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The 20 most memorable SpaceX missions from its 1st 20 years in photos

SpaceX has changed the spaceflight landscape during its two decades of existence. The company, which Elon Musk founded on March 14, 2002, has made rocket reuse routine, a breakthrough that allows for cheaper and more frequent launches. Thanks to SpaceX, the United States is once again sending astronauts to orbit from American soil. The company has also kicked off a new phase of space tourism and (potentially) brought the settlement of Mars a step closer to reality, among other accomplishments.

SpaceX has launched about 150 orbital missions over the company's first 20 years. Here's a look at 20 of the most important and memorable of them, in chronological order.

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A SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket launches on the company's first-ever successful orbital mission on Sept. 28, 2008.

(Image credit: SpaceX)

Falcon 1 reaches orbit, Sept. 28, 2008

SpaceX's first rocket, the 69-foot-tall (21 meters) Falcon 1, failed to reach orbit on its first three attempts, which occurred in March 2006, March 2007 and August 2008. But the fourth try was a charm. A Falcon 1 soared successfully on Sept. 28, 2008, carrying a dummy payload to orbit — and likely saving the young company in the process. Musk has said that SpaceX would probably have folded had that fourth flight not succeeded.

Related: The evolution of SpaceX's rockets in pictures

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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifts off on its maiden flight from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 4, 2010.

(Image credit: collectSPACE.com)

Falcon 9 debuts, June 4, 2010

The Falcon 1 flew just one more time after that landmark September 2008 mission. SpaceX then pivoted to the much larger Falcon 9 rocket, which made its spaceflight debut on June 4, 2010, carrying to orbit a dummy version of the company's Dragon cargo capsule.

Related: SpaceX Successfully Launches Commercial Satellite to Orbit

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the company on its first-ever space mission, on Dec. 8, 2010.

(Image credit: NASA/Alan Ault)

Dragon takes flight, Dec. 8, 2010

The second Falcon 9 mission lofted a real Dragon to orbit, on a test flight for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. 

The capsule circled Earth for about three hours, then splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, about 500 miles (800 kilometers) off the coast of Baja California.

Related: Space Dragon Soars! Photos From SpaceX's First Space Capsule Demo Flight

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the company's Dragon cargo capsule on a demonstration mission to the International Space Station on May 22, 2012.

(Image credit: NASA TV)

Dragon visits the space station, May 2012

A Falcon 9 launched a Dragon toward the International Space Station (ISS) on May 22, 2012 on another COTS test mission. 

Two days later, the cargo vehicle berthed with the orbiting lab for the first time ever, notching a huge milestone for SpaceX and NASA. Dragon stayed aloft for more than a week, coming down to Earth with a Pacific Ocean splashdown on May 31.

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The upgraded Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on a successful demonstration mission to deliver the CASSIOPE satellite to orbit. Launch took place on Sept. 29, 2013.

(Image credit: SpaceX)

A more powerful Falcon 9 lifts off, Sept. 29, 2013

The first five Falcon 9 missions used the original variant of the rocket, known as version 1.0. On Sept. 29, 2013, SpaceX debuted the bigger, more powerful Falcon 9 version 1.1, which successfully launched the Cascade, Smallsat and Ionospheric Polar Explorer (CASSIOPE) satellite to orbit. 

During the CASSIOPE launch, SpaceX also brought the Falcon 9's first stage back with a controlled reentry through Earth's atmosphere, a big step toward eventual recovery and reuse. (The booster didn't survive this journey intact, eventually hitting the ocean hard.) 

Launch Photos: SpaceX's Next-Gen Falcon 9 Rocket Soars on 1st Flight

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches into space from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 on a mission to send the Deep Space Climate Observatory on a million-mile trek to Lagrange point 1.

(Image credit: SpaceX)

First launch into interplanetary space, Feb. 11, 2015

On Feb. 11, 2015, a Falcon 9 delivered the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) to an extremely elliptical orbit that took the spacecraft 770,000 miles (1.24 million km) from Earth at its farthest point — more than three times greater than the Earth-moon distance. It was the first time SpaceX had ventured into such deep space. DSCOVR, which is operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, eventually set up shop at the Earth-sun Lagrange Point 1, about 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) from our planet.

In early 2022, by the way, reports surfaced that the Falcon 9 upper stage from the DSCOVR mission was headed for the moon, with an impact expected on March 4. Further analyses revealed, however, that the moon-smacking rocket stage was actually a piece of the Long March 3C vehicle that launched China's Chang'e 5-T1 mission in October 2014.

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The first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is seen just before touching down on Landing Site 1 at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 21, 2015.

(Image credit: SpaceX)

First rocket landing success, Dec. 21, 2015

SpaceX's new, even more powerful "Full Thrust" Falcon 9 variant made its spaceflight debut on Dec. 21, 2015, launching 11 satellites to orbit for the communications company Orbcomm. 

But this mission is better remembered for another first: SpaceX's first-ever successful rocket landing. The Falcon 9's first stage came back to Earth as planned, acing a vertical touchdown at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (now Cape Canaveral Space Force Station). 

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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket first stage is seen descending toward its drone ship landing pad in the Atlantic Ocean in this view from a chase plane captured on April 8, 2016.

(Image credit: SpaceX)

First droneship landing, April 8, 2016

Another big landing landmark came on April 8, 2016. After launching Dragon on a cargo run to the International Space Station from Florida's Space Coast, a Falcon 9 first stage aced a landing on Of Course I Still Love You, a robotic "droneship" stationed a few hundred miles offshore, in the Atlantic Ocean. 

SpaceX now commonly employs droneship touchdowns on missions in which the first stage doesn't have enough fuel left to make it all the way back to terra firma.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a used first stage launches the SES-10 communications satellite from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 30, 2017.

(Image credit: SpaceX)

First launch with a used booster, March 30, 2017

SpaceX flew a used Falcon 9 first stage for the first time on March 30, 2017, during the launch of the SES-10 communications satellite. 

The company notched another reusability milestone on this mission as well, recovering both halves of the payload fairing — the protective "nose cone" that surrounds payloads during launch — intact after a soft ocean splashdown.

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This view of the NROL-76 spy satellite shows SpaceX's horizontal integration facility (foreground) as the Falcon 9 launches into space from Pad 39-A at NASA's Kennedy Space Flight Center on May 1, 2017.

(Image credit: SpaceX)

First launch for the US military, May 1, 2017

A Falcon 9 rocket lofted the NROL-76 satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office on May 1, 2017. 

It was the first SpaceX mission for the U.S. Department of Defense, a very important customer that the company had sought to service for a long time. 

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SpaceX's Starman mannequin sits inside Elon Musk's red Tesla Roadster with Earth in the background, shortly after the initial launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket on Feb. 6, 2018.

(Image credit: SpaceX)

Falcon Heavy debuts, Feb. 6, 2018

The first launch of SpaceX's powerful Falcon Heavy rocket — which consists of three strapped-together Falcon 9 first stages, with a second stage and the payload atop the central core — was memorable, to say the least. The test flight, which lifted off on Feb. 6, 2018, carried a spacesuit-clad mannequin named Starman who was "driving" Musk's red Tesla Roadster. Car and driver were successfully delivered to a heliocentric orbit, and we got some amazing views of the duo leaving their home planet in the rear view mirror. (Starman and his ride will likely slam into either Venus or Earth in the next few tens of millions of years, researchers have calculated.)

Two of the three first-stage boosters came back to Earth for successful touchdowns at Cape Canaveral shortly after liftoff that day. The central core didn't manage to ace its droneship landing, however.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 launches NASA's TESS mission in April 2018. That launch was one of several that may have used hardware produced by a supplier that forged inspection reports.

(Image credit: Tony Gray/NASA KSC)

Lofting a NASA exoplanet hunter, April 18, 2018

The Falcon 9 launch of NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in April 2018 was notable for several reasons.

It was the first SpaceX mission to loft a science satellite not devoted to Earth observation, for example, and it sent the TESS spacecraft quite far afield — all the way out to a lunar transfer orbit. (TESS orbits Earth on a highly elliptical path that takes it nearly as far out as the moon at its most distant point.)

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SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off carrying the Arabsat-6A communications satellite on April 11, 2019.

(Image credit: SpaceX)

Falcon Heavy aces three landings, April 11, 2019

Falcon Heavy's second launch, which occurred on April 11, 2019, was its first operational flight, delivering the Arabsat-6A communications satellite to orbit

And this time, SpaceX successfully landed all three of the huge rocket's first stages shortly after liftoff. (The central core came unmoored from its droneship fastenings on the way back to shore, however, and ended up being lost.)

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SpaceX's Starhopper Starship prototype makes its first untethered flight at the company's Boca Chica test site in South Texas on July 25, 2019 in this still from a drone camera.

(Image credit: Elon Musk/SpaceX via Twitter)

Starhopper makes its first jump, July 25, 2019

SpaceX aims to get humanity to the moon, Mars and beyond with a huge, fully reusable rocket-spaceship duo called Starship

On July 25, 2019, the Starship program spread its wings for the first time, sending a tiny, single-engine prototype dubbed Starhopper about 65 feet (20 meters) above the ground at SpaceX's South Texas test site. SpaceX has built upon this first free-flying test hop considerably, as we shall see.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, on May 30, 2020, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

(Image credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA)

SpaceX launches astronauts for the first time, May 30, 2020

After NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in July 2011, the United States was incapable of launching astronauts to orbit for nearly nine years. That long drought — and the total dependence on Russian Soyuz spacecraft that came with it — ended on May 30, 2020, when SpaceX launched the historic Demo-2 test flight.

Demo-2 sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station aboard a Crew Dragon capsule, which lifted off atop a Falcon 9. The two-month mission went smoothly, clearing SpaceX to start operational crewed missions to the orbiting lab for NASA.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched on NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi onboard, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

(Image credit: Joel Kowsky/NASA)

First operational crewed mission for NASA, Nov. 15, 2020

The first of those contracted flights, known as Crew-1, lifted off on Nov. 15, 2020, sending NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins and Shannon Walker and Japan's Soichi Noguchi to the space station for a six-month stay. 

Everything went swimmingly from launch to splashdown, cementing SpaceX's role as a major player in the human spaceflight field.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches 143 small satellites into orbit from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Jan. 24, 2021 to mark the Transporter-1 rideshare mission.

(Image credit: SpaceX)

Transporter-1 mission launches record 143 satellites, Jan. 24, 2021

A Falcon 9 launched the Transporter-1 mission on Jan. 24, 2021, lofting 143 small satellites for a variety of customers. 

It was SpaceX's first-ever mission devoted solely to small "rideshare" satellites, and it set a new record for most spacecraft sent to orbit at once.

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SpaceX's Starship SN15 rocket prototype launches on a 10-kilometer test flight from SpaceX's Starbase test site near Boca Chica Village in South Texas on May 5, 2021.

(Image credit: SpaceX)

Starship prototype sticks the landing, May 5, 2021

SpaceX moved on quickly from Starhopper, sending a series of three-engine Starship prototypes aloft on test flights that got about 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) above Earth's surface. None of them managed to stick the landing, however, until SN15 ("Serial No. 15") pulled it off on May 5, 2021

This was a huge moment for the Starship program, which is now gearing up for its first-ever orbital test flight, a milestone that SpaceX aims to achieve soon after it gets regulatory approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches 60 Starlink satellites to orbit on May 9, 2021. It was the 10th flight for this Falcon 9's first stage.

(Image credit: SpaceX)

A Falcon 9 first stage flies for the 10th time, May 9, 2021

Just four days after SN15's success, SpaceX hit a big reusability milestone: A Falcon 9 first stage flew for a record 10th time on May 9, 2021, on a mission that sent 60 of SpaceX's Starlink internet satellites to orbit. 

That record has since been broken; two different Falcon 9 first stages now have 11 missions under their belt.

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Inspiration4 lifted off successfully on Sept. 15.

(Image credit: Inspiration4/John Kraus)

Inspiration4 sends four private citizens to orbit, September 2021

SpaceX made history again in September 2021 with Inspiration4, the first all-private crewed mission to Earth orbit. On this flight, billionaire tech entrepreneur Jared Isaacman and three other private citizens circled Earth for nearly three days inside a Crew Dragon capsule. 

And SpaceX has more orbital tourism missions on the books. Houston-based company Axiom Space, for example, has contracted with SpaceX on a handful of private crewed missions to the space station. The first of these flights, Ax-1, is scheduled to launch on March 30.

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Mike Wall
Mike Wall

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.