SpaceX: To Infinity And Beyond



SpaceX, officially operating as the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, is a private space transport company currently located in Hawthorne, California. The company, founded in 2002 by Paypal and Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk, has developed several launch vehicles and unmanned spacecraft in its goal to revolutionize the space transport industry. Among its innovative designs are the Falcon-class launch vehicles and the Dragon unmanned spacecraft.

Believing that the large cost of space exploration was due to unnecessary bureaucracy, SpaceX aims to lower the total cost of space transportation by a factor of ten. In addition to servicing other companies and governments, SpaceX is currently working with NASA to continue developing state-of-the-art spacecraft and launch vehicles with two major objectives: facilitating resupply missions and creating a reliable manned spacecraft for missions to the International Space Station (ISS). As of 2013, SpaceX employs over 3000 people and is valued at over $2.4 billion.

Fueling the Dragon: Funding & NASA Contracts

As a private company, SpaceX began development of space technologies initially on private capital. Elon Musk himself had invested $100 million of his own money into the company by March 2006. Private capital was used to fund the development and construction of the Falcon 1, SpaceX’s first launch vehicle, along with the Merlin-, Kestrel- and Draco-class rocket engines. While the Falcon 9 launch vehicle was developed using funds from US government contracts, the Falcon Heavy however is being developed with private capital. In the first ten years of its existence, SpaceX has acquired a total of one billion US dollars in funding. $200 million of this amount was private capital.

SpaceX, along with Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation, has received funding as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Initiative (CCICap) through the Space Act Agreements. SpaceX’s share is a contract worth up to $440 million. The contract orders the construction of a crew-carrying space capsule to be ready to launch astronauts from US soil by at least 2017. As part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, where SpaceX has a contract to resupply the International Space Station with unmanned spacecraft, the company has received a total of $396 million. Regular cargo deliveries began in October 2012, with the next one scheduled for November 11, 2013. SpaceX signed up for more than 40 launch missions as of 2012. Other contracts have resulted in about $4 billion in revenue by the end of 2012 from 50 launches.

The Little Capsule That Could: The Dragon Spacecraft

The Dragon spacecraft is a commercially-produced capsule-based spacecraft designed and developed by SpaceX. Elon Musk named it after the 1963 song “Puff, the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary supposedly as a response to his critics. Development of the unmanned spacecraft began in 2004 and will be launched into space via the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. There are currently plans for a manned version, dubbed the DragonRider, that will be used to ferry astronauts to the ISS. The DragonRider is designed to carry a combination of crew and cargo, allowing a maximum of seven astronauts to be transported. The DragonRider will be used to transport crew and cargo to low-Earth orbit and is being funded by NASA and the US government. The spacecraft will allow American astronauts to be launched from US soil.

Other designs based on the Dragon spacecraft include those being used on missions to Mars. The Red Dragon concept aims to send a low-cost uncrewed lander to the Martian surface. This project would use a Falcon Heavy launch vehicle and a modified Dragon capsule to enter the Martian atmosphere. It is currently being proposed for funding as a NASA Discovery mission for launch in 2018. This mission would aim to drill 1 meter (3.3 ft) underground in order to sample water ice known to exist under the shallow Martian subsurface for signs of life (both past and present).

The Dragon Spacecraft berthed with the International Space Station. (SpaceX)

Since it began development nine years ago the Dragon spacecraft has revolutionized the space industry. In December 2010 it became the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to reach orbit and successfully re-enter the atmosphere to be recovered. Two years later it reached another milestone as the first commercial spacecraft to successfully dock with the International Space Station. The Dragon spacecraft has opened the mind of the public with regards to the commercial space industry. Many other companies are bound to follow in SpaceX’s footsteps, paving way for a new era of space exploration and transport.

Design & Specifications

The Dragon spacecraft is partially reusable with two main components: a pressurized blunt-cone ballistic capsule and a unpressurized cargo-carrier trunk. In preparation for re-entry, the carrier-trunk is detached from the spacecraft, burning in the atmosphere and is thus unrecoverable. However, the capsule remains intact and can be recovered for future launches. The Dragon uses a PICA-X heat shield, derived from the NASA phenolic impregnated carbon ablator (PICA) shield material by a small team of SpaceX engineers (with NASA assistance) between 2004 and 2010. This heat shield allows the capsule/spacecraft to survive atmospheric re-entry. The shield is sufficient even at velocities expected from retuning Lunar or Martian spaceflights, and is ten times less expensive than the original NASA variant.

The Dragon capsule is equipped with 18 Draco that can continue to control the spacecrafts pitch, yaw, roll and translation even if certain components fail. In a future iteration of the Dragon spacecraft, version 2, the Draco thrusters will be replaced with 8 SuperDraco thrusters that will allow the spacecraft to perform a solid earth propulsive landing (deployable landing gear will also be installed). This new version will also have larger windows, and is expected to be unveiled late this year.

Reaching For The Stars: The Falcon Rocket Series

In order to pursue its goals of space transportation and exploration, SpaceX relies on the Falcon rocket family to reach orbit. This set of launch vehicles was both developed and operated by the private company. As development is still underway for several innovative designs, it is expected that in the coming years SpaceX will add more launch vehicles that will provide NASA and the American space industry with considerably more options


The Falcon 1 was the first rocket designed and produced by SpaceX, being 21 meters (70 ft) in height and with a mass of 38,555 kg (85,000 lb). The Falcon 1 is a small two-stage rocket, and was designed to be partially reusable, however the trait was never demonstrated. The rocket was capable of launching several hundred kilograms worth of cargo into a low-Earth orbit, and served as a test bed for concepts and components of future designs. The rocket utilized a single Merlin engine for the first stage of the launch, as well as a single Kestrel engine for the second stage.

The Falcon 1 during lift-off. (Wikipedia)

The Falcon 1 was the first liquid-propelled rocket designed and built solely using private capital. However the rocket was not without a slew of problems. The Falcon 1 failed its first three launches due to technical problems and only reached orbit on its fourth attempt. On July 13, 2009, the Falcon 1 succeeded in delivering a commercial payload into orbit, its fifth launch. Since then, despite a new version titled the Falcon 1e, the launch vehicle has seemingly been canceled by the company. No Falcon 1 flights are currently scheduled nor are any planned for the foreseeable future as SpaceX focuses its resources on the larger Falcon 9 and other developmental projects.

Falcon 9

The Falcon 9 is the second launch vehicle developed by SpaceX. Manufactured by the private company for its spaceflight contracts, the Falcon 9 is a two-stage launch system that uses liquid oxygen (LOX) and rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) as fuel. While the Falcon 1 was at most only 21 meters (70 ft) tall, the Falcon 9 is much larger, standing at a height of 54.3 meters (178 ft) and has a mass of 333,400 kg (735,000 lb), almost ten times that of the Falcon 1. The Falcon 9 is capable of carrying a payload of 13,500 kg (29,000 lb) into a low-Earth orbit, or 4,850 kg (10,700 lb) to a geostationary transfer orbit, this places the rocket’s launch capabilities at the medium-lift range. The Falcon 9 is currently the only active launch vehicle operated by SpaceX.

The Falcon 9 carrying an unmanned Dragon spacecraft. (Wikipedia)

The development of the Falcon 9 was announced by SpaceX on September 8, 2005. The launch vehicle is equipped with nine Merlin engines utilized in the first stage of the launch, as well as a single modified vacuum-rated Merlin engine for the second stage. The first stage is able to put forth a thrust of 5,000 kN (1,100,000 lbf) while the second stage has a thrust of 445 kN (100,000 lbf). The Falcon 9 has its design based on the EELV-class of launch vehicles, similar to the Delta IV and the Atlas V rockets.

SpaceX is currently developing new thruster capabilities and technologies that will allow the Falcon 9’s two stages to eventually become reusable, as they were originally planned to be. SpaceX plans to have both stages of the Falcon 9 rocket to be ready within single-digit hours after retrieval of the rocket segments and is currently testing these new technologies in the form of the appropriately named The Grasshopper , a suborbital vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) rocket. The Grasshopper was first announced in 2011 and test flights have been occurring since 2012. This video shows the Grasshopper rocket in action:

Grasshopper 325m Test | Single Camera (Hexacopter)

SpaceX hopes to incorporate the innovations acquired from The Grasshopper rocket in the Falcon 9 and the developing Falcon Heavy. Once completed, the reusable variants of these rockets will be able to safely and effectively deliver the empty discarded rocket booster tanks and engine assemblies back to Earth. Here, they can be quickly reassembled, refueled, and be made ready for another launch within hours.

The first successful launch of the Falcon 9 rocket occurred on December 30, 2008. Since then, the launch vehicle has been incredibly successful, with every rocket completing a launch with no failures (apart from an engine anomaly that resulted in a satellite being put into an unstable orbit). While the Falcon 9 provides NASA with a means of resupplying the International Space Station, it is also providing relatively cheap and reliable transportation options to other private companies and entities. However, it is too soon to decide how reliable the Falcon 9 rocket will prove to be – the Soyuz rocket series has completed over 1700 launches as opposed to the Falcon 9’s five.

Falcon Heavy

The Falcon Heavy is another spaceflight launch system that is currently under development by SpaceX. The rocket, previously known as the Falcon 9 Heavy, is designed by SpaceX to be a heavy-lift launch vehicle, hence its name. The two-stage rocket will be able to lift payloads of over 53,000 kilograms (120,000 lb) into low Earth orbit, which is over 4 times what the Falcon 9 is currently capable of, and payloads of 12,000 kilograms (26,000 lb) to a geostationary transfer orbit. The rocket will thus be able to lift nearly twice the payload of Space Shuttles, and more than twice that of the Delta IV Heavy. The Falcon Heavy will be fueled with the same liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene used by the other iterations of the Falcon rocket family. The Falcon Heavy consists of a configuration using a standard Falcon 9 rocket as its base, with two additional Falcon 9 first stage components acting as liquid strap-on boosters. Other launch vehicles with similar designs include the Delta IV Heavy launcher and the proposed Atlas V HLV and Russian Angara.

The first stage of the Falcon Heavy is powered with nine Merlin 1D engines. This updated version of the Merlin engine is capable of providing sea level thrust of 620 kN (140,000 lbf). The Falcon Heavy is being designed using a new and unique propellant cross feed capability. The fuel and oxidizer will be fed from the booster cores to power most of the engines on the center cores. This will end when the booster cores are near-empty, resulting in the first separation and allowing the center core to be left with a full fuel load as opposed to the usual partial load on most rockets. The side boosters will continue to burn for a few seconds after separation for course correction. The second stage of the launch requires the usage of a single Merlin 1D engine that is modified for use in a vacuum environment. Overall the launch sequence for the Falcon Heavy is similar to other rockets such as the Delta IV Heavy.

An example of what the Falcon Heavy will look like when it has finished development. (popularmechanics)

The Falcon Heavy, upon completion, will be the most powerful rocket in the American space inventory since the Apollo-era Saturn V rocket that sent astronauts to the Moon. While the rocket’s thrust of 17,000 kN (3,800,000 ibf) is much less than the Saturn V’s thrust of 34,020 kN (7,648,000 lbf), the Falcon Heavy will still prove invaluable to future space exploration efforts. The rocket’s heavy lift capabilities will make future unmanned missions to Mars even more feasible, and perhaps even send a crewed Dragon spacecraft on a lunar orbiting mission.


SpaceX is quickly becoming a renowned name in space exploration and transportation both in the industry as well as in the public eye. For some, in the face of budget cuts and congressional incompetence inaction, the private sector is becoming a viable source for innovations in space technologies, of which SpaceX is a shinning beacon of hope. The company has come far since its multiple failures attempting to get its first rocket into space. With its Falcon 9 launch vehicles and its Dragon spacecraft, SpaceX has accomplished what only federal agencies could do before, opening up a world of possibilities for like minded companies and corporations also looking towards the stars.

SpaceX is in a sense a herald of a future where private corporations can help humanity reach farther into space. Their successes have shown that federal agencies are not the only entities that can go into space, a frontier that even a man with a dream can reach. Elon Musk has stated that his personal goal for SpaceX is to help humanity open the surface of Mars for exploration and settlement. In a project dubbed the “Mars Colonial Transporter,” SpaceX aims to design, develop and build new spaceflight systems that will enable the transport of humans to Mars and back. Musk hopes to send humans to the Martian surface within 10 to 20 years

As other companies, such as Orbital Sciences Corporation and Boeing, begin to join SpaceX on the space frontier, it gives a sense of hope for space enthusiasts everywhere. However, while SpaceX has made considerable progress in its goals of space transportation and industry, the road ahead is not short nor easy. While the company has shown considerable technical expertise and human willpower, it is too soon to speculate on just what kind of a future will hold for the space corporation. Though the future is unknown, the past and present paint an image of a company poised for success.

For more information and news about SpaceX, visit their website at:

Visit NASA’s homepage at:

For SpaceX’s youtube channel, visit:

Spotlight image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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