SpaceX launches its first payload to orbit, where it remains today | This Day in Space (September 28, 2008)

The powerhouse commercial launch provider we know today has come a long way since it opened its doors in 2002. On this day back in 2008, on its fourth attempt, SpaceX launched Ratsat into space on its Falcon 1 rocket.

The goliath that is Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (more commonly referred to as SpaceX) had a scrappy and demanding start-up. Founded in 2002 using the money he made from Paypal, Elon Musk had the crazy plan to build cheap rockets for the growing commercial satellite market.

The Falcon 1 was the first rocket designed by SpaceX, it had similar capabilities to what we see nowadays from companies like Rocket Lab or Astra. This early SmallSat launcher was a big learning curve for teams building it due to the strict weight and price requirements tied to it. Price and weight have always plagued rocket development. The need to keep costs low but build the most lightweight rocket packed with performance was extremely difficult for the early SpaceXers. SpaceX fought the odds and came out with a successful launcher.

The launch that almost never happened

After failing three times for various reasons, SpaceX was stretched for cash leading up to the fourth attempt. SpaceX had a short amount of time to build, test, and ship what would possibly be their final rocket to their launch site in the Kwajalein Atoll.

Detailed in Eric Berger’s book about the beginnings of SpaceX, Liftoff, the SpaceX team worked around the clock, alongside Musk, to get the rocket ready for flight. To save time SpaceX chose to ship the rocket on an Air Force C-17 rather than a cargo ship. That almost ruined any chance of launching when the rocket began to implode. After emergency repairs to save the rocket in the air, then on the ground, SpaceX readied the rocket for launch.

On September 28, 2008, SpaceX launched a dummy payload named Ratsat into orbit around the Earth. This made SpaceX the first company to privately develop a liquid-fueled rocket and have it launch a payload into orbit.

A Falcon 1 launching its fifth and final mission from Omelek Island, Kwajelein Atoll. Credit: SpaceX

The process took SpaceX 6 years and nearly bankrupted Musk, but the company ended up proving the doubters wrong and now it launches the majority of missions from the United States. The barebones scrappy mentality that got Ratsat into orbit can be seen in South Texas as SpaceX continues to innovate and push the industry towards the fully reusable rockets with Starship.

SpaceX: The short lived SmallSat launcher

While SpaceX was one of the first companies to come out with a rocket designed for smaller payloads, the market wasn’t fully there just yet and SpaceX pivoted to their larger goals with the Falcon 9. The Falcon 1 went on to launch one final mission, the company’s first commercial mission, before being retired. Ratsat however, continues to orbit around the Earth and will for several more years.

A Falcon 1 first stage next to Starship Mk1 prototype at SpaceX’s South Texas facilty. Credit: SpaceX

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