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SpaceX: First Private Flights to Space Station

SpaceX Dragon Commercial Cargo Craft
Working from the robotics workstation inside the seven-windowed Cupola, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide, Expedition 33 flight engineer, with the assistance of NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, commander, captured Dragon at 6:56 a.m. (EDT) and used the robotic arm to berth Dragon to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node Oct. 10, 2012
(Image: © NASA)

SpaceX is a private spaceflight company that puts satellites into orbit and delivers cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX was the first private company to send a cargo ship to the ISS, which it did in 2012. Currently, SpaceX is developing powerful rockets and a spacecraft capable of carrying people into space. Founder and CEO Elon Musk said in 2011 that he planned to take people to Mars in 10 to 15 years. 

Musk's fortune

Musk made his fortune very early in life. 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. At 30 years old, Musk was looking for his next big venture.

Initially, Musk had the idea of sending a greenhouse, dubbed the "Mars Oasis," to the Red Planet, It 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, Musk started a launching company: Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX.

Musk spent a third of his reported fortune, $100 million, to get SpaceX going. There was skepticism that he would be successful, which persisted into SpaceX's first years.

After spending 18 months toiling privately on a spacecraft, SpaceX unveiled a craft in 2006 under the name "Dragon." Musk reportedly named the spacecraft after "Puff, the Magic Dragon," a 1960s song from folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. He said he chose the name because critics believed his spaceflight aims were impossible.

Falcon 1 flight

But Musk, a co-founder of several companies, already had years of business planning behind him. He sought out a stable customer — NASA — that 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 to develop the Falcon 1 rocket.

That alone was an ambitious goal, as the rocket would be the first privately built, liquid-fueled 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 successfully, with previous attempts derailed by problems such as fuel leaks and a rocket-stage collision. Falcon 1 made two successful flights, on Sept. 28, 2008, and July 14, 2009. The 2009 launch also placed a satellite, the Malaysian satellite RazakSAT, into orbit.

A look inside the SpaceX Dragon capsule and its Falcon 9 rocket. (Image credit: Karl Tate/

Enter the Dragon

In 2006, SpaceX received $278 million from NASA under the agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration program, which was created to spur the development of systems that could transport cargo commercially to the ISS. Additional milestones eventually boosted the total contract value to up to $396 million. SpaceX was selected along with Rocketplane Kistler (RpK), but RpK's contract was terminated with only partial payment after the company failed to meet required milestones.

Multiple companies participated in the COTS program in its early stages, in funded or unfunded contracts. In 2008, NASA awarded two contracts for commercial-resupply services. SpaceX received a contract for 12 flights (worth $1.6 billion), and Orbital Sciences Corp. (now Orbital ATK) received a contract for eight flights (worth $1.9 billion). 

While the funding showed that NASA had confidence in SpaceX's ability to get a spacecraft ready for cargo supplies, a lot of development was ahead. To get into space with a heavy cargo load, the Dragon spacecraft would require more rocket power than what Falcon 1 could provide. SpaceX developed a next-generation rocket called Falcon 9 to send Dragon into orbit. Falcon 9 would heft more cargo — 28,991 lbs. (13,150 kilograms) to low Earth orbit (compared to Falcon 1's capacity of 1,480 lbs. or 670 kg). In addition, SpaceX planned to make the rocket self-landing and therefore reusable, saving on costs. 

SpaceX initially hoped to fly the spacecraft by 2008 or 2009, but the process took years longer than the company thought it would. The maiden flight of Falcon 9 took place on June 4, 2010, with a simulated Dragon payload. The rocket launched successfully, although an attempt to land it failed because the parachute didn't work. SpaceX followed this up with a launch of the Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft together on Dec. 8, 2010. Again, the launch was successful, meeting NASA's COTS requirements, but the landing of the rocket failed.

The next and most crucial milestone was space station delivery. Dragon, riding a Falcon 9 rocket, delivered its first cargo to the space station in May 2012 under a test flight for the COTS program. The launch was scrubbed for a few days because of an engine problem, but the rocket lifted off safely on the next try. Spaceflight observers commended SpaceX's ability to send a cargo spacecraft to the ISS. Private spaceflight hadn't been envisioned when the space station was developed in the 1980s and 1990s.

SpaceX fulfilled the first of its regular commercial flights to the space station in October 2012. The flight achieved most of its objectives, but it experienced a partial rocket failure during launch. The failure ended up stranding a satellite, Orbcomm-OG2, in an abnormally low orbit that led to the mission's failure. [Images: SpaceX Dragon Capsule's 1st Cargo Flight to Station]

Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon development

As cargo flights continued, the company also began launching Falcon 9 rockets with the aim of landing them and reusing them. Falcon 9 successfully made a soft landing in the Atlantic Ocean twice in 2014, although mission parameters called for the rocket to tip over after landing and to be destroyed. While not all rockets landed successfully, Falcon 9 added other milestones — such as the first ground landing of its boosters, on Dec. 21, 2015, and the first drone-ship landing, on April 8, 2016. 

SpaceX has made regular flights to ISS using Falcon 9 and Dragon, but not without hiccups. A June 2015 Dragon flight to the ISS ended in failure due to a problem with one of the Falcon 9's rocket stages. Then, in September 2016, another Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad, destroying the Amos-6 satellite on board. Some critics have also charged that SpaceX is not launching as regularly as promised. 

The company is now developing a human-rated version of the Dragon spacecraft under NASA's Commercial Crew Development program. SpaceX and Boeing have both received contracts — worth up to $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion respectively — for crewed launch services to the ISS. SpaceX expects a test flight to take place in late 2018.

Another of SpaceX's major projects is the Falcon Heavy, a rocket made up of a Falcon 9 core stage and two Falcon 9 first-stage boosters. Musk first mused about the Heavy concept in the early 2000s and announced its development in 2011. He initially expected it would fly in 2013, but developmental delays pushed back the maiden flight to 2018. 

The initial Falcon Heavy flight, on Feb. 6, 2018, met almost all of its major milestones. Falcon Heavy successfully flew to orbit, carrying a Tesla Roadster and space-suited mannequin nicknamed Starman on board. SpaceX ran a livestream of the launch and the Roadster's first few hours in space, attracting attention from all over the world. The two rocket boosters landed successfully near Kennedy Space Center, as expected; the core stage hit the ocean at 300 mph (480 km/h) and did not survive. Falcon Heavy then performed an engine burn in space that is expected to bring the Roadster at least as far as Mars' orbit. 

Future thoughts

SpaceX has customers from the private sector, military and nongovernmental entities that use the company to launch cargo into space. As SpaceX makes its money from launch services, the company is also focused on developing technology for future space exploration. 

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 planned to take people to Mars in 10 to 15 years. Three years later, at the International Space Development Conference, he said the reusable rocket stage would be a step in getting to the Red Planet.

"The reason SpaceX was created was to accelerate development of rocket technology, all for the goal of establishing a self-sustaining, permanent base on Mars," Musk said at the time. "And I think we're making some progress in that direction — not as fast as I'd like."

In 2016, Musk unveiled his technological plan for Martian transport, which is a part of his plan to create a self-sustaining Red Planet colony in the next 50 to 100 years. The Interplanetary Transport System, as the rocket is called, is essentially a larger version of the Falcon 9. The spaceship, however, will be quite a bit larger than the Dragon, as it is slated to carry at least 100 people per flight. (The crewed version of the Dragon for the International Space Station is expected to carry four people, on average.) 

Musk followed up his announcement in 2017 by publishing a paper envisioning a future Red Planet city of a million people and providing more details about how the ITS would transport cargo and people.

Musk updated his Mars plans in September 2017 in an address in Australia. He didn't mention the ITS during the talk; instead, he talked about a system called the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). The spaceship that BFR will carry will be 157.5 feet (48 meters) tall and have 40 passenger cabins — likely with a capacity of 100 people.

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