After it was first announced in 2011, SpaceX will be launching the Falcon Heavy rocket this week. With the rocket and program in the news, many might be wondering: What exactly is SpaceX, where did it come from, and what is its role in this era of private spaceflight?
SpaceX was the brainchild of Elon Musk, the serial entrepreneur who is equally well known for starting Tesla, the electric car company. Musk founded SpaceX back in 2002 with a single dream: to make humans a multi-planet species. Musk had always been interested in space, but he was ready to turn his dream into some sort of reality. To start, he wanted to launch a mission to Mars with a robotic lander that would create a greenhouse on the red planet’s surface.
There was a problem, though. It wasn’t the technology; it was the cost of the launch vehicle. U.S.-based rocket companies were charging exorbitant amounts for payloads (or cargo) on their rockets. Pricing for rocket launches, especially back in 2002, was not really transparent, but you can extrapolate a bit from NASA missions. In 2008, NASA signed a contract with Orbital Sciences, an aerospace company (that is now Orbital ATK), for eight rocket launches. It paid $1.9 billion, or around $237.5 million per launch. And keep in mind, this is the cost of a resupply mission to the International Space Station, in low Earth orbit. Mars would be much, much more expensive.
Musk initially tried to purchase a refurbished Russian missile for his mission, but it didn’t work out. (That’s probably a good thing.) He then realized that if a single company was in control of all parts of building the launch vehicle, rather than contracting rocket parts out as was traditional, it would vastly cut down on the price of the rocket, and thus decrease the cost of access to space. With that thought, Space Exploration Technologies, later shortened to SpaceX, was born.
SpaceX’s two primary goals are in line with Musk’s original brainstorming on the topic. First, to rekindle interest in space travel and eventually make humans a species that lives on multiple planets. But in order to do that, space travel has to be affordable, which became SpaceX’s second goal.
Since its founding, SpaceX has come a remarkable distance. Many thought Musk was foolish for dabbling in a space startup, especially as he poured his own money into the venture. But in 2010, the Falcon 9 (SpaceX’s primary launch vehicle) completed its maiden voyage, carrying a prototype Dragon spacecraft into orbit.
And SpaceX has indeed lowered the cost of space travel. Remember that Orbital Sciences contract that NASA signed? It also signed a contract with SpaceX that same year and paid $1.6 billion for 12 launches. That’s about $133 million — $100 million less — per launch. And SpaceX’s Dragon even has a larger cargo capacity and can be loaded with cargo aboard the ISS and sent back to Earth, which Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft cannot.
SpaceX has continued to refine the idea of low-cost rocket launches, and has always been interested in the concept of reusability. The main concern when it comes to spaceflight is weight. Every extra pound of cargo that you have to launch means extra fuel (in the case of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, that means liquid oxygen and kerosene). And if you think of what a rocket has to do, it must drag itself, and whatever it’s carrying, up into the sky, against the forces of gravity.
This is why rockets come in stages. Each stage has its own set of fuel and engines; once the fuel for a stage is expended, it detaches from the rocket, shedding the extra weight and making it easier for the rocket to climb. The Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket, and the first stage is the most expensive. The fact that it was only used once hurt the bottom line, so SpaceX decided to start trying to land and reuse first-stage rockets. They successfully (and spectacularly) landed the first stage of the Falcon 9 in December of 2015. Since then, it’s become a relatively routine procedure.
In March 2017, SpaceX reused the first stage of a Falcon 9 booster for a successful mission, fully integrating reusability into its spaceflights. These gains are incredibly important when you think about what it will take to get to Mars; rocket landings and reusing components will be crucial for any colonization efforts on the red planet.
Where SpaceX came from is exciting, but where it’s going is even more so. Elon Musk has announced grand plans for Mars colonization and an even bigger rocket than the Falcon Heavy, called the “BFR” (for Big F*cking Rocket). While his plans may seem way too wild, SpaceX itself was such an arrogant dream when Musk first conceived of it, and look where we are now. It may not happen soon, but it’s definitely possible that Musk will make his Mars dreams come true.