SpaceX: First Private Flights to Space Station
Space Exploration Technologies (better known as SpaceX) is the first company to ship private cargo to the International Space Station using its own rocket and spaceship — the Dragon. The California-based company has a lucrative contract with NASA to bring cargo to the station.
Additionally, the firm has customers from the private sector, military and non-governmental entities to launch cargo into space.
As the company makes its money from launch services, SpaceX is firmly focused on developing technology for future space exploration.
Putting Musk's fortune on the line
Musk made his fortune in life very early: by age 30, in 2002, he had accumulated a reported $300 million and was looking for his next big venture.
According to the New York Times, his money came from the sale of two companies: Zip2, which was bought for $307 million in 1999, and PayPal, which eBay purchased for $1.5 billion in 2002.
Initially, Musk had the idea of sending a greenhouse to the Red Planet — dubbed the "Mars Oasis" — that was supposed to drum up public interest in exploration while also serving as a science base. The cost ended up being too high, so instead he decided to start a launching company: SpaceX.
Musk spent a third of his reported fortune — $100 million — to get SpaceX going. A decade ago, there was a certain amount of skepticism that he would ever be successful, and this persisted into SpaceX's first years.
After spending 18 months toiling privately on a spacecraft, it was released to the public in 2006 under the name "Dragon." Musk reportedly named the Dragon spacecraft after the song "Puff, the Magic Dragon", a 1960s song from folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. He chose the name because critics believed his spaceflight aims were impossible.
Falcon 1 flight
But Musk, a founder of several companies, already had years of business planning behind him. He sought out a stable customer – NASA – who could give funds for the early development of a rocket. Then he wooed launch clients from various sectors to diversify his customer base.
Musk firmly believed that more frequent and more reliable launches would bring down the cost of exploration. As such, his first goal for SpaceX was development of the Falcon 1 rocket.
That alone was an ambitious milestone, as the rocket would be the first privately built, liquid-fuelled booster to make it into orbit. The company experienced a steep learning curve on the road to orbit.
It took four tries to get Falcon 1 flying, with previous attempts derailed by problems such as fuel leaks and a rocket stage collision.
"As the saying goes, the fourth time's the charm," Musk told his company of 500 workers on Sept. 28, 2008. "This is one of the best days of my life."
By this point, SpaceX's technology had the full attention of NASA. The company received a $278 million deal in 2006 to demonstrate the ability to send and return cargo to and from the space station.
Four months after Falcon 1 first flew successfully, NASA awarded SpaceX a further contract for 12 station resupply flights. Today, SpaceX values it at $1.6 billion.
Enter the Dragon
Flying the Dragon spacecraft would require more rocket power, so SpaceX proposed developing the Falcon 9 rocketto send Dragon into orbit. SpaceX initially hoped to fly the spacecraft around 2008-09, but the process took years longer than the company thought.
Both spacecraft and rocket were ready in 2010. Falcon 9 flew with a simulated Dragon payload in June 2010. In December that year, Dragon took flight for the first time and splashed back on Earth safely.
The next and most crucial milestone was space station delivery. Dragon delivered its first truckload of cargo to the station in May 2012 under a test flight. The launch was scrubbed for a few days following an engine problem, but lifted off safely on the next try.
Regular cargo flights began with a mission in October 2012 that achieved most of its objectives, but experienced a partial rocket failure during launch that stranded a satelliteon board. [Images: SpaceX Dragon Capsule's 1st Cargo Flight to Station]
The company's next major program goal for Dragon is to bring humans into space. NASA awarded SpaceX a $440 million Space Act agreement in August 2012 to do this. SpaceX aims to bring the first people aloft around 2015and has left the possibility of space tourism open.
"Once we have this thing up and running for NASA we are free to use it for other purposes," said SpaceX's commercial crew project manager, Garrett Reisman, in October 2012.
"It does bring up a bunch of interesting possibilities. But this is all after we accomplish our primary job, which is getting Americans back into space on American vehicles."
With 1,800 employees on the payroll as of May 2012, Musk has turned SpaceX into a promising company. Late in 2012, the company reached another milestone: receiving its first evolved expendable launch work. It will launch two missions for the U.S. Air Force in 2014 and 2015 for an undisclosed sum.
But in all these years, Musk's dreams of flying to Mars are undimmed.
In 2011, he told delegates at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) in San Diego that he plans to bring people to Mars in 10 to 15 years. Musk further outlined his plans for a proposed Mars colony in 2012.
"Ultimately, the thing that is super-important in the grand scale of history is, are we on a path to becoming a multiplanet species or not?" Musk asked at the AIAA meeting in 2011.
"If we're not, well, that's not a very bright future," he continued. "We'll simply be hanging out on Earth until some eventual calamity claims us."
— Elizabeth Howell, SPACE.com Contributor