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SpaceX and Reusable Rockets

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On this page: SpaceX | Falcon | Falcon Heavy | Raptor | SpaceX and NASA | SpaceX Human Spaceflight | Crew Dragon Flights | Cargo Dragon | Facilities | Starman | Starlink | Launch Platforms | Starship | Mars

Index to SpaceX pages at Astra's and the main Starship page.

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Space Exploration Technologies Corporation aka SpaceX

How could Astra ever resist talking about SpaceX and Elon Musk who are building 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, Gwynne 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. More information on the development of the Falcon rocket and other SpaceX accomplishments can be found on this page.

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. In April 2024, SpaceX plans to launch the Polaris Dawn space mission also covered in depth here at Astra's Stargate. SpaceX has even developed it own space suits!

Just for fun, read Astra's "7 Signs You Might be Becoming a SpaceX Boy"

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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 Millennium 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 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 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

On February 16, 2021, SpaceX failed to recover a first stage of Falcon 9 after launching its own Starlink internet communication satellites. This was the first landing failure since March 2020. At that time SpaceX had a string of 24 successful Falcon 9 first stage recoveries. Since then SpaceX has recovered well over 100 returning boosters. 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

Falcon, the reusable rocket has achieved many milestones after so many years of service. On February 20, 2024, Falcon 9 launched the Merah Putih-2 telecommunications satellite from Cape Canaveral, Florida, making its 300th successful mission. Later the same day, a Falcon 9 rocket (#1061) was launched with a Merlin engine that had flown on 22 missions! On June 12, 2023, Falcon 9's flight #232 marked the 200th first stage booster landing.

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 carries the payload in its fairing. Two additional Falcon Rockets are attached on either side of the core Falcon. Each of the three rockets 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 meters (~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 process for future launches. A fourth launch took place in November 2022, 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 2023 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

Raptor Engine

The Falcon SuperHeavy rocket is powered by SpaceX Raptor engines, a full-flow staged combustion cycle rocket engine that SpaceX developed by for use with the Falcon SuperHeavy and Starship. Raptor engines began flight testing on Starship prototypes rockets in July 2019, making it the first full-flow staged combustion rocket engine flown. Like the Merlin engine, Raptor was also designed for reuse. The current recovery plan is for the Falcon Heavy to return to the launch stand to be captured by giant robot arms. The first test of a Raptor engine took place in 2016.

Raptor 1 was used to successfully launch 5 Starship prototypes, concluding with Starship 15 that successfully performed the belly flop and landed perfectly. Because reusability and rapid turn around is a must for SpaceX, Raptor2 is significantly different from Raptor1 because the design was simplified to speed up manufacturing. Raptor 2 was first installed on Booster #7 at Boca Chica in May 2022. By June 2022, all 33 engines were installed on Booster 7. Although Raptor 2 is proving its mettle, future versions of the engine may be on the horizon. A newer version of the engine, Raptor3 is now being tested.

Raptor engines are manufactured in SpaceX's plant located in Hawthorne, California, then delivered to the test facility in McGregor, Texas. SpaceX is building a production plant in McGregor as well. Eventually McGregor will produce the Raptor2 and Hawthorne will produce the Vacuum Raptor and other experimental engines. SpaceX plans to build 800 - 1000 Raptor engines per year. This would enable a self-containing colony on Mars.

Raptor 2 is simplified version of Raptor 1 with a large amount of plumbing and sensors removed. There is less test equipment on Raptor 2 due to data gathered by SpaceX's tests on the original version. Raptor 2 has a larger throat diameter that should add more thrust. Some components were combined and eventually SpaceX would like to remove all engine shrouding from the booster to decrease the booster’s mass. Other refinements have decreased the mass of the engines. It is hoped that removing flanges on the engine will increase Raptors thrust to 250 tons.

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.

A new version of the raptor engine, Raptor 3 was announced by Elon Musk after the first integrated flight test of Starship.

SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy

Falcon Super Heavy is the booster that is intended to take the SpaceX Starship to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. This behemoth is the most powerful rocket on Earth today, although it still must prove its strength. On April 20, 2023, the Falcon SuperHeavy Booster #7 was launched, carrying the Starship on the first integrated flight test. Although the SuperHeavy showed what it could do, the upper stage, Starship SN24 was not able to separate successfully.

+ + find out about the first integrated test flight of SpaceX's Starship at Astra's Stargate

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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.

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 (Cargo Dragon2) 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 important that 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.

Did you know that SpaceX conducts its own human spaceflight missions?

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

In February 2022, Jared Isaacman announced the Polaris Program, consisting of three human spaceflight missions. This is an exciting program where SpaceX works with private citizens to explore space. The first mission is called Polaris Dawn and will be tentatively launching in December 2022. Two SpaceX employees, Sarah Gillis, and Anna Menon, will fly aboard the Polaris Dawn Mission as mission specialists. The mission will be commanded by Jared Isaacman and the Crew Dragon will be piloted by Scott Poteet.

Check out more on the Polaris Dawn mission page at Astra's where the program will be discussed as well as the spacesuits that are being developed by SpaceX for human spaceflight aboard Starship.

SpaceX / NASA Crew Missions

SpaceX supports the USA space program with launches of the Crew Dragon. Astronauts are taken to the International Space Station on reusable Crew Dragon spacecraft. The Dragon spacecraft is parked at the station and becomes an emergency evacuation vehicle until it returns crew members to Earth. The Dragon splashes down in the ocean and astronauts are retrieved.

Crew Demo-2 Mission

The first crewed 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.

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 brought the total of Astronauts on the space station to 7, the maximum number of crew members 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-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". Meanwhile,Crew-1 in Resilience 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.

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SpaceX launched NASA’s Crew-3 mission on November 11, 2021. The Crew Dragon carried NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn, and Kayla Barron, and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer.

SpaceX launched NASA’s Crew-4 Mission on April 27, 2022. The Crew Dragon spacecraft carried NASA astronauts, Commander Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines, Jessica Watkins, and European Space Agency astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti to the International Space Station.

On October 5, 2022 the Crew-5 mission was launched from launch pad LC-39A. SpaceX Crew-5 mission was commanded by NASA astronaut Nicole Mann and piloted by Josh Cassada, JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata, and Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina is the first Russian to launch on a Dragon spacecraft.

Just in case you wondered, as I did, Anna Kikina is the only woman cosmonaut in Roscosmos corp.

- - Astra

NASA’s SpaceX Crew-6 mission launched to ISS on March 2, 2023 from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA astronaut, Commander Stephen Bowen, Pilot Warren "Woody" Hoburg, Mission Specialist UAE (United Arab Emirates) astronaut Sultan Alneyadi, and Mission Specialist Roscosmos cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev docked the Crew Dragon spacecraft, Endeavour to the forward port on the Harmony module of ISS.

SpaceX launched NASA's Crew-7 mission on August 22, 2023 from Kennedy Space Center carrying NASA astronaut, Jasmin Moghbeli, ESA astronaut, Andreas Mogensen of Denmark, Satoshi Furukawa of JAXA , and Roscosmos cosmonaut, Konstantin Borisov to the ISS. Andreas Mogensen will be the first non-American to serve as pilot of Crew Dragon Endurance. The crew launch took off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A.

SpaceX launched the Crew-8 mission on March 3, 2024, from Kennedy Space Center. NASA Astronauts, Matthew Dominick, Michael Barratt, and Jeanette Epps flew with cosmonaut, Alexander Grebenkin on the Dragon spacecraft Endeavour

Axiom Space Missions to ISS

SpaceX also sent up Crew Dragons carrying crew members for Axiom Space to the International Space Station. To date there have been three Axiom missions with a fourth on the books scheduled later in 2024. A full write up of Axiom Space and the Axiom Missions can be found at Astra's using the links.

Axiom-1 launched April 2022
Axiom-2 launched May 2023
Axiom-3 launched January 2024

- - Check out this NASA blog that covers all SpaceX mission launches.

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SpaceX Facilities

Falcon 9 launch from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station February 21, 2022
Falcon 9 launch from SLC-40 on February 25, 2022

SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station

Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) was built during the 1960's, the US Air Force leased the complex to SpaceX to launch the Falcon 9 rocket in 2007. Due to a failure of Falcon 9 during a static fire test in September 2016, the site was damaged. The complex was repaired and resumed operations in December 2017 for the ISS resupply CRS-13 mission.

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 39A 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.

But that's not the end of SpaceX's improvements to the Launch Complex 39A area. In December 2021, SpaceX submitted a plan to NASA to develop a second orbital launch site at Kennedy Space Center. The site is being developed quickly, very similar to the site at Boca Chica that I have described in detail below. A second large launch tower called Mechazilla 2 is currently under construction. NASA is worried because the launch site for Starship and Falcon Heavy is only about 1000 feet east of the LC-39A pad because it is necessary to launch Crew and Cargo to ISS. SpaceX is working to reinforce and protect the equipment at LC-39A to prevent any launch mishaps.

SLC-4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base

Starlinks Satelittes launched from SLC-4 on February 25, 2022
Falcon 9 Launch from SLC-4 on February 25, 2022

Space Launch Complex 4 (SLC-4) is a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California. The complex was built in the 1960's for the launch of Atlas-Agena rockets and later reconfigured for Titan rockets. There are two separate launch pads, SLC-4W and SLC-4E, that were leased by SpaceX to launch the Falcon 9 rocket. Today, the SLC-4E pad is used to launch Starlink satellites on the Falcon 9 B5 rocket, but is also used to launch customer's satellites. The SLC-4W pad was used for the return of Falcon boosters that were launched and later renamed by SpaceX as Landing Zone 4.

In April 2023, SpaceX leased Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6) at Vandenberg.

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Starbase in South Texas

Boca Chica, Wow!

Boca Chica started out as a vacation spot for those who could afford second homes. A small village located near the mouth of the Rio Grande, also known as Rio Bravo de Norte. It is a swampy area and also sandy because it is part of the river's delta. Most of the water that feeds into the sea at this location is provided by the tributary, Rio Conchos. In the dry months, the flow from the river may stop completely.

SpaceX moved into Boca Chica in 2014, and began building its rocket manufacturing area, often called the build area, and its launch site. Today a towering high bay structure in the build area stands around 280 ft. (85 meters) tall. It was built to hold giant Starships and tall rocket boosters. Starship is 160-feet tall and 30m in diameter, the booster is somewhat smaller in diameter, but it stands 230-feet tall. Together they stand almost 400-feet tall. That's 120 meters in metric! The build site also includes a midbay that is 150-feet or 45m high. There is also a low bay building. The SpaceX complex has grown steadily over the last seven years. Other structures include long buildings called, tents, that allow SpaceX to build nose cones, the stackable rings that make up sections of Starship and Falcon Heavy, and more. Near the build area, there is a scrap yard, a fuel production site and other buildings.

North of the build site, SpaceX installed two 9 m (30 ft.) S-band tracking station antennas at the site in 2016 to 2017. These antennas were formerly used to track the Space Shuttle during launch and landing. SpaceX acquired the antennas from NASA and they had to be "certified" by NASA before they could be put into operation. In 2018, they became operational for tracking crewed Dragon missions. Today this area is called the SpaceX South Texas Tracking Station.

Early tests of Starship were conducted on a simple launch pad, with large cranes that moved the vessels into position for the launch, but Falcon Heavy and Starship require a more robust system. SpaceX has built an orbital launch mount (OLM) that is supported by the launch and integration tower, affectionately called "Mechazilla". Mechazilla is 469 feet tall or 143m, it has two 36-meter long arms made of tubular steel beams. These arms, called "Chopsticks", move up and down along a rail track on the tower. There are 4 giant electric motors that allow the arms to move. The arms can move toward each other, a motion that is controlled by hydraulic cylinders. The plan is for Mechazilla to catch the returning booster after it has performed its launch service and returns to land.

The booster is fueled through a quick disconnect system on the OLM and the Starship is fueled through a quick disconnect arm that is installed on the integration tower. Ground Support Equipment (GSE) at the Orbital Launch Site (OLS) includes 90-foot tall tanks holding liquid methane and liquid oxygen, the propellants used by Starship and Super Heavy. The tanks were made on-site by SpaceX and have the diameter of the Starship. There are eight tanks, counting one tank that holds water. These are protected by mounds of dirt that surround the GSE separating them from the orbital launch area.

Since the first integrate flight test left a significant amount of damage at the orbital launch site, SpaceX has been busy repairing the damages and beefing up the protection for the ground support equipment and water collection. SpaceX has successfully installed a complex water deluge system that will prevent the kind of damage that occurred during the first test. This system includes water-fed steel plates that will cool the engines and avoid injury to the launch mount while the Falcon Super Heavy is firing. Three large water tanks feed the water into the steel-plate system during launch. The system was tested on August 6, 2023 and SpaceX released a video of the test, showing off the water deluge system. Raptors fired for 2.74 seconds and 4 engines shut down during the test.

SpaceX has also decided to convert the Starship to include "hot-fire" system, igniting the Starship stage before the booster ceases to fire near the end of the mission. This method has been used previously to launch other space missions.

For more information, check out Astra's Starship page.

>Starship 24 moving from build site to launch site on July 5, 2024
Starship 24 Moving from Build Site to Launch Site on July 5, 2024

Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO, announced plans to incorporate a new city in the area of Boca Chica, TX, in March of 2021. Although no such city has yet been chartered, the area near Boca Chica and South Padre island has already been dubbed, "Starbase" by Elon Musk and SpaceX fans. Starbase is actually 2 separate locations, with Starship and Falcon Heavy Boosters being manufactured in one area and launch pads with support equipment in another.

The creation of the South Texas Tracking Station, the build site, and the orbital launch site two miles up the road has spurred growth in the surrounding area. The closest city is Brownsville, TX, a small city with around 100 thousand inhabitants. It is the location of a USA-Mexico border crossing. Across the border is the city of Matamoros, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The greater metropolitan area of these two cities is over 1.3 million. But the SpaceX facility is 20 miles away from Brownsville, down country roads.

There are 3 good reasons why SpaceX decided to build their spaceport in the remote area of Boca Chica. They are location, location, location!

Because of the latitude 25.6 degrees N, launches from Starbase are close to the equator and the site is located in the continental United States of America. It is a remote location and just off the Atlantic ocean so that launches from Starbase do not compromise populated areas.

There are many more details of SpaceX, Starbase, and the future Starship out there on the web. Check out the SpaceX Information Resource Links at Astra's Stargate for resource pages and to find a lot more information on SpaceX and rockets. We follow the YouTube channels of Everyday Astronaut, Marcus House, Scott Manley, and others for SpaceX and space exploration for updates and information.

Since I believe the current craft beer trend has opened fantastic opportunities for American entrepreneurs, and there's nothing more refreshing than a good craft beer, I am pointing Stargate visitors who want to know more about the Starbase Boca Chica story to the Starbase Brewery Stargate Texas Map - - Happy crafting! - - Astra


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 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 may 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. Of course, those numbers could change at any time.

As of the latest update (April 2023) SpaceX has launched about 4,161 Starlink satellites. Not all of these satellites are still in orbit. For various reasons including geomagnetic storms, there is some attrition. As of March 23, 2023 it is believed that 3,858 are still in orbit.

Starlink satelites lauched January 2020
Starlink satellites launched in January 2020

Got to know how many Starlink satellites SpaceX has in orbit?

Thank you, Jonathan McDowell!

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. The oil rigs were to be modified to be used by SpaceX as floating launch platforms. Plans changed and the oil rigs were scrapped by SpaceX in early 2023.

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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 well over 225 successful launches.

Astra's Stargate features 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

NASA awarded SpaceX 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 but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed the protest claims and found that NASA did not violate procurement law on July 30, 2021. It is not unusual for such protests to be filed, especially for large contracts. I believe NASA chose SpaceX because of its record of delivering the products and services.

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 2025 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.

+ + Find out more about the Starship Human Landing System at Astras.

Astra's Stargate maintains SpaceX Information Links

Go to Astra's SpaceX Index

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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 ©2021-2023 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

#AstrasStargate #ImaRocketFan

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