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SpaceX

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX, is a privately held rocket and spacecraft company founded in 2002 by CEO and lead designer Elon Musk, who is also a co-founder and product developer of Tesla Inc. SpaceX has been a disruptive force in the worldwide launch industry because its launch services are less expensive than many of its competitors. The company is wholly owned by management and its employees and has more than 5,000 employees.

SpaceX has close ties with NASA, including a $1.6 billion agreement to deliver cargo supplies to the International Space Station and a $2.6 billion commercial contract with the agency to provide passenger services to United States astronauts. NASA has experienced budgets cuts in recent years, so the space agency has increasingly relied on resources from SpaceX, Blue Origin and other private firms. SpaceX has been able to lower the cost of space travel, largely by manufacturing some of its own parts and making rockets reusable rather than discarding them at take-off. 

In its more-than-15-year history, SpaceX has reached many milestones:

  • In 2008, Falcon 1 became the first privately developed liquid fuel rocket to reach Earth orbit.
  • In 2009, Falcon 1 Flight 5 became the first privately developed liquid fuel rocket to deliver a commercial satellite to Earth orbit.
  • In 2010, Falcon 9 had its first flight and met all or its mission objectives. Also that year, Dragon became the first privately developed spacecraft to re-enter from low-Earth orbit.
  • In 2012, Dragon became the first private spacecraft to bring cargo to and from the International Space Station. (Dragon has since provided regular resupply missions for NASA.)
  • In 2013, the Grasshopper program finished with a 744m flight, hover and landing. Also in 2013, the first flight of Falcon 9 reached geosynchronous transfer orbit, a high Earth orbit that allows satellites to match the Earth’s rotation.
  • In 2014, the first stage of Falcon 9 successfully landed in the Atlantic Ocean. Also that year, Falcon 9’s reusable test vehicle flew 1,000m and landed safely.
  • NASA in 2014 awarded SpaceX a contract to fly American astronauts.
  • SpaceX’s 2015 launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a deep-space weather satellite, marked the company’s first operation outside of Earth’s orbit. That year, SpaceX also began first-stage landing attempts on an autonomous spaceport drone ship, and the company’s Crew Dragon tested a launch-abort system designed to provide astronauts with escape capability all the way to orbit. Also in 2015, the Falcon 9 rocket delivered 11 communications satellites to orbit, and the first stage returned and landed at Landing Zone 1 -– the first orbital-class rocket landing.
  • In 2016, the Falcon 9 rocket launched the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, and the first stage returned and landed on the "Of Course I Still Love You" drone ship.
  • In 2017, SpaceX achieved the world's first re-flight of an orbital-class rocket. After the delivery of the payload, the Falcon 9 first stage returned to Earth for the second time. Also that year, the Dragon resupply mission represented the first re-flight of a commercial spacecraft to and from the International Space Station.
  • In 2018, SpaceX successfully test-launched Falcon Heavy and then flew two of its spent boosters back to the Florida coast for a recovery on land. Falcon Heavy has three boosters and 27 Merlin engines, and its 5 million pounds of thrust are the most since the Saturn V used for Apollo moon missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. SpaceX developed Falcon Heavy without government funding, Also in 2018, the Air Force divided $640 million in contracts between SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed-Martin; under the contracts, SpaceX will launch three GPS satellites into orbit on Falcon 9 rockets, while United Launch Alliance will provide two launches of Air Force spacecraft on workhorse Atlas V rockets.
  • SpaceX’s plans include a massive rocket, called a BFR (Big 'Falcon' Rocket) which would have a thrust of more than 11 million pounds of thrust at liftoff—more than double that of Falcon Heavy. With the BFR, SpaceX aims to establish a permanent, self-sustaining human outpost on Mars. In September 2017, SpaceX released a plan in which the BFR would send cargo to Mars by 2022 and people to the planet by 2024.

Despite SpaceX’s accomplishments and lofty goals, the company faces challenges, for example, parts manufacturers asking higher-than-agreed-upon prices, the need to build inventory fast enough to meet client demands, some cash shortages, two explosions at launch facilities, and some launch delays and other missed deadlines. Despite the risks, SpaceX has the attention of investors and a valuation of $25 billion as of this writing.

This was last updated in May 2018

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