How this company conquered the private space industry in just a decade, what it’ll do next, and why you should care.

SpaceX, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies, is currently the most exciting private space company in existence. Through its revolutionary Falcon family of rockets and the amazing Dragon spacecraft, it is doing things that no other private company has been able to match. And it is planning to do even more in the coming years that will cement its place as one of the world’s most innovative companies, space-related or otherwise, that will change the way we access space forever.

In May 2012, the world watched in awe as SpaceX became the first private company to launch and dock a spacecraft, namely its Dragon capsule, with the International Space Station (ISS) and return it safely to Earth. It was a huge achievement not only for SpaceX but also for NASA. America’s national space agency is currently investing huge sums of money in private space initiatives, and SpaceX is its shining example of how successful the gamble has been.

The most impressive thing about SpaceX, however, is that it has established itself as one of the world leaders in private space exploration in just ten years. Entrepreneur Elon Musk only founded the company in 2002. Its progress has been rapid ever since and, in some instances, largely unexpected. Nobody really thought that this fledgling company would be where it is today in a little over a decade. It has its own fleet of rockets and a cargo ship capable of launching to the ISS, and its next plans are equally as ambitious: it wants to build the world’s first fully reusable rocket, and it wants to land humans on Mars. You only have to look at the name of SpaceX’s Dragon vehicle to see just how underestimated the company was; CEO Elon Musk gave it this name as an homage to the 1963 song Puff, The Magic Dragon after critics had claimed it would never take flight.

In its early years of operation the company spent time acquiring staff and securing funding, including an estimated $100m USD (£64m) from Elon Musk himself. It hired a number of engineers to work on its numerous projects but it was not until 2006 that it built its first rocket, the Falcon 1, which became the first privately developed rocket to orbit Earth in September 2008. Two years later it had built the Falcon 1’s successor, the Falcon 9, which was capable of taking a much higher payload into orbit. Its success is the cornerstone on which SpaceX has built its business, and it’s allowing the company to set itself more lofty goals to achieve.

SpaceX made use of previous space exploration and aerospace facilities to ensure that it hit the ground running when it started designing and building rockets. Its headquarters, an old Boeing 747 hangar that has been refurbished into offices and a vehicle factory, is based in California at 1 Rocket Road, Hawthorne. Over in McGregor, Texas, SpaceX has a testing facility that used to belong to a company called Beal Aerospace, which has now ceased operations, and from here it tests out rockets and other spaceflight components.

While both of these facilities are used to manufacture and test flight components, the launches currently take place in two separate sites in California and Florida. The latter, the Vandenberg Air Force Base, is also where a number of other space companies launch rockets from, including the Atlas V and Delta IV. SpaceX is also considering building a new commercial launchpad in the US, with southern Texas being mooted as a possible destination. With SpaceX’s stock seemingly rising every month, many different states are keen to get the company on board.

SpaceX has not been without its problems, though. For one, the Dragon capsule was delayed quite considerably from a target launch date in 2011, and despite successful testing there were some problems that needed to be addressed, mostly revolving around safety and its ability to autonomously dock with the ISS. The Falcon fleet of rockets has also encountered minor issues, with an early launch attempt of the Falcon 1 ending in failure, but as the company grows in its experience it is ironing out the kinks and problems.

But SpaceX is a very transparent company that is not afraid to publish these tests, developments and plans. Elon Musk himself has made no secret of his intentions for the coming years, culminating in a manned trip to Mars, which has understandably been met with some caution in the space community. Can this company really live up to the hefty expectations that are being placed on it? Time will tell, but the early indications are exceedingly promising.

SpaceX wouldn’t be where it is now, however, without the continued assistance of NASA. Prior to the decision to retire the Space Shuttle in July 2011 NASA had already begun programmes to fund private space companies for manned and unmanned missions. It has set private companies the task of building spacecraft that can take humans and cargo into orbit, such as to the ISS. While SpaceX has only built and flown its unmanned Dragon capsule, it is working hard on a crewed variant that could launch by 2015.

In fact, NASA has invested billions of dollars into such programmes. It’s gambled a lot on the success of private space companies to take up the mantle of taking cargo and humans into Earth orbit, while NASA itself is focusing on taking humans into deep space with its Orion spacecraft, but thanks to SpaceX it’s proving that the commercialisation of space was the correct decision to make at a time when budgets are being slashed and funding is hard to come by. Companies like SpaceX rely on NASA for its continued success, and it’s thanks to these pioneering programmes that we see new companies like this thrive.

It’s not just NASA, though, that is banking on the success of SpaceX. Many other bodies have been impressed by the meteoric rise of the company, and SpaceX has been keen to get involved. The United States Air Force has bought a number of contracts for flights from SpaceX, as has global satellite operator SES SA, while SpaceX has also been contracted to launch a number of Iridium satellites (used for global communications). Meanwhile, other smaller private space companies are planning to use one of SpaceX’s rockets for launches. These include Bigelow Aerospace, who will launch an inflatable module for the ISS in 2015, and Astrobotic Technology, a competitor in the Google Lunar X Prize that wants a Falcon 9 rocket to take its lunar rover to the Moon by October 2015.

While SpaceX is busy fulfilling contracts for other companies, one of its crowning achievements to date has been the Dragon capsule, a reusable spacecraft capable of taking cargo to and from the ISS. The vehicle entered production after SpaceX won a NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract in August 2006, worth $278m (£180m). This money was intended as seed money to get the spacecraft up and running, and SpaceX duly obliged; in December 2010 the company successfully launched the Dragon spacecraft into orbit and returned it to Earth, the first private company ever to launch and return a spacecraft.

Now, SpaceX is contracted under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) programme, an initiative for private space companies to resupply the ISS in the absence of the Space Shuttle. After a demonstration flight in May 2012 SpaceX completed the first of its 12 scheduled cargo flights in October 2012, with two more missions scheduled for 2013. The cost of the 12 missions for NASA is $1.6bn (£1bn), which is almost the same price as the estimated cost of a single Space Shuttle mission, significantly reducing the cost of taking cargo to orbit.

The ultimate plan for Dragon is to ferry astronauts into orbit and, eventually, deep space. This is again with help from NASA, this time under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) programme. Known as DragonRider, this crewed variant of Dragon will be able to support a crew of up to seven people, compared to just three for the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the only current method available of getting people into space. DragonRider, which will also be capable of eventual missions to the Moon and Mars, is expected to launch by 2015 at the earliest.

Another of Musk’s main goals for SpaceX ties in with another of his companies, Tesla Motors. This green company is building new fleets of electric cars that aim to reduce our dependence on oil, and therefore move us towards a greener and more sustainable future. Musk wants to apply the same level of thinking to rockets. According to Musk, taking a rocket trip at the moment and throwing away the rocket afterwards is akin to scrapping an aeroplane after every flight, and he wants to change that. SpaceX is currently working on revolutionary reusable rocket technology, which would allow each stage of a rocket to descend in a controlled manner back to Earth using rockets and land back on the original launchpad, ready to take off again in just a few hours. But unlike other companies with pie-in-the-sky ideas, SpaceX isn’t just announcing its intention to do these things; it’s actually doing them.

To test this reusable technology SpaceX is developing a modified Falcon rocket called Grasshopper. It’s designed to lift partially off a launchpad, ‘hopping’ in a sense, and returning back to the ground. Grasshopper completed a successful 12-storey ‘hop’ in December 2012; the next step will be to rise up to thousands of metres in the air and return safely to Earth. Eventually, this concept will be used in future iterations of the Falcon family of rockets. This would be a huge breakthrough in rocket technology. Modern rockets generally launch with one or several expendable boosters that are discarded in the atmosphere, left either to burn up or fall into the sea. A reusable rocket would do exactly what it says on the tin: the whole thing would be able to land back on its initial launchpad fully intact. If such a technology came to fruition it would dramatically decrease the cost of going to space, one of SpaceX’s primary goals.

Another of SpaceX’s exciting proposals is a manned mission to Mars. A few years ago Musk outlined plans for SpaceX’s Red Dragon mission, a series of spacecraft that would take humans and cargo to the Red Planet for the first time. Musk himself says that he wants to set foot on Mars, and he is adamant that it’s a goal that will be achievable in most of our lifetimes. Paramount to the success of such a mission will be the Falcon Heavy rocket. This upgraded version of the Falcon 9 will be the most powerful rocket in existence until NASA finishes construction on its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. It will be capable of taking 53,000 kilograms (120,000 pounds) into orbit, almost twice as much as the most powerful rocket currently in operation, the Delta IV Heavy. This increased cargo capacity will make a Mars mission possible.

While SpaceX is building the Falcon Heavy rocket, there are rumours that it is working on something even bigger that will be the most powerful rocket in the world. In late 2012, Elon Musk alluded to a new type of rocket engine that would be several times more powerful than the Merlin engines currently used on the Falcon 9 rockets. This as-of-yet unnamed engine would be capable of taking up to 200,000 kilograms (440,000 pounds) into low-Earth orbit, considerably more than NASA’s SLS rocket, which will only be capable of taking 130,000 kilograms (290,000 pounds) to orbit. If this new SpaceX engine does materialise, it could make most other rockets obsolete and also be a vital component of a manned Mars mission.

It is the speed and efficiency of designing, building and flying rockets and spacecraft that has made SpaceX one of the biggest names in the modern space business. For decades space travel has been something that only national space agencies could afford, but we are truly entering an age of the commercialisation of space travel and Elon Musk is ensuring that SpaceX is at the forefront of this emerging market. It is not inconceivable to imagine that in ten years the majority of both manned and unmanned flights into Earth orbit will be carried out by private companies, while national agencies will do what many think they should be focusing on anyway; designing and building deep space vehicles that will take humans and new machines to distant destinations like Mars.

SpaceX is not the largest private space company, nor is it the longest running. Others, like Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences, have been designing spacecraft and launching rockets for much longer. But what SpaceX has that other companies don’t is a radical vision of the future, a desire to not simply fall into line with previously accepted space technologies but to develop its own and change the way we think about going to space. In just ten years we could be sending rockets into orbit, retrieving them and then launching them again the same day thanks to SpaceX’s new reusable rocket technology, while in 20 years we could see the first humans on Mars because of SpaceX. If you ever needed a reason to get excited about space exploration then SpaceX is it. It’s doing things no one else thought possible, and it’ll change the way we access space forever.

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