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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.