Space X: All You Need To Know Before Take-Off

Space X

Founded in 2002, SpaceX is the product of multi tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, who is now its CEO and chief designer. Musk has also founded what became PayPal and is also the CEO of Tesla. His company, SpaceX has 6,000 employees and is headquartered in Hawthorne, California. The area has a factory and a launch site in South Texas, including launch facilities at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (where it actually releases its reusable rockets) and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (where they land their reusable rockets) in Florida. Their HQ in Hawthorne, California also has a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

What has grabbed most people’s attention is the fact that SpaceX has changed what we all think about space. 

Their creations consist of reusable rockets that land back on the launch pad. Such products are a thing of wonder, but by now, relatively routine to them. For example, if we take their massive Falcon Heavy rocket, this product recently completed its first commercial mission without a hitch, and Space X is now on the cusp of taking US astronauts up to the International Space Station (ISS).

Add some talk about missions to the moon, and ultimately the colonisation of Mars, and it’s no wonder that SpaceX has been putting wins on the board ever since the company—founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk—became the first privately funded group to put a payload in Earth orbit, in 2008. It is credited with single-handedly reviving humanity’s interest in space exploration. The company has continued to impress, launching unmanned cargo vehicles to the International Space Station (ISS) and winning a contract from NASA to fly astronauts as well, as early as 2017. 

With such heights, Space X also had some setbacks—most disastrously in 2016 when a cargo rocket bound for the ISS exploded en route, costing the crew much-needed supplies and shaking confidence in the company and employees as a whole. On December 21, however, Musk bounced back, premiering a payload of satellites to orbit and then recovering the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, which landed upright, settling itself down under the power of its own engines, just six miles from the Cape Canaveral launch pad. 

The use of recoverable, reusable rocket stages that touch down on dry land have been talked about for decades as a way to keep costs down and speed turnaround times, but no one had been able to do it—until now. With this incredible intro, let’s take off with these facts: 

Space X: Let’s Fly With These Incredible Facts About The Company 

Frequently Asked Questions:   

1. Who is Elon Musk and why is he building rockets?  

Elon Musk (born in 1971) is a South African-born serial entrepreneur (meaning he created multiple products). 

The man has degrees in business and physics from the University of Pennsylvania—and he’s launching rockets because he just kind of wanted to. That’s the short answer, and it’s not much different from the long answer. 

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Most shockingly, Elon Musk has no formal training in rocketry, but he does have an eye for new markets. The entrepreneur made his first fortune as a co-founder of PayPal, and has since founded Tesla Motors (you’ve heard of celebs/rich folks with these electric cars) and SolarCity—a solar energy company. 

In the early 2000s, he and others saw the opening NASA was introducing by retreating from the business of launching spacecraft to low earth orbit. As quickly as he saw the gap, he jumped to found Space Exploration Technologies Corporation—or SpaceX—going into competition with other, generally more-established companies such as Boeing and Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, all within the year 2002. 

2. What Has SpaceX Done That Other Companies Haven’t?  

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation—or SpaceX earned its first big headline in 2010, when it became the first private company to release a payload into orbit and return it to Earth intact—something only governmental organizationns like NASA or Russia’s Roscosmos had done before. 

Its upright landing and recovery of the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on Dec. 21 2015, was another first. 

Blue Origin, a product of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, launched a rocket to the edge of space and landed it upright earlier this year, but it was a demonstration flight and did not achieve orbit.  

3. Are SpaceX Rockets Special?  

Progress in rocketry is a slowly increasing process. The basic science of liquid-fueled rockets hasn’t altered much since the days of Robert Goddard. And solid fueled rockets—well, they go back atleast a millennia. Most advancements are made at the margins, and Musk is doing well there. 

Space X’s rockets are modular: the Falcon is a single engine model; the Falcon 9—no surprise here—has nine; the Falcon Heavy, which has yet to fly, will have 27, in three clusters of nine engines. 

This streamlines mass production in the same way that engineering different car bodies atop similar chassis helps keep expenses down for car manufacturers. Roughly 80% of the parts in any SpaceX rocket are built on the company’s own factory floor, reducing the price of outsourcing. 

This keeps the cost per pound of payload down and quality control in house. One study, by NASA and the Air Force, estimated that the cost for going from the initial design stages of the Falcon 9 rocket to its first flight was $440 million, about a third of what it would have cost NASA – which is why businessmen have found success in fields outside what they studied like rocket science. 

4. How Close Is SpaceX To Flying A Crew? 

Very close—hopefully. 

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation—or SpaceX has used its Dragon spacecraft to make uncrewed cargo runs to the ISS. 

Their product the Dragon was designed with crew compatibility in mind, which means the ship has already proven its basic space worthiness, though it has a good way to go before its life support systems are similarly proven. 

SpaceX and Boeing are both planning to begin crewed runs to the ISS in 2017, and NASA has already created the first astronauts who will fly in the new ships. 

The 2017 target could slip and the June explosion of one of SpaceX’s cargo rockets during launch was hardly good news for Elon Musk, his employees, and investors. The recent release of the Falcon 9, even without the upright first-stage landing, was a confidence booster. But with astronaut lives at heavy risk  in future flights, the company and its body of builders will have to put a string of good launches together to make up for that very bad one.  

5. Where is SpaceX’s Mission Control?  

You know the kitchen area in your office, where you microwave your coffee and reheat your lunch? And you know that area next to the kitchen where people gather to gossip and avoid going back to their desks? 

Well, the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California has a better kitchen because, at SpaceX the employees use that place to launch rockets. Really. 

As one can imagine, the SpaceX facility is a sprawling, one-floor industrial plant that was originally a factory for Boeing aircraft fuselage. SpaceX took it over, rebranded it and repurposed into an all-in-one spaceport. Thousands of square feet are given over to cubicles—almost no one at SpaceX, including Musk, has an office with doors. 

Adjacent to that is the factory floor and the “launchpad” kitchen. And adjacent to that, behind a high glass wall, is mission control – unbelievable, right? Employees can gather to watch launches and recoveries, then go back to their lathes or computers or desks. It’s very Silicon Valley only way more dangerous and exciting at the same time! 

6. What Is The Dragon Spacecraft Like?  

Picture a 21st century Apollo spacecraft. 

After the troubled history of the space shuttle—including the loss of two seven-person crews—and the rocket exploding to bits, SpaceX and most other rocket companies have returned to the old model of the upright rocket with the crew perched on top of the stack. 

The Dragon is configurable to seat up to seven people, but it can and usually will carry fewer. The escape rockets, which are used to pull the ship away from the booster in the event of a fire or possible explosion, are not mounted in a tower above the capsule, as they were in the Apollo and Mercury days. Instead they are built into its base, pushing the capsule away, instead of pulling it. This helps the Dragon achieve one of its other goals: reusability. The spacecraft and escape system are not simply thrown away after use but could instead be cleaned up, checked out and configured for another flight.  

7. Is SpaceX Profitable?  

It’s not easy to say since the company is privately held, which means its books aren’t open for inspection. 

The belief among most financial analysts, however, is that SpaceX must, by now, be making money. 

Looking at its networth, it has $4.2 billion in contracts from NASA alone and its recent success in cracking the defense contract business—breaking the monopoly United Launch Alliance enjoyed with the military—means more revenue. 

All of this is on top of its contracts for private satellite launches, giving it 60 launches over all on its manifest, amassing a worth of about $7 billion. That’s a lot for a company whose main selling point is that it can launch satellites for about a third of the cost the older companies do, clearing a lot of cap room for profits. There is much speculation over when and if Musk will go public (although there are publicly traded space stocks for investors to consider) and there is much hope on Wall Street that he will. SpaceX’s reputation and image is partly sizzle, yes, and there is no guarantee it will be a big moneymaker over the long term. 

8. Why Are Rockets Still So Failure Prone Despite Decades of Production?  

Let’s ask why they fly at all. 

Imagine a rocket as an egg or, more specifically, an egg shell. Think of the fuel as the white and the yolk. The Saturn V, the largest rocket ever built, weighed 6.5 million lbs. during the time of its release and 5.5 million of that weight was fuel. That’s basically a bomb, one that’s designed to perform a controlled explosion. 

The forces in play when a rocket is lit—in terms of chemistry, physics, speed and air resistance—can be colossally destructive. It’s only by controlling them to within extremely narrow tolerances that any launch is successful. The SpaceX explosion in June 2016 is believed to have been caused by a faulty strut in the rocket’s second stage, which allowed a high-pressure container of helium to break free, sending it smashing through a nearby tank of liquid oxygen. 

The company stated that the result was an “overpressure event,” which basically means everything blew up. It’s true that these things inevitably happen in the space game. But it’s equally true that you don’t get to stay in that game if you can’t minimize those risks.  

9. Who Are Musk’s Main Competitors?  

He has a lot of them. Boeing, which is building its CST-100 spacecraft to fly crewed ISS missions along with Musk’s Dragon, is a key rival. So is Orbital Sciences, the company that shares the ISS cargo-run contract with SpaceX. United Launch Alliance (ULA) is a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and Musk is at war with it for a piece of the defense launching business. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is a marginal player, planning to sell only suborbital rides for vacationers with deep pockets. Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace similarly wants to play in the space vacation sector, but here too, actual flights are still nowhere near imminent. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin sees itself as a big player, and its recent upright landing of a suborbital spacecraft put it in the game. But Blue Origin too has a long way to go before it is actually flying passengers or payloads.  

10. What Are Musk’s Ultimate Goals?  

Becoming the Apple of the rocket business is one way of looking at it, though Musk demurs on that analogy without demurring on the idea of assuming a similarly dominant role in the space sector. His biggest, dreamiest target is sending people to Mars—which does not make him unusual unless he can actually achieve it. He boasts that he could fly human passengers there for as little as $500,000 per seat, but in this case he may be over-promising. The laws of economics might be even harder to overcome than the laws of physics, and neither has been cracked sufficiently yet to make a Mars mission achievable. As for whether Musk himself would go? “I would like to go to space, but I have to forgo that,” he told TIME in 2012, citing his five sons and multiple companies. “I have to be careful with personal risks.”

What are SpaceX’s long-term goals?

Now that we know what Elon’s ultimate goals are, what about his company? The colonization of Mars is SpaceX’s long-term goals. 

How does one company help achieve that goal? By vastly reducing space transportation costs, that’s how. Cue a 15 year+ project to create a reusable rocket launch system where the physical first stage of the rocket lands back on the launchpad once the payload has been jettisoned into orbit.

Musk believes that reusability is the key to making human life multi-planetary, which is necessary for our species because Earth could be struck by an asteroid, or become uninhabitable after a third world war. Musk thinks we need a backup plan, and his idea is to create a self-sustaining colony of a million people on Mars in the next 40 to 100 years.

However, the basic ‘land a first stage rocket booster and use it again’ part of the equation, though astounding in itself, was achieved 6 years back in December 2015. Since then, SpaceX has been attempting to make more components recoverable and reusable, and much more often. It’s now created a first stage that can be reused up to 10 times. Next up: the second stage.

All this is for Mars. “It’s important to get a self-sustaining base on Mars because it’s far enough away from Earth that it’s more likely to survive [after a massive war] than a moon base,” said Musk at SXSW 2018.

“I’ve said I want to die on Mars, just not on impact,” he once stated, though whether he  will achieve his wish remains to be seen.

Does SpaceX work with NASA?

Yes, SpaceX does work with NASA, in fact in April 2019, NASA confirmed that it would pay $69 million (about £53 million, AU$97 million) to SpaceX. 

The payment was made to smash a Falcon 9 rocket into an asteroid as part of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission in 2022.

Crazy space projects aside, the US national space organization and SpaceX have been working together closely for more than a decade. SpaceX has held NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts since 2008, and has amassed over $1.6 billion (about £1.2 billion, AU$2.2 billion) by taking cargo up to the ISS from US soil in its Dragon capsules launched atop Falcon 9 rockets. These flights started in December 2010 and are ongoing.

However, that’s not where the lion’s share of its funds come from. SpaceX has earned over $12 billion (about £9 billion, AU$17 billion) taking large satellites and military payloads into orbit, and has conducted over 100 launches, including a record-breaking 19 launches in 2018.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 reusable rocket

Blue Origin’s reusable rockets are not to be confused with those of SpaceX. While Blue Origin’s New Shepherd rocket lands back on the launchpad, it’s merely a sub-orbital rocket. The SpaceX Falcon 9 (and the Falcon Heavy, see below) is orbital-class, and regularly takes satellites and cargo into orbit. Soon it could take astronauts. Each Falcon 9 costs $62 million (about £48 million, AU$87 million). 

The SpaceX Crew Dragon reusable capsule

SpaceX won’t accomplish what Musk wants until it can prove it’s capable of carrying astronauts safely into orbit and back. That’s what (along with Boeing) is contracted to do by NASA, which has been tasked with ending its reliance on Russia for taking astronauts to the International Space Station (which has been the case since 2011, when the last space shuttle was retired).

As part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program, SpaceX has developed an astronaut-friendly version of its Dragon 2 capsule – which has already visited the ISS as an unmanned cargo-carrier – called Crew Dragon.

Designed to carry six or seven astronauts, Crew Dragon is an ultramodern version of the old Apollo capsules. A successful Crew Dragon flight test called the SpX-DM-1 mission took place on 2 March, 2019, when Crew Dragon was released on a Falcon 9 rocket. It successfully docked with the ISS, then returned to Earth. Next up, scheduled for July 2019, is SpX-DM-2, when two ex-Space Shuttle astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, will be inside Crew Dragon for a 14-day journey to the ISS and back. However, an unexplained explosion during Crew Dragon testing in April 2019 might delay things.

For now, Crew Dragon has to land on water and be recovered by ship, much like those Apollo capsules. In the future expect to see a redesigned version of Crew Dragon that lands back on the launchpad.

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy reusable rocket

If you thought the reusable Falcon 9 rocket was impressive, try viewing three of them land at once. That’s what happens with Falcon Heavy, SpaceX’s biggest launch system, and the world’s most powerful operational rocket by a factor of two. The Arabsat-6A mission on April 11, 2019, witnessed the first commercial use of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which was tested for the first time on February 6, 2018, when it took Musk’s Tesla Roadster and a dummy astronaut called ‘Starman’ into an Earth-Mars orbit.

With a maximum thrust of 2550 tons, the Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9 boosters. The two side-boosters come back to land simultaneously on the launchpad about 10 minutes after release, while the central core lands on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean a few minutes later. It’s quite a show to witness. Each Falcon Heavy costs $90 million (about £69 million, AU$126 million).

SpaceX and space tourism

Although having the most high profile name in the space industry, and arguably also in space tourism (despite never having actually done any space tourism trips), SpaceX isn’t actually focused on tourism in the normal sense. 

They are not interested in taking normal folk into space even though they occasionally mention bizarre-sounding missions to the moon and Mars for private citizens, but only because the company is now laser-focused on developing a larger and cripplingly expensive rocket called Super Heavy. 

If anyone wants to pay huge sums of money to help test that rocket, SpaceX will happily take the money and send you out of the Earth. 

SpaceX and orbital space tourism

Want to experience and physically see the curvature of Earth for a few minutes, and experience weightlessness, before returning to Earth? 

Well, look elsewhere because SpaceX has only orbital release systems and any future space tourism offering from the company will involve Crew Dragon, long missions, and astronomically expensive price tags. 

Orbital trips are very much the second phase of space tourism; Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are only capable of taking people to the edge of space, not into orbit.

In today’s growing space industry SpaceX is therefore likely to be about one-off and extremely expensive private orbital and/or lunar expeditions rather than space tourism. 

However, if the Bigelow Aerospace Private Space Station releases in 2021 then there will at least be somewhere for SpaceX to take space tourists to (NASA is not keen on having regular people stay on the ISS). Until then, there’s only one other place for SpaceX to potentially take space explorers … around the moon and back again (which is still a tough ask)! 

SpaceX and lunar tourism

Back in 2017 Japanese online fashion billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa wanted to reenact Apollo 8’s dramatic first-ever mission to orbit the moon 50 years after that historic mission in December 1968. For this “mission” to work, that would have meant using a Falcon Heavy rocket. However, his project or “mission” was cancelled early in 2018 so Maezawa could wait for SpaceX to develop a bigger rocket now called Super Heavy.

What we got from this interesting story is that when that’s ready, Maezawa and six artists (and probably a few astronauts) want to fly around the moon in 2023 – yikes, just 2 years from today! The Dear Moon mission will last six days. However, it does require SpaceX to build a new rocket and spacecraft, which is still a challenge in today’s growing space industry.

SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy

Formerly known as the Big Falcon Spaceship (BFS), and Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), Starship and a 387-foot rocket named Super Heavy is a reusable launch system that SpaceX is now working to build. 

Ultimately this spectacular ship is designed to carry 100 tons of cargo and between 100 and 200 passengers to the moon and Mars.

From reusable rockets (which is their USP) and a busy schedule of commercial satellite launches to taking NASA astronauts to space and, eventually, creating interplanetary transport, it’s fair to say that Elon Musk’s plans for SpaceX are beyond-ambitious. 

So far, we’ve got no reason to doubt his determination, and SpaceX is, for now, the most exciting company, making all our movie realities about the future come true! Here’s looking at you 2030! 

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