SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.)
404 'SpaceX' stories
February 2020 - December 2021
SpaceX is a private spaceflight company, founded in 2002 by billionaire Elon Musk. With the goal to get people excited about the future, he believed that the best way to do that was by expanding humanity out into the stars.
With the eventual goal to inhabit Mars, SpaceX has dramatically increased the reusability of orbital rockets and increased the accessibility of space. Since its founding, the private space company has developed and produced multiple different launch vehicles including the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Starship. More recently, they have created a satellite constellation known as Starlink to provide high-speed internet access around the world.
In 2002, Musk was already extraordinarily wealthy. Having sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5m, Musk walked away with over $100 million and had goals to inspire the world with space travel. His goal was to put a greenhouse on Mars. To grow plants on Mars would be no easy task, but he saw this project as sending life the farthest it’s ever traveled and hoped to improve public interest in space and increase NASA’s budget.
In late 2001, Musk had traveled to Moscow with the intention of purchasing refurbished ICBMs to launch the project. He was unable to find a ride to space for an acceptable price. At one point, he even considered the venerable Delta II rocket. Left empty-handed, Musk was confident that he could improve access to space by dramatically decreasing launch prices. He started building out the original SpaceX team in early 2002, and the company was founded that May.
The Falcon 1 was the first rocket developed by SpaceX from the companies founding through 2009. Upon reaching orbit in 2008, it became the first privately developed fully liquid-fuel rocket to do so. The Falcon 1 first stage was designed to be reusable. A parachute-based system would recover the first stage, but the system was never successfully demonstrated. A single Merlin Engine powers the first stage, with the second stage being powered by a Kestrel Engine. The first two, unsuccessful flights, relied on the expendable, ablatively cooled Merlin 1A. The next three flights used a regeneratively cooled Merlin 1C. That regenerative cooling caused the first Falcon 1 flight to make use of the 1C to fail. The extra propellant used to cool the nozzle provided a slight amount of thrust. This additional thrust causing the first and second stage of Falcon 1 to collide after stage separation. After these failures, Falcon 1 saw two successful flights, the first, “Ratsat”, being a demonstration that carried only a mass simulator. The second carried RazakSAT, a Malaysian Earth observation satellite into orbit. As Falcon 1 was retired, plans for an upgrade, the Falcon 1e, were also canned in favor of the Falcon 9.
Falcon 9 is SpaceX’s workhorse vehicle. The reusable first stage is capable of returning to land near the launch site or out in the ocean on mobile droneships. Powered by 9 Merlin 1D engines on the first stage, and a single Merlin 1D Vacuum optimized engine on the second stage, the Falcon 9 uses a combination of liquid oxygen and RP-1, a highly refined kerosene. Development on the Falcon 9 began in 2005, and the first launch occurred on June 4th of 2010. The Falcon 9 has seen many interactions and consistent improvement, increasing both reliability and reusability with each change.
Falcon 9 has also become SpaceX’s first crew-rated rocket, launching multiple crews in the companies Crew Dragon capsule to space.
The Falcon Heavy is SpaceX’s heavy lift launch vehicle. Discussion on the concept of the Falcon Heavy were occurred as early as 2003, but plans were publicly unveiled in 2011. SpaceX drew heavily from their experience with the Falcon 9, using what is essentially a strengthened Falcon 9 booster for the core stage, and two more as strap on boosters. The Falcon Heavy test flight in 2018 carried Musk’s personal first generation Tesla roadster out of Earth orbit.
While a Tesla Roadster is an eccentric payload, it only served as a mass simulator for a test flight that very easily could have gone wrong. Since the first flight, the Falcon Heavy has only flown two addition times, supporting the Arabsat-6A and USAF STP-2 missions. There are many launches in the coming years that require the addition payload to orbit offered by the Falcon Heavy. The Falcon Heavy will be a vital part of the Artemis program, launching the Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost for the Lunar Gateway.
SpaceX’s latest rocket, Starship, is currently being developed in Boca Chica, Texas. Starship makes use of a new engine, the Raptor, as Starship uses Methane rather than RP-1 as a fuel. This use of Methane is essential, as SpaceX’s goal is for Starship to be the vehicle to bring humans to Mars. Methane can be generated with Carbon Dioxide and the water from ice on Mars. This opens the possibility of refueling and launching back to Earth. Starship booster, known as Super Heavy, may have up to 32 raptor engines once development is complete. Development is moving quickly, and SpaceX is aiming to have an orbital flight of Starship by the end of this year. Starship will have both a reuseable first and second stage. The second stage will land in a unique bellyflop profile to reduce the amount of fuel needed to land.
Most recently, we saw the high-altitude flight test of Starship SN15. This was the first successful high-altitude test. The Starship prototype took flight on its three raptor engines, shut down each in turn, then flipped into a bellyflop position for its descent. Using the fins, Starship is able to control its descent, before relighting the Raptor engines and going vertical to land.
There are extremely ambitious plans for the Superheavy Booster recovery. Musk shared on twitter that SpaceX plans to catch the booster with the launch tower, using the grid fins to support the booster.