Skip to main content

See the Evolution of SpaceX's Rockets in Pictures

Falcon Heavy's maiden flight

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, a heavy-lift version of the Falcon series, made its  successful debut flight on Feb. 6, 2018, launching from NASA's Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

The Falcon Heavy is currently the most powerful rocket in use today. It consists of three first-stage core boosters based on SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 rocket and a powerful upper stage.

SpaceX

The rocket successfully launched a Tesla car into space and a spacesuit clad mannequin called Starman on its first flight. (Musk is also the CEO of Tesla Motors.) The Falcon Heavy is 230 feet tall (70 m) and can lift nearly 141,000 lbs. (64 metric tons) of payload to low Earth orbit. 

This is twice what its closest competitor, the United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy, can hoist into orbit.

Falcon Heavy's rocket landing ballet

SpaceX

This picture shows Falcon Heavy's twin side boosters landing successfully after the rocket's maiden flight, on Feb. 6, 2018. 

While the booster stages touched down safely at Landing Zones 1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, near the Kennedy Space Center, the rocket's core stage hit the ocean at high speed. 

The rocket stage carrying the Tesla car underwent one last burn to send the car toward the orbit of Mars. However, as Space.com sister site Live Science reported, radiation could destroy the car within a year.

Riding inside Crew Dragon

SpaceX

While launching commercial missions, SpaceX also began developing a human-rated version of the Dragon spacecraft to bring astronauts to the International Space Station. 

The company received a contract in 2014 valued at a maximum of $2.6 billion for these launch services. In September 2015, SpaceX showed the world the inside of the crew quarters. The minimalist design has white walls, black bucket seats, several flat-panel displays and four windows for passengers to see outside.

The first uncrewed Crew Dragon test flight launched in March 2019 on a succesful trip to the International Space Station and back.

Crew Dragon vs. Cargo

SpaceX

SpaceX intended that the crew and cargo versions of Dragon be very similar, in order to speed up development of the crewed ship. 

"This commonality simplifies the human-rating process, allowing systems critical to crew and space station safety to be fully tested on unmanned cargo flights.," SpaceX stated.

Crew Dragon flight tests

Ben Cooper/SpaceX

SpaceX is hard at work on developing the crewed Dragon for two commercial crew test-flights, which will fly no earlier than spring 2020

NASA is trying to wean itself off dependence on the Russian Soyuz vehicle that currently ferries all astronauts to the International Space Station. Each astronaut seat on the Soyuz costs NASA millions of dollars. 

Also, the agency tries to use U.S. launch services for launch when possible. The last crewed launch from U.S. soil took place in 2011, during the last flight of the space shuttle program.

More Falcon Heavy flights

SpaceX

Falcon Heavy launches are sold for about $90 million apiece, compared with $62 million for Falcon 9 launches. 

SpaceX has launched two more Falcon Heavy missions in 2019: one carrying the Arabsat 6A communications satellite in April and the other hoisting Space Test Program 2 for the U.S. Air Force (along with the Planetary Society's LightSail 2) in June of that year.

The Falcon 9 Block 5

Elon Musk/Instagram

In May 2018, SpaceX unveiled the fifth and final version of the company's Falcon 9 rocket: the Block 5 booster. Designed for maximum reusability (the target is at least 10 flights), this booster will launch astronauts into space on Dragon capsules for NASA. 

The first Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket was built to launch Bangabandhu-1, the first communications satellite for the country of Bangladesh. That mission launched in May 2018, with the Block 5 booster used on that flight later launching an Indonesian satellite in August of 2018.

Starship and Super Heavy

In September 2019, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced a completely new vehicle for his company: a fully reusable, massive rocket and booster designed to eventually launch people to Mars. And so, the Starship and Super Heavy  were born. 

Originally called the Interplanetary Transport System, and later Big Falcon Rocket (or Big F****** Rocket, as Musk has hinted), the futuristic system intended for Mars exploration, but could be applied to the moon, other deep-space destinations and point-point trips around Earth. 

Musk has tweaked the design several times over the last few years, rolling out different specifications in 2017 and 2018, ultimately settling on a design in 2019. 

SpaceX (Image credit: SpaceX)

In its current configurations, the Starship and its Super Heavy booster will stand 387 feet (118 m) tall (including the spaceship) and capable of bringing 110 tons (100 metric tons) to low Earth orbit. 

Each rocket will carry about 100 people, and the rocket will be fully reusable. Musk said he plans to use this rocket in fleets, bringing hundreds or thousands of passengers at a time to Mars. In the 2020s, Musk plans to halt all Falcon lines except for Super Heavy, which would perform all sorts of missions. Destinations would range from Mars to the International Space Station to orbits that would launch satellites near Earth.

SpaceX's Starhopper

In 2019, SpaceX launched Starhopper, a prototype for its Starship, in a series of test hops at the company's launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. 

Starhopper is the Starship-equivalent of the Grasshopper prototype SpaceX used to develop the technology behind its reusable Falcon 9 rockets. Made of stainless steel, the squat, three-legged vehicle carried a single Raptor rocket engine and made a series of test firings and tethered hops that culminated in a single grand hop on Aug. 27, 2019

(Image credit: SpaceX)

During that big hop, Starhopper lifted off from a SpaceX pad, reached an altitude of about 500 feet (150 m) and translated sideways to a landing pad a short distance away. The entire flight took about one minute. 

After that hop, the fourth and biggest test for Starhopper, SpaceX retired the vehicle and pushed ahead with its Starship project.

The Starship Mk 1

(Image credit: SpaceX via Twitter)

On Sept. 28, 2019, after months of anticipation, SpaceX unveiled its first Starship prototype, the Starship Mark 1 (or Starship Mk1). 

Like Starhopper, the Starship Mk1 was assembled at SpaceX's Boca Chica site in Texas and is made of stainless steel. The vehicle reflects more design changes for Starship, with two fins (down from three), and is built for uncrewed test flights only. 

In 2019, SpaceX hopes to launch Starship Mk1 on a 12-mile-high test flight, with the goal of reaching orbit in 2020. 

SpaceX has since built several versions of the Starship prototypes (the current one is called Starship SN4, or Serial No. 4). SN4 is undergoing tests for a planned "hop" flight in 2020. 

First Crew Dragon with astronauts

SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule arrived at launchpad 39A atop the Falcon 9 rocket on May 21, 2020.

SpaceX (Image credit: SpaceX/Twitter)

SpaceX's first Crew Dragon to carry astronauts is scheduled to launch May 27. That mission will launch NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on a mission that will last up to four months. 

The test flight, called Demo-2, follows a series of other tests. In March 2019, SpaceX flew an unpiloted Crew Dragon test flight to the station under its Demo-1 mission. In January 2020, the company launched an In-Flight Abort test that demonstrated the Crew Dragon's emergency escape system for launch emergencies. 

The company has also tested parachutes and other vital systems for Crew Dragon. 

Visit here for Space.com's complete coverage of the SpaceX Crew Dragon mission. 

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.