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Space Exploration Technologies Corporation aka SpaceX

How could Astra ever resist talking about SpaceX and Elon Musk who plans to build a giant Starship to start colonizing Mars? SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk with the goal of reducing space transportation costs to enable the colonization of Mars. SpaceX recently moved its HQ in Hawthorne, CA to Texas. Elon got rocket engineer Tom Mueller to join his team, and many others including current SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer, Gwenne Shotwell.

Elon Musk and SpaceX have accomplished many great things in space development. Indeed, the progress toward Elon's stated goal of sending a mission to Mars continues to move forward. Starting in 2005, SpaceX began developing the Falcon rocket. To cut the cost of launching payloads, the Falcon rocket was intended to be reusable early in its development.

On September 15, 2021, the Inspiration 4 civilian mission was launched on a Falcon 9 rocket. The crew spent 3 days in space, orbiting the Earth in SpaceX's Crew Dragon. Read about Inspiration 4 mission on Astra's Citizens in Space page.

Falcon the Reusable Rocket

Falcon 1 launch from Omelek Island

SpaceX developed the first privately funded liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit, the Falcon 1. The name was derived from the Star War's fictional spacecraft, the Millenium Falcon and the number of rocket engines. Because it had 1 Merlin engine, the first iteration of the Falcon rocket was the Falcon 1. After 3 failures, the rocket was launched on September 28, 2008 from Omelek Island part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The Falcon 1's first stage completed its burn 2.5 minutes after liftoff. The first stage booster separated from the rocket 5 seconds later. The second stage engine fired, putting the rocket into a circular orbit about 400 miles up. It released a dummy payload called, "Ratsat", weighing in at 364 pounds. SpaceX became the first private company to successfully launch and orbit a rocket.

Falcon 1 was 70 feet tall and capable of lifting 670 kilograms (1,480 lbs.) to low Earth orbit. It weighed 61,000 pounds, and delivered 78,000 pounds of thrust. SpaceX was the first privately developed liquid-fueled rocket to put a commercial satellite in orbit, launching RazakSAT on a Falcon 1 on July 14, 2009. This feat was followed up by the first launch of a satellite into geosynchronous orbit (SES-8) by a commercial entity on December 3, 2013.

At first, SpaceX was set to develop Falcon 5 that used 5 engines, but instead they proceeded to develop the Falcon 9 that uses 9 engines. On June 4, 2010, SpaceX successfully launched the Falcon 9 v1.0 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. The rocket was 227-feet high and capable of generating 1,125,000 pounds of thrust at sea level and 1,250,000 pounds of thrust in the vacuum of space. Originally the rocket was to be launched on the 3rd, but a rainstorm dropped 3 inches of water on June 3. The SpaceX team had to take action! A team member climbed to the top of the rocket, discovering that water had entered the rocket's electronics. Using a hair dryer, the electronics and antennas were dried out and the compartment resealed.

From the very beginning Elon Musk wanted to decrease the cost of launching payloads into space by reusing the rocket's hardware. In future flights the first stage would be retrieved from the Ocean, landing smartly on a platform. (The first landing of Falcon 9 on December 2015 touched down on land.)

Merlin Engine

The Falcon rocket is powered by SpaceX Merlin engines, that use RP-1 and liquid oxygen as propellants in a gas-generator power cycle. From the first, the Merlin engine was designed for sea recovery and reuse. The first version of the engine, Merlin 1A, used a carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer composite nozzle, and could produce 376,000 lbs. of thrust. It successfully flew only once on March 21, 2007. The next version, the Merlin 1B, was never flown. The Merlin 1C was a significant improvement over the earlier versions. There were 3 different versions of the Merlin 1C engine. The first was used for the Falcon 1 rocket's first stage, but the second stage used the SpaceX Kestral engines for use in the vacuum of space. The Kestral is no longer in production. The third version of Merlin 1C works in a vacuum on the Falcon 9 second stage.

Grasshopper

Grasshopper was a rocket prototype that SpaceX used to test and develop their reusable rocket technology. For 2 years, SpaceX launched the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket at its test facility in McGregor, Texas. During the first test flight on September 21, 2012, Grasshopper made a mere six-foot hop. Subsequent launches used progressively higher hops and executed controlled landings until SpaceX achieved pinpoint accuracy to land their rockets. The goal was to land the Falcon 9 and reuse it for future launches, reducing the cost of transportation to space.

For each hop, SpaceX studied grasshopper rocket flights with surveillance aircraft, gathering data and developing their systems. Using the various hop tests, SpaceX developed its ability to fly back against wind gusts, move sideways in the air, and reach the target. Navigational sensors enabled the precision landings. The 4 steel legs, hydraulic dampers, and support structures had to withstand the stress of landing. Grasshopper landed on solid ground while the Falcon 9 rocket had to land on a floating platform. By April 2014, Grasshopper was rising 820 feet or 250 meters and making better landings.

On August 14, 2013, Grasshopper rose 820 feet executed a 328-foot lateral movement, returning to the pad. During the last flight on October 13, 2013, Grasshopper rose 2,441 feet and landed smartly back down on the pad, about 79 seconds later. The tests on Grasshopper stopped so that SpaceX could concentrate on Falcon 9 development.

Falcon 9 was the first launch vehicle to reach orbit trajectory and vertically-land the first stage, recovering the rocket and engines successfully. Falcon 9 Full Thrust first launched in December 2015 and had flown 83 times by December 2020. In 2017, SpaceX reused its first-stage booster and also successfully recovered it.

Although SpaceX was not the first aerospace organization to work toward reusable rockets, they are arguably the most successful to date.

Recovering the Falcon Rockets - Reusability!

The first flight of Falcon 9 with a successful first-stage recovery was launched on December 21, 2015. The first stage landed at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in landing zone 1. The era of rocket re-usability had begun.

The Falcon 9 first stages are recovered after launch by droneships on the ocean. The droneships are named "Just Read the Instructions" and "Of Course I Still Love You". The image below shows the recovery drone in the Pacific Ocean. This was the 15th successful landing of a Falcon 9 first stage in 40 liftoffs, and the ninth one that land on a ship.

Of Course I Still Love You
SpaceX's Of Course I Still Love You recovery ship

Recently SpaceX's failed to recover a first stage of Falcon 9 after launching its own Starlink internet communication satellite. This was the first landing failure since March 2020. At that time SpaceX had a string of 24 successful Falcon 9 first stage recoveries. This is a testimony to the level of success the organization has achieved toward reusability.

In July 2021, SpaceX launched a new drone recovery ship, A Shortfall of Gravitas, that will be operating in the Atlantic Ocean. This new ship should help SpaceX keep up with its robust launch schedule.

Falcon 9 in the hangar
Falcon 9 in the Hanger

SpaceX Falcon Heavy

SpaceX and Elon Musk could not stop after the success of Falcon. SpaceX continued upscaling by developing the Falcon Heavy. The core of Falcon Heavy is a beefed up version of the Falcon rocket that carrys the payload in its fairing. Two additional Falcon Rockets are attached on either side of the core Falcon. Each of three rockets of are powered by 9 Merlin engines for a total 27 engines. The Falcon Heavy can generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in the world. It can lift nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 lbs.) into orbit. Falcon Heavy stands 70 meters (~230 ft.) tall and is 12.2 m (~40 ft.) in diameter.

Falcon Heavy's maiden launch came on February 6, 2018. It carried a Tesla Roadster belonging to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, with a dummy dubbed "Starman" in the driver's seat, a real dummy payload. The second Falcon Heavy launch took place on April 11, 2019. All three booster rockets successfully returned to Earth. Two of the recovered boosters were used by SpaceX on the Falcon Heavy's third flight. The payload it carried was the Arabsat-6A geostationary communications satellite. The third successful Falcon Heavy launch came on June 25, 2019.

This mission helped SpaceX to get certified by the U.S. Air Force National Security for future launches. A fourth launch is planned for October 2021, a classified mission for United States Space Force. For this mission there is no plan to reuse the main core Falcon rocket, but the two side boosters will be collected from the ocean. Other launches are planned for 2022 and beyond.

For more details on Falcon Rockets, download the Falcon User's Guide at SpaceX.

SpaceX's falcon rocket family comparing Falcon rockets
SpaceX's Family of Falcon Rockets as of January 2019

Musk has a true desire to launch humans to Mars. (Himself included, of course!) The Falcon success was not enough - - it is a stepping stone to gain expertise and earn revenue to develop a rocket and spacecraft that is up to the task of bridging the long distance to Mars. In the sections below, Astra covers the SpaceX road to launching humans into space to the International Space Station through its work with NASA. SpaceX is also developing a new launch system, called Starship. Continue reading to enjoy the adventure or go to Astra's page on Starship. SpaceX is growing a whole new rocket booster and second stage in preparation for lunar landing and then on to Mars.

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SpaceX and NASA

The relationship between SpaceX and NASA began when NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO) released the first Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) in 2006. SpaceX was already working on the Falcon 9 and had been conceptualizing its Dragon spacecraft. Among the 20 applicants, SpaceX's work on the Falcon rocket, technical expertise, and business plan made SpaceX a strong candidate. Unlike typical cost-plus government contracts, the COTS program operated under Space Act Agreements (SAA). This system makes the non-government entity a "partner" of NASA rather than a contractor. It also means that NASA will not share the partner's information and that the data collected remains the property of the partner. The SAAs stipulate milestones to be completed by the commercial partners. Milestones are usually financial, engineering reviews, engine tests, hardware delivery, and launch demonstrations. These details are agreed upon by NASA and SAA partners. Under the COTS program, SAA partners were required to match the funds provided by NASA. During launch demonstrations, NASA also used its equipment to assist SpaceX in the observation of their vehicles' test flights.

On August 18, 2006, NASA awarded SpaceX a COTS Space Act Agreement worth $278 million, paid in increments as milestones were completed successfully, to develop the capability to deliver and return cargo to and from low-Earth orbit.

Under the SAA, SpaceX worked closely with NASA to meet many challenges. The company had to learn how to build and verify its hardware to meet the International Space Station (ISS) requirements. It had to pass the ISS Safety Review before the first full demonstration mission. When SpaceX opened a new facility in Hawthorne, CA, NASA insisted the company fix some issues with the SAA funds. NASA also helped with other production capabilities to improve SpaceX's manufacturing processes. When SpaceX wanted to combine some milestones, NASA had to approve the changes.

It must be said that the SpaceX path to space was not easy street. The first launch of Falcon 1 on March 24, 2006 ended in a massive explosion within the first minute of liftoff. About a year later, the rocket launched and dropped off the first stage, but the second stage stopped working after 7 minutes. A third failure on August 3, 2008 occurred when the first stage continued to move upward after separation and smashed into the second stage. Elon Musk has stated that SpaceX would have been bankrupt if the Falcon 1 mission on September 28, 2008 had failed.

Launch Complex 39A

Launch pad 39A with Saturn V
Saturn V at LC-39A

SpaceX leases Launch Complex 39A, the historic pad at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. On November 9, 1967 the first Saturn V launched from Launch Complex 39 carrying the uncrewed Apollo 4 spacecraft into orbit. All rocket stages and the spacecraft were tested on this flight, including the heat shield that would protect astronauts returning from the Moon.

In 2013, when NASA announced that commercial launch providers could lease the launch complex 39A (LC-39A), SpaceX and Blue Origin both bid to use the launch pad. SpaceX submitted a bid for exclusive use of the facility and won. SpaceX built its own facility - the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) to house both the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy rockets, associated hardware and payloads, during preparation for flight. Launch vehicles are transported from the Integration facility to the launch pad using the SpaceX Transporter Erector (TE) "Strongback".

SpaceX also had to make modifications to LC-39A, actually installing a new launch pad. The concrete flame trench was reconfigured, so exhaust from the Merlin engines could be directed North of the pad. The ramp that takes rockets to the launch pad was also reworked. Refurbishing the launch pad was expensive and time consuming. SpaceX made a substantial investment to use the historic facility.

The first Falcon 9 launch from pad 39A was SpaceX CRS-10 on February 19, 2017. Other notable flights include the first Falcon Heavy on February 6, 2018, when Elon Musk launched his own Tesla Roadster car complete with a dummy driver, "Starman" and the first humans launched from US soil on the Crew Dragon on May 30, 2020.

SpaceX Launch Facilities

SpaceX operates at the launch site at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), Florida, Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), located on Merritt Island off the central Florida coast, and Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB), California

- - SpaceX Rideshare User’s Guide (Nov. 2020)

Starbase

Cargo Dragon - ISS Resupply

Building a space-worthy vessel was also a goal for SpaceX. Elon Musk named it, Dragon after a childhood favorite, "Puff the Magic Dragon." According to SpaceX, "The Dragon spacecraft has 16 Draco thrusters used to orient the spacecraft during the mission, including apogee/perigee maneuvers, orbit adjustment and attitude control. Each Draco thruster is capable of generating 90 pounds of force in the vacuum of space."

Another impressive achievement, SpaceX developed the "Dragon" Cargo vehicle under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The first demonstration flight was launched on December 8, 2010. The objectives for this mission were to test the orbital maneuvering and reentry of the Dragon capsule. Before the test could be launched, however, SpaceX had to get a license for spacecraft re-entry from the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) through the Office of Commercial Space Transportation for the flight. It was the first vehicle re-entry license issued to a private enterprise!

The Falcon 9 was launched successfully and carried the first SpaceX Dragon spacecraft to orbit. The Dragon vehicle separated from the rocket about 9.5 minutes later, achieving a near circular orbit, with a perigee of 288 km (179 mi), an apogee of 301 km (187 mi) at 34.53 degree of inclination. After completing 1 orbit, it successfully reentered, splashed down, and was recovered.

SpaceX met 40 total milestones of the SAA in May 2012, when it successfully launched its final COTS mission, sending Cargo Dragon to the International Space Station.

Dragon has a recoverable capsule and disposable "trunk" for unpressurized cargo. The vehicle is capable of carrying 13,228 pounds to low-Earth orbit and returning 6,614 pounds from low-Earth orbit. The spacecraft uses 12 to 18 Draco thruster engines. It has a Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) thermal protection system to protect the capsule during reentry through Earth’s atmosphere.

As of the end of December 2020, the Cargo Dragon was launched by the Falcon rocket 22 times. An updated version of the Cargo Dragon was also developed by SpaceX.

Launching Humans to Space - Crew Dragon

Crew Dragon  at Kennedy Space Center
Crew Dragon at Kennedy Space Center

Building on its success with the Cargo Dragon, SpaceX continued to develop the Dragon spacecraft. Under the Space Act agreement, SpaceX worked closely with NASA to ensure that the human-rated Crew Dragon would be safe for humans to travel into space.

A very important system for the flight of humans into space is the Environmental Control and Life Support System or ECLSS (pronounced ec-liss) and is the crucial life support system of the Crew Dragon and other spacecraft. Life support must control temperature, carbon dioxide levels, oxygen levels, and cabin pressure. The system includes controls, machinery, pipes, tanks and sensors that provide astronauts with air and other essentials during spaceflight missions. It must function properly for the entire mission from lift-off to landing. The Crew Dragons ECLSS system was extensively tested by engineers at NASA. The life support system is so that important SpaceX built a prototype specifically for testing by NASA.

Crew Dragon has set itself some new records, including the Crew-1 and Crew-2 spacecraft docked at the International Space Station at the same time. The human-rated Crew Dragon spacecraft can dock directly to the space station and remain ready in place to protect crew should a quick departure from the station be required.

SpaceX will continue to support the International Space Station with crew and cargo deliveries.

Beyond even working with NASA to launch humans to the International Pace Station, Crew Dragon was the home for civilian astronauts during the Inspiration 4 mission. Read about it on Astra's Citizens in Space Page.

Crew-2 Mission

NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2, are pictured during a training session at the SpaceX training facility in Hawthorne, California.
Crew-2 Astronauts at SpaceX Training Facility

SpaceX Crew-2 mission launched NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, Akihiko Hoshide (JAXA), and Thomas Pesquet (ESA) astronauts on to the space station on April 23, 2021, bringing the ISS crew complement up to 11 for a short time. The crew named their SpaceX spacecraft, Endeavour. Crew-1 (named Resilience) with NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, returned to Earth on May 2, 2021 at 2:56 a.m. May 2. Crew Dragon splashed down by parachute, landing in the Gulf of Mexico near Panama City, FL. This was the first night splashdown from space since Apollo 8 that returned in December 1968.

Crew-1 Mission

Crew-1 Astronauts
Crew-1 Mission Astronauts

The second launch of Crew Dragon blasted off for the ISS on November 14, 2020 carrying NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Michael Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi. They named the Crew Dragon spacecraft, " Resilience". Crew-1 joined with the three astronauts already on the ISS in Expedition #64. This brings the total of Astronauts on the space station to 7, the maximum number ever on a full expedition.

During this expedition, the SpaceX CRS-21 carried NanoRack's Bishop Airlock to the ISS. The Airlock was installed with the CanadArm remotely. Kate Rubins activated the Cardinal Heart experiment shortly after it arrived on the Cargo Dragon.

Crew Demo-2 Mission

The first launch of Crew Dragon on May 30, 2020 carried NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken to the International Space Station. This launch was the first crewed space flight launched from the United States since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011. The United States is back in human spaceflight thanks to a commercial carrier. A fine milestone, indeed.

The first Dragon spacecraft was named Endeavour by the crew. While on the ISS, Robert Behnken worked on the spacestation during 4 spacewalks. Hurley and Behnken spent over 100 hours working on science experiments in the laboratories Endeavour was docked to the ISS for over 62 days, 9 hours and 8 minutes, returning to Earth on August 2, 2020. The Crew Demo-2 mission lasted 64 days.

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Starman

Starman was launched by SpaceX on the Falcon Heavy test flight on February 6, 2018 as a dummy payload. In order to test the rocket's capability, Elon Musk sacrificed his midnight cherry 2008 Tesla Roadster. It was mounted on the rocket's second stage. In the driver's seat of the Roadster is a mannequin wearing a SpaceX pressure spacesuit. He has been named "Starman" in honor of David Bowie's famous song, "Starman". Starman and the roadster have been placed in an orbit around the Sun that approaches both Earth and Mars orbit every 6 years.

Other articles aboard the Starman space car include a copy of Douglas Adams' novel, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" in the glovebox and a "Don't Panic!" sign on the dashboard, a Hot Wheels Roadster with a miniature Starman mounted on the dashboard, a message on the Roadster's circuit board stating "Made on Earth by humans". The car also carries a copy of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy on a 5D-optical disc, and a plaque with the names of the SpaceX employees who worked on the project.

Just for fun, check out The Sky Live where there is a webpage devoted to Starman so you can find its current location and magnitude.

Starman leaving Earth
Starman depicted leaving Earth

Starlink is a constellation of satellites that SpaceX developed and is still building and launching. Starlink satellites will allow internet access to remote areas that would not otherwise be able to access affordable internet. SpaceX is also selling Starlink satellite access for military, scientific, or other purposes. The Starlink constellation will consist of thousands of mass-produced small satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), working in combination with ground transceivers. The SpaceX satellite development facility in Redmond, Washington houses the Starlink research, development, manufacturing, and orbit control.

Customers need to purchase Starlink hardware, that is, a small satellite dish that must be installed at the customer's home or facility where access is needed. The dish has been given the whimsical name, "Dishy McFlatface". Starlink service costs $99 per month, and the equipment charge is $499 (one-time fee). This does seem steep, but SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter recently that the plan is to have the costs come down over time, once the significant initial investment is recouped.

As of the latest update (May 2021) SpaceX has launched nearly 1,500 Starlink satellites.

Starlink satelites lauched January 2020
Starlink satellites launched in January 2020

Floating Launch Platforms

SpaceX bought two oil drilling platform rigs from Valaris, PLC for $3.5 million each through its subsidiary, Lone Star Mineral Development LLC in July 2020. The nearly identical rigs were renamed Deimos and Phobos after the two moons of Mars. The drilling platforms had previously been named ENSCO/Valaris 8500 and 8501. It will be interesting to see how they will actually be used in the future.

The oil rigs are being modified to be used by SpaceX as floating launch platforms. They are intended to be used to provide a sea launch option for the Falcon Super Heavy rocket and the second stage Starship system. I believe these platforms will actually be used to recover the Super Heavy because of the logistics and environmental impacts of launching from the ocean.

Starship

The first prototype of Starship

By most accounts, Elon Musk has wanted to see humans settle on the distant red planet, Mars, for many years. For this purpose, a huge vessel known as Starship is being developed at SpaceX's facility in Boca Chica, TX. For this giant rocket, SpaceX has built a new engine, the Raptor. Since 2019, prototypes of Starship have been built by SpaceX and tested. Since colonizing Mars has been a life-long dream for me, the saga of Starship by SpaceX is worthy of its very own page at Astra's Stargate.

Having seen the progress of SpaceX on Elon Musk's journey to Mars, I am totally convinced that Elon will make his dreams come true. Built from scratch, the Falcon 9 rocket has proven its reliability after over 100 successful launches.

Astra is featuring a page on SpaceX's Starship that discusses the progress of the program. The Starship will first reach low earth orbit, and then move on to the Moon. The Moon is in the sights of SpaceX, for NASA's lunar lander program or sending the first citizen mission to orbit the Moon.

- - Read about the dearMoon mission, planned in 2023 to send civilians on a trip around the Moon.

- - Find out more @ Astra's about Starship

Starship at the Moon

In what apparently is NASA's final answer, SpaceX was awarded a firm-fixed price, milestone-based contract total award value of $2.89 billion on April 16, 2021. Subsequent protests were filed by Blue Origin and Dynetics, so the award fee won't be immediately received by SpaceX. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) will review these protest claims. I believe NASA chose SpaceX because of its record of delivering the products and services and so I suspect that GAO will okay the award to SpaceX. It is not unusual for such protests to be filed, especially for large contracts.

Previously, in April 2020, Along with 2 other proposals, SpaceX was awarded a $135 million contract under NASA's Artemis Human Landers program to develop a lunar-optimized variant of its Starship spacecraft. NASA plans to return humans to the moon by 2024 under the Artemis program. The SpaceX proposal included in-space propellant transfer demonstrations, a technology SpaceX will have to develop for future Starship missions to the Moon or Mars. SpaceX also must complete an uncrewed lunar test landing.

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Dragon leaving SpaceX HQ, February 23, 2015.

SpaceX Crew shipping Dragon in 2015

Thanks for your efforts! The Dragon only flies with all-hands support. The future of space is right here on Earth!

Please note that many of the images on the SpaceX pages at Astra's are available at SpaceX Flickr site where they have been released into the public domain. Some have been modified to fit the available space at the Stargate site by cropping and/or optimization so for best practices please use the official site. This webpage is ©2021 D. E. Jenkins all rights reserved. Please use the contact page to get permission to use this content or to send comments or corrections.

Disclaimer: This webpage is not affiliated with SpaceX and all text and opinions are my own.

I'm a rocket fan!   - - Astra

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