SpaceX, Transforming the Future of Spaceflight
SpaceX has made significant contributions to the language of spaceflight, demonstrating how far the firm has progressed in its first 20 years.
On March 14, 2002, Elon Musk established SpaceX to develop reusable rockets, commercial spacecraft, and other cutting-edge technology. In a time when space agencies still controlled the industry and most space technologies were disposable, except for a few examples like NASA's space shuttle and its solid rocket boosters, Musk has claimed that few people thought it was conceivable. After 20 years, SpaceX has become a powerful independent force. The corporation plans to expand its Starlink broadband network, which currently has 2,000 satellites, to contain maybe 30,000 spacecraft. It is the primary U.S. provider for crewed trips to the International Space Station and is expanding its orbital space tourism business. And as Musk had envisioned, SpaceX is currently successfully launching and landing rockets with payloads for a variety of clients, including NASA and the US Space Force in addition to commercial businesses.
Musk and SpaceX frequently make the news, and the publicity is not always favorable. For instance, during his 2.5-hour live performance on The Joe Rogan Experience in 2018, the multi-billionaire entrepreneur smoked marijuana and drank whiskey, which prompted a NASA safety assessment of SpaceX procedures. Musk ridiculed a person involved in rescuing Thai boys from a flooded cave that same year. Concerns regarding orbital debris and astronomical observational interference are being raised by the Starlink constellation. Despite this, Musk continues to be himself, and his business is one of the most influential in the space sector.
Here are eight ways that SpaceX became a household name after starting in relative anonymity.
8) BIG SPACEFLIGHT DREAMS WERE MAINTAINED BY SPACEX AGAIN
Readers of a certain age may recall that in the 1950s, before the Saturn V rocket, whose design he led, launched astronauts to the moon during NASA's Apollo program, German-American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun collaborated with organizations like Disney to popularize space stations and future crewed space travel. As Apollo faded into history, NASA's budget was cut, and the agency's emphasis on human spaceflight turned to (allegedly) low-cost missions to low Earth orbit, such big dreaming quickly lost its luster. Although the space shuttle was a spectacular device, it was never able to meet NASA's demands for cheap launch costs.
Musk comes in. Given that he received $180 million in 2002 (approximately $280 million in today's money) when eBay acquired Paypal, he displayed amazing independence for a spaceflight participant. He invested a large portion of his income in the founding of SpaceX and stressed the importance of human space travel from the start to lessen the possibility of extinction. He suggested that Mars would be a fantastic destination for humanity.
According to Musk, he started looking into NASA's intentions to put people on Mars about 2002 and was shocked to find no established timeframe. That's when Musk claims he envisioned a Mars expedition "to spark the national will" (NASA has more recently indicated the 2030s as a goal), according to Wired. Musk was busy building his brand and securing jobs closer to home to launch satellites, cargo for the International Space Station, and astronauts. It took years to show that SpaceX's reliability could compete with that of large corporations like Arianespace and United Launch Alliance, but (as we'll see below) Musk's capacity to spend a lot of money researching reusable rocket technology aided in that effort.
In more recent years, Musk and SpaceX have focused a lot of their energy on creating Starship, a massive rocket-spaceship combination intended to transport humans to Mars and other far-off places. Several Starship prototypes crashed during test flights at great altitudes, but one finally made a perfect landing in May 2021. Additionally, NASA chose Starship as the first crewed lander for its Artemis lunar exploration program, which intends to reenter lunar orbit by the middle of this decade. However, Starship still has several obstacles to overcome. For instance, SpaceX is awaiting regulatory approvals before launching the system on an orbital test flight; this may happen within the next month or two.
7) MOVE BILLIONAIRES TO THE FOREFRONT OF SPACE NEGOTIATION
Of course, Musk isn't the only wealthy businessman with a significant impact on the space sector. For instance, Richard Branson's Virgin Group includes the suborbital space tourism company Virgin Galactic, while Jeff Bezos founded the spaceflight company Blue Origin in 2001. However, Musk has received more media attention than his fellow space billionaires, in part due to the several high-profile triumphs of SpaceX and in part due to his frequent (and occasionally contentious) use of Twitter.
Contrarily, Blue Origin functioned for most of its history in relative obscurity and made few statements to the general public. Branson is a colorful character, but Virgin Galactic's suborbital tourist system isn't fully operational; the company has four spaceflights under its belt but has yet to fly a paying customer. (This has changed in recent years as the company has started flying tourists to suborbital space on its New Shepard vehicle.) In the meantime, Musk has integrated himself into popular culture in a variety of ways, including regularly posting updates about SpaceX's different systems on Twitter, providing live streamed Starship progress reports that quickly became must-watches for space lovers, and more. For instance, he performed as the Nintendo supervillain Wario while hosting "Saturday Night Live" in 2021.
The number of people traveling to space on SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin flights increased significantly in 2021. Both Bezos and Branson have flown on the equipment of their respective businesses. Given that a seat on Virgin Galactic, for instance, now costs $450,000, it is inevitable that enormous money is connected to these many chances. That implies that the primary demographic for ticket sales are very wealthy people. Of course, having the super-rich on spaceships raises ethical questions. People have questioned what it means to create an industry in which only wealthy individuals or those who have benefited from wealthy individuals are permitted to participate. Then again, there is the case of Inspiration4, which spent three days in Earth orbit in September 2021 aboard a SpaceX Dragon.
Jared Isaacman, a billionaire who, like Musk, built his money with a payment system called Shift4, funded and oversaw Inspiration4, the first-ever all-private crewed flight to Earth orbit. The other three seats on Isaacman's spacecraft were made available to regular people. Two of these individuals received their chances through contests, while the third person flew on behalf of a charitable organization: St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. Isaacman aimed to raise millions of dollars for St. Jude, and he succeeded in doing so while also receiving plenty of media attention. Recently, Isaacman and SpaceX announced several new private missions that would be carried out as part of the Polaris Program. Although Isaacman hasn't yet announced the crews for all the possibilities, she has stated that each of them will also be centered on charity.
6) SPACEX SET UP VIEWING APPOINTMENTS FOR WEBCASTS OF THE LAUNCH
Today, a lot of space businesses broadcast their space missions, but SpaceX tends to stand out. Millions of viewers have watched the company's broadcasts over the years to see rocket stages land on ships at sea and, in one particularly stunning instance, a mannequin wearing a spacesuit launch into orbit around the sun. One of the highlights of the first Falcon Heavy launch in February 2018 was the mannequin. The massive rocket successfully launched, and its three first-stage boosters returned to Earth in front of a huge throng at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the largest such gathering since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. The top stage of the Falcon Heavy had a stunning unveiling when the webcast switched back to an in-space view: a mannequin astronaut driving a Tesla Roadster. As the mannequin started its journey around the sun, SpaceX started playing David Bowie's "Starman" on the webcast.
The "astronaut" attracted a lot of worldwide interest; for instance, this reporter heard about it from someone in Mariupol, Ukraine, who wasn't typically interested in space travel. However, it's just one example of the value that longtime SpaceX supporters have received from the webcasts. SpaceX has strategically provided fans with access to staging camera views, high-definition pictures of its rockets during launches and at-sea landings, and a wealth of statistics that they can parse on websites like Twitter and Reddit. In a way, the business is emulating NASA's earlier days, when the agency broadcast open television programs at a time when crewed rocket reliability was far lower than it is today. In reality, during combined Crew Dragon launch endeavors, NASA and SpaceX frequently have conflicting broadcasts. This presents a significant (but entertaining) difficulty as space enthusiasts divide their focus among various social media channels and live streams.
5) A NEW STYLE WAS BROUGHT TO SPACEFLIGHT BY SPACEX
Musk unveiled the long-awaited spacesuits in 2017 that NASA astronauts and other passengers on his spacecraft would wear during upcoming missions. While Musk noted that it was "incredibly hard" to balance aesthetics and function in the spacesuits, people immediately started commenting on its movie-star look. Musk, true to his tradition of breaking news on social media, posted the first images on Instagram. The SpaceX suit was so light that Musk had to reassure his Instagram followers that it was safe to leap into a vacuum chamber while wearing it. The suit was designed by renowned costume designer Jose Fernandez, who worked on blockbuster films like "Wonder Woman," "Wolverine," "Batman vs. Superman," and "Captain America: Civil War," so it wasn't a Hollywood coincidence.
In addition to the customary pressure tests and vacuum chamber tests, SpaceX chose showy occasions to test its spacesuit in orbit. One was used on the dummy Ripley that flew on the unmanned SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-1 test flight to the ISS in 2019, while another was used on Starman who flew on the Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018. Additionally, there are the Crew Dragon's modern controls, which use touchscreens in place of dials and switches. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley had some unique experiences using the Crew Dragon interface while being accustomed to the space shuttle's controls (parts of which date from the 1970s, although much was updated as the program evolved.) Hurley noted during a news conference in May 2020, "As a pilot, my entire career has had a certain approach to managing a vehicle, this is different." However, we approached it with an open mind.
4) SPACEX RAMPED UP ORBITAL SPACE TOURISM
The purpose of Inspiration4 has previously been discussed, but there are additional elements of the orbital space tourism mission that are important to note. The three-day orbit of Earth by the Crew Dragon Resilience and its spacecraft took place at an altitude that has not been surpassed by a human since a Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission in 1999. Inspiration4 saw our world at a height of 367 miles (590 kilometers), which is far higher than what astronauts see from the International Space Station (about 250 miles, or 400 km). Additionally, the crew enjoyed having domed glass as opposed to the tiny portholes that earlier NASA and Soviet astronauts in the 1960s and 1970s had. The dearMoon project, which involves Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa looking for eight crew members to travel with him around the moon in SpaceX's Starship spacecraft, is another area where SpaceX is promoting space tourism. The project first attracted some criticism when Maezawa requested his fiancée join him, but a quick marketing change saw Maezawa request "people from all kinds of backgrounds to join." The project's intended debut date is 2023.
Shortly, Houston-based startup Axiom Space, which has scheduled numerous missions utilizing the Falcon 9-Dragon combination, will use SpaceX to transport paying customers to the International Space Station. Ax-1, the initial of those flights, is slated to take off on March 30. Additionally, SpaceX has a one-of-a-kind opportunity to showcase its capabilities in orbital spaceflight because of Isaacman's Polaris Project. Two SpaceX employees, Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon, who assist in things ranging from crewed spaceflight development to assuming the helm in SpaceX's Voyage Control, will be a part of the first mission with four private astronauts. They have extensive experience in crewed and uncrewed flights. It's still too early to predict how SpaceX will approach the marketing of its astronauts, but given how the company promoted Starman, this may be done with flair. However, given that SpaceX gave Isaacman the go-ahead to promote Inspiration4, it's possible that it was always the plan to give Isaacman the reins for Polaris.
3) SPACEX RETURNED CREWED ORBITAL SPACEFLIGHT TO THE U.S.
NASA supported numerous American space companies, including SpaceX, that were attempting to construct the vehicles' replacements after it decommissioned its space shuttle fleet in 2011. In 2014, NASA's $6.8 billion Commercial Crew Transportation Capability grant was shared between SpaceX and Boeing. NASA had wanted to have both SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsules flying by 2017 at the time of award, but technical and financial challenges caused the schedule to be advanced by several years. The globe was in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic when SpaceX launched its historic Demo-2 test flight in May 2020, sending a Crew Dragon carrying Behnken and Hurley to the International Space Station and giving some optimism and excitement to a captive audience seeking such things.
It was the first crewed orbital liftoff from American soil in nine years, but due to safety precautions related to the pandemic, Florida was spared the normal launch throngs. Nevertheless, the live streams from NASA and SpaceX demonstrated that the spaceship sent Hurley and Behnken to the International Space Station for a two-month stay without a hitch.
Technically speaking, the splashdown on August 2, 2020, the first crewed one for the United States since the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, went well. Unfortunately, boats eager to witness the processes firsthand flocked to the vicinity. Since then, SpaceX has operated multiple operational crewed trips to the International Space Station (ISS) with little complications, in contrast to Boeing's Starliner (NASA and SpaceX have since adjusted their protocols to publicize less accurately where the splashdown will occur). Starliner encountered various difficulties on its unmanned test journey to the orbiting lab in late 2019 and hasn't had the opportunity to venture back into space since. Starliner is most likely not going to launch until at least May 2022 due to several factors, including launch windows, the pandemic, and technological challenges. Crewed flights might not start until around 2023.
As a result, the only route by which NASA astronauts (or space tourists) can now get to orbit from American soil is via Crew Dragon. Before Demo-2 launched and after the space shuttle was retired, NASA was entirely reliant on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to transport its personnel to and from the space station. In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and the subsequent imposition of several international sanctions, relations between NASA and Russia have been tense recently. Although ISS operations are currently routine, NASA is probably sighing with satisfaction that an American crewed orbital capability is in place just in case, the relationship with Russia may deteriorate further.
Additionally, SpaceX might be able to take over some Russian services provided to the ISS, such as periodically bolstering the orbiting complex to prevent drag from Earth's atmosphere from bringing the station back to the earth. (Northrop Grumman's Cygnus cargo spacecraft's current voyage to the ISS, which started in February, will also test out this feature.)
2) SPACEX HELPED REDUCE LAUNCH COSTS
SpaceX bases its cost projections, which are frequently less than those of its rivals, on a reusable rocket and spacecraft technology. For instance, according to NASA's Office of the Inspector General in 2019, the cost of each seat on SpaceX's Crew Dragon is about $55 million, which is about 60% less than the costs of both the Boeing Starliner and the Russian Soyuz. For additional context, consider that SpaceX offers Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches for $62 million and $90 million, respectively, which are significantly less expensive than those of its main rivals. A ride on the Atlas V rocket, a workhorse of United Launch Alliance, would cost a little bit more than $100 million in late 2020, for instance.
According to industry standards, launch customers also pay different sums based on the size of their satellite to board Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy. So, for instance, a fleet of tiny CubeSats from various organizations may typically pay less for their "rideshare" than the owner of the primary satellite, which is riding atop a Falcon 9 on the same launch. Future systems may also benefit from low costs. For instance, it is anticipated that the extremely heavy Starship system will only require $900,000 worth of propellant to reach Earth orbit. In 2019, Musk predicted that operational expenses might be as low as $2 million per flight. If so, Starship will be genuinely revolutionary, lowering the price of space travel.
1) SPACEX IS REUSING ROCKETS AND LANDING BOOSTERS
SpaceX recovers and reuses the first stages of both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which was once an amazing feat of rocket technology and is now taken for granted. The company's capacity to control expenses depends on this kind of reuse. About nine minutes after launch, the returning boosters touch down for gentle vertical landings, either on flat terrain close to the launch pad or on unmanned "drone ships" in the middle of the ocean. Six years after recording its first successful rocket landing on an orbital mission, the business accomplished its 100th rocket landing in December 2021. SpaceX emphasizes that reusable rockets are essential to increasing launch cadence and reducing costs. The company also aims to launch frequently, particularly launching its Starlink constellation.
The upper stages of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets are still discarded after launch, making them only partially reusable at this time. However, the Starship-Super Heavy system will be completely reusable. And it will be amazing to see the Super Heavy landings. "We’re going to try to catch the Super Heavy booster with the launch tower arm, using the grid fins to take the load," Musk said via Twitter on Dec. 30, 2021.
Yes, SpaceX intends to land the enormous Super Heavy right on the launch tower. Musk has already discussed this concept, but the current revision introduces some intriguing design issues. In actuality, Super Heavy won't even be touching down because the tower arm will catch it in midair. This modification would eliminate the requirement for landing legs for Super Heavy. In another tweet on December 30, Musk noted further advantages of this approach, including "saves mass and expense of legs and permits quick repositioning of booster onto launch mount - ready to refly in under an hour".
Musk has emphasized numerous times that the essential innovation required to make the colony of Mars economically viable is reusability. He previously predicted that if Starship development and testing go according to plan, SpaceX might put people on the surface of the Red Planet by 2026. Although the timescale is ambitious, SpaceX's work is still motivated by his long-standing ambition to place boots on Mars.