SpaceX is a private spaceflight company that puts satellites into orbit and delivers cargo and, more recently, crew to the International Space Station (ISS). It was the first private company to send a cargo ship to the ISS, doing so in 2012. The company sent its first two astronauts to the ISS on May 30, 2020 aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon, and followed that test flight with the successful launch of four astronauts on Nov. 15, 2020. As of early 2021, it is the only commercial spaceflight company capable of sending astronauts to space, although it may soon face competition from Boeing's CST-100 Starliner.
Who owns SpaceX?
SpaceX was founded by Musk, a South African-born businessman and entrepreneur. At age 30, Musk made his initial fortune by selling his two successful companies: Zip2, which he sold for $307 million in 1999, and PayPal, which eBay purchased for $1.5 billion in 2002, The New York Times reported. He decided his next major venture would be a privately funded space company.
Initially, Musk had the idea of sending a greenhouse, dubbed the Mars Oasis, to the Red Planet. His goal was to drum up public interest in exploration while also providing a science base on Mars. But the cost ended up being too high, and instead, Musk started a spaceflight company called Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, now based in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, California.
He 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 the 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.
SpaceX's first rocket: Falcon 1
Musk was already an experienced businessman when he started SpaceX, and he strongly believed that more-frequent and more-reliable launches would bring down the cost of exploration. So, he sought out a stable customer that could fund the early development of a rocket: NASA. (Later, he wooed launch clients from various sectors to diversify his customer base.) As such, his goal for SpaceX was to develop the first privately built, liquid-fueled booster to make it into orbit, which he called the Falcon 1.
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. But eventually, Falcon 1 made two successful flights: on Sept. 28, 2008, and July 14, 2009. The 2009 launch also placed the Malaysian RazakSat satellite into orbit.
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. The addition of a few more milestones eventually boosted the total contract value to up to $396 million. SpaceX was selected for the program 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).
SpaceX success in bringing cargo to the space station
While the funding showed that NASA had confidence in SpaceX's ability to get a spacecraft ready to transport cargo supplies, the company still had work to do. To get into space with a heavy cargo load, the Dragon spacecraft would require more rocket power than what Falcon 1 could provide. So, SpaceX developed a next-generation rocket, called Falcon 9, to send Dragon into orbit. Falcon 9 would heft much more cargo: 28,991 lbs. (13,150 kilograms) to low Earth orbit, compared to Falcon 1's capacity of 1,480 lbs. (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 development 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 the landing attempt failed because the parachute didn't work. SpaceX followed this up by launching 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 delayed 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 even been considered when the space station was developed in the 1980s and '90s.
SpaceX fulfilled the first of its regular commercial flights to the space station in October 2012. That 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, which led to the mission's failure.
Building bigger and better spacecraft: Falcon 9, Dragon and Falcon Heavy
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 (an electric car made by Tesla, another company owned by Musk) and a spacesuited mannequin nicknamed Starman onboard. SpaceX ran a livestream of the launch and the Roadster's first few hours in space, which attracted attention from all over the world.
The two rocket boosters landed successfully near Kennedy Space Center, as expected, but the core stage hit the ocean at 300 mph (480 km/h), which was too fast, and it didn't survive the impact. Falcon Heavy then performed an engine burn in space that is expected to bring the Roadster at least as far as Mars' orbit.
April 2019 saw a setback for SpaceX when a test of the crewed Dragon spacecraft, intended to bring NASA astronauts to space, experienced a malfunction while on the ground. This created a smoke plume visible for miles around Cape Canaveral, Florida. The incident set back the company's timeline for bringing people to the International Space Station.
SpaceX's plans for the future, Mars and more
SpaceX has customers from the private sector, military and nongovernmental entities, which pay the company to launch cargo into space. Although SpaceX makes its money from launch services, the company is also focused on developing technology for future space exploration.
And 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 ISS is expected to carry four people, on average.)
Musk followed up his announcement in 2017 by publishing a paper describing 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 cabins for passengers, likely with a capacity of 100 people.
In 2018, Musk announced that Yusaku Maezawa, an artist and billionaire founder of the Japanese e-commerce giant Zozo, and a handful of artists will launch on the BFR on a trip around the moon in the 2020s. SpaceX did not disclose how much Maezawa paid for that trip.
Musk once again unveiled an update to his Mars plans, in September 2019, renaming the first BFR to Starship Mk1 and switching its outer coating from expensive carbon fiber to stainless steel. Photos of the shiny, sci-fi-looking craft being assembled at SpaceX's South Texas facilities, near the village of Boca Chica, circulated on the internet.
In 2019, Musk and SpaceX ignited controversy in the field of astronomy over the company's plans to place a constellation of 12,000 small satellites in orbit around the Earth in order to provide reliable internet access to remote places. So far, only 60 of these Starlink satellites have launched but they have already left unsightly trails in astronomers' telescope observations of the night sky. Many researchers fear that an increased number of satellites will cause problems for vital data-collecting enterprises.
According to a SpaceNews report, SpaceX plans to test out a special coating on the next round of Starlink satellites that could help make them less reflective and, therefore, less obtrusive in the night sky.
Successful crewed launches to the ISS
SpaceX launched its first crewed test flight on May 30, 2020, safely delivering astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS. On the company's flagship reusable SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, the two men returned safely to Earth on Aug. 2, 2020.
On Nov. 15, 2020, the first successful space taxi flight used a Falcon 9 rocket to safely launch four astronauts to the ISS aboard a Crew Dragon craft that the astronauts had named "Resilience," in honor of ongoing efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Read more: Crew-1 docks successfully with the ISS
- You can follow SpaceX on Twitter @SpaceX.
- Watch videos of SpaceX's successful and failed launches on the company's YouTube channel.
- Check out NASA's SpaceX blog for the latest news on collaborations between the two entities.
This article was updated on Dec. 16, 2019 by Space.com Contributor Adam Mann, and again on Jan. 27, 2020 by Space.com Reference Editor Vicky Stein.