Who would have thought in March 2002, when Elon Musk created SpaceX, that the small startup would become a key player in space exploration 20 years later?
Here is a spotlight on the 20 years of the meteoric rise of an aerospace company that started from nothing and which in two decades has become a reference in the space field.
It was therefore on March 14, 2002 that Elon Musk announced the creation of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX. The billionaire, who had made a fortune with his company Paypal, believed that NASA lacked ambition and that the costs of a launch were high. For this 31-year-old engineer, it was possible to do better for less. But he wants to be more ambitious than that. It lists the colonization of Mars where a million people would live as SpaceX’s main objective.
Reduce costs with Falcon
Initially, he set up a small team responsible for developing the means of access to space. He relies on reusability, lightness and simplicity to reduce the costs of launching the rockets he calls Falcon. He will apply the same method for Dragon supply freighters, Crew Dragon manned ships and his Super Heavy/Starship vehicle.
On March 24, 2006, SpaceX launched its Falcon 1 rocket for the first time. The inaugural mission ended in failure after a few seconds. Two other disappointments will follow thereafter, undermining the credibility of SpaceX’s ambitions. However, repeated failures do not weaken Elon Musk’s determination to succeed.
After three successive failures, Falcon 1 manages to place a satellite in orbit in September 2008. It is exactly during this year 2008 that things will accelerate for SpaceX. At the same time, it is continuing the development of Falcon 9, which should become the spearhead of the company. The same year, NASA entrusted him with part of the logistics of the international space station. It signs a $1.6 billion contract with the space agency for 12 ISS supply missions starting in 2010. This contract will be extended a few years later.
Falcon 9 was successfully commissioned in June 2010. Over the years, SpaceX engineers will improve the rocket’s performance, taking it from 4 tons in geostationary transfer orbit in 2010 to 8.3 tons in the same orbit in 2018.
To reduce launch costs, SpaceX relies on the partial reusability of its rocket. After several unsuccessful attempts, the company managed to recover a Falcon 9 first stage which landed smoothly at Cape Canaveral in December 2015. But it was not until March 2017 that the recovered stages were reused for other launches. The headdress is also reused for other missions. Today, SpaceX is able to offer a launch on Falcon 9 for an amount of $62 million, a price that defies all competition.
If Falcon 9 is the most used launcher in the range, it is not the only one. In 2018, SpaceX introduced the heavy version, dubbed Falcon Heavy. Consisting of a Falcon 9 equipped with a triple first stage, it is capable of sending up to 64 tonnes into low orbit for $90 million. By way of comparison, Ariane 5 can only launch 21 tonnes for $150 million.
Reliable, powerful, reusable, inexpensive and with a high launch rate, Falcon 9 has become a reference in terms of space transport. Some players in the astronautics field would like to follow suit, such as CNES, Rocketlab and Blue Origin, by offering reusable launchers.
Over the years, trust between NASA and SpaceX has grown as shown by the share of missions entrusted to the private company, which has increased. SpaceX launches satellites on behalf of the space agency and performs logistics missions to the space station. But not only ! Since 2020, it has been transporting astronauts to the space station as part of the Commercial Crew Development program. The same year, it was chosen to supply the Moon landing system for the Artemis program. In 2021, Falcon Heavy is designated to launch several modules of the future Gateway lunar space station. Although justified at the time they are taken, these choices make the competition jealous and in the first place Jeff Bezos, the boss of Blue Origin. The latter has tried on several occasions to have certain decisions of the space agency overturned by appealing to the courts. Justice who dismissed him at each of the attempts.
And Mars in all this? SpaceX does not forget it. Since 2018, it has been developing a gigantic rocket called Super Heavy. Coupled with the Starship spacecraft, it will be able to transport more than 100 tons into low orbit. To meet the needs of the program, SpaceX is building a base in Boca Chica, Texas from where various prototypes are tested. At present, only the atmospheric versions have been able to take flight there. But soon, when the FAA gives its clearance, it will become an alternative launch pad at Cape Canaveral. From there will leave the cargo versions and the manned versions of the Starship which will first colonize the Moon and then the planet Mars.
SpaceX is also Starlink. In 2019, the company launched into very high-speed internet thanks to a constellation of small satellites. Setting up this network will require several dozen Falcon rocket launches. On its own, Starlink will have twice as many devices as all the satellites launched since Sputnik in 1957!
From space conquest to space exploration
In March 2002, a billionaire embarked on the space adventure, seeking to shake up mentalities and put an end to “dad’s space conquest”. Twenty years later, the largest space agency naturally turns to him to realize its most ambitious projects. Today, the private sector has taken an active part in the world of space and it is largely thanks to the successes garnered by SpaceX.
In 20 years, SpaceX has succeeded in dusting off received ideas that still predominated in the space sector at the start of the 21st century. Today, mentalities have changed and certain barriers have been broken down, making possible what was not possible 20 years ago.