A Company Called SpaceX
The private spaceflight company SpaceX is the first company ever to build and launch its own rockets and space capsules to the International Space Station and return them to Earth.
SpaceX's unmanned Dragon space capsules launch on the company's Falcon 9 rockets and first flew to the International Space Station in 2012. The Hawthorne, Calif.-based company is planning to upgrade Dragon capsules to launch seven people into orbit in upcoming years, but there's more to SpaceX than meets the eye.
Get to know the private spaceflight company SpaceX with these six fun facts:
FIRST STOP: What's with those names?
What's in a Name?
SpaceX's billionaire CEO Elon Musk has said that he named his spacecraft "Dragon" after the fictional "Puff the Magic Dragon," from the hit song by music group Peter, Paul and Mary. Musk said he used the name because many critics considered his goals impossible when he founded SpaceX in 2002.
In 2013, the company celebrated its 10th anniversary and secured a $1.6 billion deal with NASA to provide 12 unmanned cargo flights to the International Space Station. Another company, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., is also under contract with the agency to provide supply flights to the orbiting lab.
On the Dragon capsule's first test flight in December 2010, it carried a wheel of cheese into orbit. Prior to the successful liftoff, SpaceX officials hinted that Dragon was carrying special cargo into space, but the company did not reveal the secret payload until after the spacecraft had returned from orbit and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.
The wheel of cheese was launched in honor of a classic skit from actor John Cleese in the British comedy show Monty Python's Flying Circus.
"It's kind of funny," Musk told reporters after the successful launch in 2010. "If you like Monty Python, you'll love the secret."
The cheese rode inside the Dragon capsule for the entire flight, from the launch in Florida to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, 500 miles (804 kilometers) west of Mexico. After the mission, SpaceX released photos of the cheese wheel, showing it inside a metal cylinder with a cover secured by bolts.
Rise of the Falcon
SpaceX's fleet of Falcon rockets — the Falcon 9 boosters and smaller Falcon 1 rockets — are named after the fictional Millenium Falcon spaceship from creator George Lucas' "Star Wars" movies. In the sci-fi classics, the iconic Millenium Falcon spacecraft is commanded by the character Han Solo.
The Real Iron Man in Charge
Part of the live-action superhero movie "Iron Man 2" was shot in SpaceX's factory in Hawthorne, Calif., and CEO Elon Musk even graced the silver screen with a cameo as himself. In a profile of the commercial spaceflight pioneer written for TIME magazine, "Iron Man 2" director Jon Favreau said Musk inspired actor Robert Downey, Jr.'s portrayal of the character Tony Stark, the genius billionaire behind the famed Marvel Comics superhero.
Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, is also the CEO of Tesla Motors and made his initial fortune by co-founding the online payment system PayPal. The entrepreneur has also developed a larger-than-life persona, with admirers calling him the real-life Tony Stark.
"That is pretty surreal," Musk told SPACE.com recently. "I guess we are making giant rockets — that's kind of cool. I don't have a suit of armor, though. I don't fly around in a suit of armor."
The Fire-Breathing Dragon
SpaceX's Dragon capsule "breathes fire" with its 18 Draco thrusters that help the spacecraft maneuver in orbit and maintain attitude control.
The New Space Race
In 2010, SpaceX became the first company to launch a privately built spacecraft into orbit and return it safely to Earth. The company is now aiming to become the first to dock a commercial space capsule to the International Space Station. Still, Musk has even loftier goals: to be the first entrepreneur to put an astronaut in orbit.
The company intends to use a version of the robotic Dragon capsule to one day carry astronauts to the orbiting outpost and other destinations in low-Earth orbit.
Musk has also been outspoken about the need for humans to become a multi-planet species to survive. Eventually, he plans to modify the Dragon spacecraft to one day land on the surface of Mars.
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Denise Chow is a former Space.com staff writer who then worked as assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. She spent two years with Space.com, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions, before joining the Live Science team in 2013. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University. At NBC News, Denise covers general science and climate change.