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SpaceX Simplified: A Quick Guide to Elon Musk’s Space Company

SpaceX, the rocket company founded by tech billionaire Elon Musk, was created with the mission of taking humans to Mars. Almost two decades later, it has already been taken NASA astronauts move in orbit and achieved plenty of other milestones along the way.


Elon Musk caught on film by National Geographic during the Falcon Heavy launch.

Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser / CNET

If you have difficulty keeping up with SpaceX̵

7;s plans to replace international flights with orbital rocket travel, make a global broadband network and develop a Mars rocket, so do not despair. We created this SpaceX primer so you can get up quickly.

How SpaceX started

In 2002, Musk and friends traveled to Russia to purchase a refurbished intercontinental ballistic missile. The prodigy in Silicon Valley, who made millions on Internet startups, was not looking to start a business at the time. He would spend a large portion, or perhaps his entire fortune, on a stunt he hoped would revive interest in funding NASA and space exploration.

The idea was to buy a Russian rocket on the cheap and use it to send plants or mice to Mars – and hopefully bring them back as well. Ideally, the play would get the world excited about space again. But Musk’s Moscow meeting did not go well, and he decided that he could build rockets himself and calculate that during the process he could sign existing launch contractors. SpaceX was founded just a few months later.

What is a Falcon 9 Rocket?

Musk originally hoped to get to Mars by 2010, but it was just six years to get a rocket into orbit. ONE SpaceX Falcon 1 orbited the earth for the first time on September 28, 2008. This paved the way for a nine-engine version of the rocket, the Falcon 9, the company’s workhorse since its first launch in 2010.

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Falcon 9 is a two-stage orbital rocket that has been used to launch satellites to companies and governments, supply the International Space Station and even send The US Air Force’s top secret spacecraft on his mysterious long missions. Over the past nine years, the company has flown more than 80 Falcon 9 missions.

What really sets the Falcon 9 apart from the competition is its unprecedented ability to send a payload into orbit and then get its first stage back to Earth, landing either on solid ground or on a floating droneship landing site at sea, another SpaceX innovation. After a couple of explosive failed attempts, a Falcon 9 finally landed safely on December 22, 2015, and a few months later, another touched a drone ship for the first time. Several recovered Falcon 9 rockets have since flown and landed again.

On May 11, 2018, SpaceX launched its first Block 5 Falcon 9 rocket, the “final version” designed to be reused up to 100 times with periodic renovations. In 2020, we saw several Falcon 9 boosters launch and land for the seventh time in their individual careers. Reusing the nose cone several times also becomes routine practice.

A kite flying

SpaceX’s Dragon craft has been used to transport goods to the International Space Station, and on May 31, 2020, its crew dragon made history as the first commercial spaceship to send astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS. The Dragon was also the first commercial spacecraft to be recovered after a trip from orbit.

NASA chose Crew Dragon along with Boeing’s Starliner to be the first spacecraft to carry astronauts to the ISS since the end of the shuttle program. The initiative suffered a setback in April 2019, when a vacancy Crew Dragon exploded during a test on Earth due to a leak in the pressure system.

But the first flight of Crew Dragon with people on board was a success. Hurley and Behnken then rode the dragon back to the ground a few months later, and another group of four astronauts, including one from Japan’s JAXA, took the second trip into orbit around a crew dragon in November 2020.

Falcon Heavy lift

SpaceX caught a lot of attention in February 2018 when it launched Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket launched from the United States since Saturn V sent astronauts to the moon. Basically, three Falcon 9 rockets sent together, the huge launch system sent a test payload consisting of Musk’s personal red Tesla Roadster in the direction of Mars. Two of the three Falcon 9s that made up the Falcon Heavy also landed almost simultaneously in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

More than 15 years after his first trip to Moscow, Musk finally pulled the international spectacle he had conceived in 2001, and he has also built a viable business in the process.

The second launch of the Falcon Heavy came on April 11, 2019 and was followed by the first successful landing of all three first-stage rocket cores. A third Falcon Heavy launch was completed on June 25, 2019, and SpaceX took recyclability a step further capture payload fairing (the nose cone that protects the payload during launch) using a ship equipped with a giant net.

As for Starman, he finally made one close pass of Mars in October 2020

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How to follow Falcon flights

You can watch each Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch through the company’s website and YouTube channel. Quite a few of them are also worn on CNET Highlights. Each broadcast typically goes live approx. 15 minutes before the scheduled launch time.

To keep up with the constantly changing launch schedule, the best source is the SpaceX Twitter feed. It’s also a good idea to follow Musk’s account if you are not already doing so. You can also check out our own feed of SpaceX stories to quickly get up to speed with what your business is up to.

Starship to the Moon and Mars

SpaceX plans to use Falcon Heavy to launch some large payloads in the coming months, but it is already working on an even larger rocket called Starship (formerly referred to as BFR, Big Falcon Rocket or Big F *** ing Rocket). Musk hopes that this even more massive rocket will be able to transport goods and eventually human passengers around the world and the solar system. He envisions using Starship to ferry people on superfast international flights via space and finally to bases not yet built on the moon, Mars and beyond.

A single engine Starship prototype called Starhopper left Earth for the first time on July 25, 2019 hovering about 20 meters (66 feet) from the ground before landing a short distance away at SpaceX’s test facility in South Texas. This was followed by a few more hops in late 2019 and mid-2020.

The first high-altitude flight of a prototype that actually resembles a rocket arrived on December 10, 2020. The SN8 prototype flew successfully to an altitude equal to the cross-altitude of commercial jets and then performed a new flip maneuver to enter landing. However, it came in a bit quickly and the flight ended in a spectacular explosion. We expect to see a few more of these high-flying tests in 2021 with the goal of getting that landing down and also reaching orbit soon.

The SpaceX SN8 flew high and landed hard.

SpaceX / CNET video recording of Jackson Ryan

Musk presented his plans for a major city on Mars at two international aviation congressional meetings, but he has not yet given many details about what life on the red planet would be like. He said SpaceX is primarily interested in providing the transport while allowing others to worry about the infrastructure. However, company president Gwynne Shotwell said it could make sense for SpaceX’s sister company, The boring company, to drill tunnels on Mars that could be used for human habitation.

Paul Wooster, the company’s lead engineer for its Mars plan, said at the 2018 Mars Society conference that first humans sent to the red planet would live on the landed spaceship indefinitely while building housing, landing pads and other initial infrastructure.

Attractions on Starlink

SpaceX is not just working on getting things out into space. It has also begun to operate in space to bring the universe to us. In May 2019, the company became launched a first batch of 60 small satellites designed to lead to a massive constellation of broadband satellites. The plan, baptized Starlink will use up to 42,000 satellites in low-ground orbit to carpet the globe with high-speed Internet access. The company says the service could generate a new stream of revenue to help fund its expensive Mars ambitions.

Another batch of 50 satellites was launched six months later with more to follow in relatively rapid succession. The scope of the project has some astronomers worried that a sky filled with thousands of satellites could disrupt their observations. The trains from newly launched satellites are easily visible from the ground when they gain height. SpaceX says it plans to work with astronomers and take steps to mitigate Starlink’s influence on astronomy, including launching satellites with an umbrella called “visor set” to reduce their reflectivity.

As the company worked towards its first 1,000 Starlink satellites launched, it became launched a beta of its broadband service in the last quarter of 2020 limited to northern latitudes. The roll-out is expected to be expanded in 2021.

What’s next?

Since its inception, SpaceX has sought to reach Mars, but the company is involved in non-space-related projects on Earth as high-speed Hyperloop transit concept. Musk’s Boring company tunnel digging and traffic mitigation projects also operate largely out of SpaceX’s headquarters in Southern California.

Unlike the other major Musk company, Tesla Motors, SpaceX is not listed. Musk has said he does not plan to release SpaceX until the company realizes its Mars ambitions. This means that SpaceX might make sense as the home of other future musical side projects like Hyperloop and the Boring Company in the meantime.

Originally released June 2, 2018 and updated as new SpaceX developments come in.

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