after it failed to separate from its booster. SpaceX was very proud of this achievement as it met some major goals and set even more.
Starship didn’t reach its goal of mastering the going-up portion of spaceflight on Thursday but assuming its builders achieve that goal on the next try, they will still have to sort out the other part of its revolutionary approach: Getting all parts of the spacecraft on the ground safely so they can be reused. It is not clear when SpaceX will schedule its next test flight—Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX suggested it will be several months—but if it follows the same plan as Thursday’s test, it will not include an attempt to land the Super Heavy booster or the Starship vehicle.
SpaceX eventually hopes to be able to land the booster right back where it starts, on the launchpad, nestled between the “chopsticks” arms attached to the launch tower, while Starship, after its journey to space, is supposed to re-enter the atmosphere, belly-flopping through the air to help slow its fall before pivoting to a vertical orientation and firing its engines for a soft landing.
And SpaceX will have to launch again and again to gain confidence in the reliability of the system, especially for flights with astronauts aboard. After all, if airline flights were just 99 percent safe, no one would fly—a 1 percent crash rate would mean that tens of jets would fall out of the sky every day.
For sources to explore that will teach you more about SpaceX, we recommend the following:
- Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX by Eric Berger
- SpaceX: Starship to Mars – The First 20 Years by Erik Seedhouse
- SpaceX: Starlink and Our Man Elon Musk by Michael Barnes
- SpaceX Starlink Satellites Explained : An Insight Into Elon Musk’s Satellite Internet by Peters Bobb
Click here to discover some books that have been to space before you!