Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is a US based aerospace manufacturer and space transportation company headquartered in Hawthorne, California USA. SpaceX has developed several launch vehicles, the Starlink satellite constellation, the Dragon cargo spacecraft, and flown humans to the International Space Station on the Crew Dragon Demo-2.
Former PayPal entrepreneur and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk founded the company in 2002 with the goal of creating the technologies to reduce space transportation costs and enable the colonization of Mars.
SpaceX developed the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 launch vehicles, both of which were designed from conception to eventually become reusable, and the Dragon spacecraft, which is flown into orbit by the Falcon 9 launch vehicle to supply the International Space Station (ISS) with cargo.
SpaceX’s achievements include the first privately funded liquid-propellant rocket to reach orbit (Falcon 1 in 2008), the first private company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft (Dragon in 2010), the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station (Dragon in 2012), the first Vertical take-off and vertical propulsive landing for an orbital rocket (Falcon 9 in 2015), the first reuse of an orbital rocket (Falcon 9 in 2017), the first private company to launch an object into orbit around the Sun (Falcon Heavy’s payload of a Tesla Roadster in 2018), and the first private company to send astronauts to orbit and to the International Space Station (SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission in 2020).
The launch of the SES-8 satellite for SES satellite operator, in 2013, was the first SpaceX delivery into geosynchronous orbit, while the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), in 2015, was the company’s first delivery beyond Earth orbit. On December 21st, 2015, SpaceX successfully returned a first stage back to a landing pad near the launch site and accomplished a propulsive vertical landing, the first such accomplishment by a rocket on an orbital trajectory. On April 8th, 2016, with the launch of CRS-8, SpaceX successfully vertically landed a first stage on an ocean drone platform and delivered Dragon to Low Earth Orbit.
SpaceX operates two drone ships; Just Read the Instructions in the Pacific Ocean for launches from Vandenberg AFB and Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic for launches from NASA’s Cape Canaveral AFB. As of May 2016, six Falcon 9 flights have attempted to land on a drone ship; two of them succeeded
Watch the video: ‘This is SpaceX’.
SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk late 2002. His vision was to build a simple and relatively inexpensive reusable rocket that would go into space multiple times; similar to the turnaround time capabilities that commercial airliners currently exhibit.
In 2001 Musk started the Mars Oasis project to land a miniature experimental greenhouse on Mars, containing seeds with dehydrated gel, in an attempt to regain public interest in space exploration and increase the budget of NASA. Musk realized that even with a much larger space budget, travel to Mars would still be expensive and that a fundamental breakthrough in rocket technology was needed.
In October 2001, Musk travelled to Moscow with Jim Cantrell and best friend Adeo Ressi, to buy refurbished ICBM’s (Dnepr-1) that could send the payloads into space. Musk, Cantrell and Ressi met with companies such as Lavochkin and ISC Kosmotras. In February 2002, the group returned to Russia to look for three ICBMs, bringing along Mike Griffin, who had worked for the CIA’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel; NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and was just leaving satellite builder Orbital ATK. The group met again with Kosmotras, and was offered one rocket for 8 million USD. However, this was seen by Musk as too expensive.
Musk realized that he could start a company that could build the affordable rockets he needed. According to early Tesla and SpaceX investor Steve Jurvetson, Musk calculated that the raw materials for building a rocket actually were only 3% of the sales price of a rocket at the time. By applying vertical integration, principally for cost reasons; around 85% of the entire Falcon/Dragon vehicle is produced in-house and the modular approach from software engineering (Falcon 9 uses 9 of the Merlin engines, which were tested on the single engine Falcon 1, Falcon Heavy uses three Falcon 9 booster stages), SpaceX could cut launch price substantially and still enjoy a 70% gross margin.
Another reason for vertical integration is that Musk thought reusable rockets couldn’t be built with components from existing suppliers that all the other aerospace companies are buying from as well. For example, SpaceX had to design a machine that could friction stir weld aluminum-lithium alloy for the airframe of the Falcon 9, because such a machine did not exist anywhere in the world. According to Musk, SpaceX started with the smallest useful orbital rocket (Falcon 1 with about half a ton to orbit), instead of building a more complex and riskier launch vehicle, which could have failed and bankrupted the company.
Earlier in 2002 Musk was seeking staff for his new space company, soon to be named SpaceX. Musk approached renowned rocket engineer Tom Mueller and agreed to work for Musk and SpaceX was born. SpaceX was first headquartered in a 75,000 square feet warehouse in El Segundo, California. Musk decided SpaceX’s first rocket would be named Falcon 1, a nod to Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon. The first launch for Falcon 1 was planned in November 2003, 15 months after the company started.
In January 2005, SpaceX bought a 10% stake in UK based Surrey Satellite Technology (a spin-off company of the University of Surrey and now majority-owned by Airbus Defense & Space, formerly EADS Astrium, that builds and operates small satellites) while by March 2006 Musk had invested 100 million USD of his own money into the company.
The company grew rapidly since it was founded in 2002, growing from 160 employees in November 2005 to more than 500 by July 2008, to over 1,100 in 2010, 1,800 in early 2012 and 3,000 by early 2013, nearly 5,000 in late 2015 and 8,000 in 2020.
On August 4th, 2008, SpaceX accepted a further 20 million USD investment from Founders Fund. In early 2012, its founder owned approximately 2/3 of the company and his 70 million shares were then estimated to be worth 875 million USD on private markets, which roughly valued SpaceX at 1.3 billion USD in 2012 and 46 billion USD in 2020.
In 2008 NASA awarded the company a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract, to design and demonstrate a launch system to resupply cargo to the ISS.
SpaceX, as of April 2016 has flown seven missions to the ISS under a cargo resupply contract. NASA also awarded SpaceX a contract in 2011 to develop and demonstrate a human-rated Dragon as part of its Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program to transport crew to the ISS.
As early as 2009 the company had ambitions for ‘reusing rocket hardware’ and in October 2014 SpaceX contracted a Louisiana shipyard to build a floating landing platform for reusable orbital launch vehicles. Early information indicated that the platform would carry an approximately 90 x 50m (300 × 160ft) landing pad and would be capable of precision positioning so that the platform could hold its position for launch vehicle landing.
On May 6th, 2016, SpaceX again landed a first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship at sea after launching the JCSAT-14 communications satellite for Japanese satellite operator SKY Perfect JSAT.
As of March 2018, SpaceX had over 100 launches on its manifest representing about 12 billion USD in contract revenu. The contracts included both commercial and government (NASA/DOD) customers. SpaceX major competitors in the commercial satellite launch market are Arianespace, United Launch Alliance (ULA) and International Launch Services (ILS).
On 30 May 2020, SpaceX successfully launched two NASA astronauts (Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken) into orbit on a Crew Dragon spacecraft during Crew Dragon Demo-2, making SpaceX the first private company to send astronauts to the International Space Station and marking the first crewed launch from American soil in 9 years.
SpaceX has been attempting to perfect the autonomous landing and recovery of the first stage of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, with three successes out of seven attempts. As a result of Elon Musk’s goal of crafting more cost-effective launch vehicles, SpaceX conceived a method to reuse the first stage of their primary rocket, the Falcon 9, by attempting propulsive vertical landings on solid surfaces.
Once the company determined that soft landings were feasible by touching down over the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, they began landing attempts on a solid platform. SpaceX leased and modified several barges to sit out at sea as a target for the returning first stage, converting them to Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships (ASDS).
On January 10th, 2015 CRS-5 (Commercial Resupply Service 5), launched with the rocket stage set to be the first to land on a solid surface and be recovered intact. The spacecraft made it to the ASDS, though it came in too fast and at an angle, exploding on the surface of the ship and scattering debris on its surface and in the ocean. The drone ship experienced some structural damages, but nothing irreparable. The cause of the failed landing was determined a failure of the grid fins used on the craft during the descent to stabilize it, which ran out of hydraulic fluid and ceased to function properly.
SpaceX’s next attempt, December 21st, 2015, successfully landed the first stage for the first time for an orbital launch, landing the first stage booster from their 2nd mission for Orbcomm at Landing Zone 1 at Kennedy Space Center (a Return To Launch Site landing).
In January 2016 another ASDS landing attempt was made during the launch of the Jason-3 satellite from Vandenberg AFB in California. The stage successfully touched down on the drone ship ‘Just read the Instructions’, landing 1.3m from the center of the painted target at a suitable speed. However, a landing leg collet failed to lock, and the stage again tipped over and destroyed the rocket. The leg collet failure was attributed to frozen condensation from fog prior to launch.
On April 8th, 2016, the first stage booster successfully landed on the ASDS ‘Of Course I Still Love You’, marking the first time SpaceX successfully landed and recovered an orbitally launched rocket at the Atlantic Ocean.
On May 6th, 2016, SpaceX landed the first stage of the Falcon 9 on ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ during the JCSAT-14 mission of SKY Perfect JSat satellite operator of Japan, its 2nd time successfully landing on the drone ship at sea. This was the first time a booster on a GEO Stationary satellite launch landed successfully.
Starlink Satellite Constellation
Since 2015 SpaceX is constructing Starlink satellite internet constellation providing satellite Internet access. The constellation will consist of thousands of mass-produced small satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), working in combination with ground transceivers. Starlink satellite constellation will deliver high speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive or completely unavailable.
Each satellite weighs approximately 260kgs and features a compact, flat panel design that maximizes volume, allowing for a diverse launch stack on SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The total cost of the decade-long project to design, build and deploy the constellation was estimated by SpaceX to be about 10 billion USD.
In August 2018, SpaceX consolidated all their Seattle-area operations with a move to a larger three-building facility in Redmond, Washington to support satellite manufacturing and R&D.
SpaceX Facilities & Launch sites
SpaceX is headquartered in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne California. The large three-story facility, houses SpaceX’s office space, mission control, and vehicle factory. The area has one of the largest concentrations of aerospace headquarters, facilities, and/or subsidiaries in the USA, including Boeing/McDonnell Douglas main satellite buildings, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, etc., with a large pool of aerospace engineers and recent college engineering graduates.
SpaceX utilizes a high degree of vertical integration in the production of its rockets and rocket engines. Unusually for the aerospace industry, SpaceX builds its rocket engines, rocket stages, spacecraft, principal avionics and all software in-house in their Hawthorne facility. Nevertheless, SpaceX still has over 3,000 suppliers with some 1,100 of those delivering to SpaceX nearly weekly.
SpaceX maintains launch sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) in California, and Boca Chica, Texas:
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida
The site’s location on the southeast coast of the US provides access to a wide range of low and medium inclination orbits frequently used by communications and Earth-observing satellites and by supply missions to the International Space Station. The site also allows access to geostationary orbits, as well as departures to the Moon and interplanetary destinations. Situated on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, with Patrick Air Force Base to the south and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to the north, SLC-40 benefits from many support services in the region, including security and launch range control, weather monitoring, ground support infrastructure, payload processing facilities, and long-range tracking cameras capable of observing launches from liftoff through stage separation and second-stage ignition out over the Atlantic.
Kennedy Space Center, Space Launch Complex 39A in Florida
SpaceX is modifying Kennedy Space Center’s historic Space Launch Complex 39A, home of the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, for flights of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket. In addition to commercial satellite launches and space station resupply missions, LC-39A will support crewed launches of the Dragon spacecraft for NASA. Once operational, LC-39A will have a hangar, a payload processing annex, and a transporter-erector, along with modifications to the existing crawler way, the fixed and rotating service structures, and pad deck. As with LC-40, LC-39A benefits from many local support services including security and launch range control, weather monitoring, ground support infrastructure, payload processing facilities, and long-range tracking cameras.
Vandenberg Air Force Base, Space Launch Complex 4 East in California
The site’s location on the California coastline provides customers with access to high inclination and polar orbits, frequently used by satellite communication constellations, defense intelligence and Earth-observing satellites, and some lunar missions. Launches from Vandenberg heading straight south traverse Open Ocean all the way to the Antarctic, by which time the vehicles have long since reached orbit. SpaceX’s operations at SLC-4E benefit from Vandenberg‘s security and launch range control, weather monitoring, ground support infrastructure, payload processing facilities, and long-range tracking cameras capable of observing launches from liftoff through stage separation and second-stage ignition over the Pacific.
SpaceX South Texas Launch Site in Texas
SpaceX is building the world’s first commercial launch site designed for orbital missions in the Boca Chica area of South Texas. The site’s southern, coastal location is uniquely optimized for orbital space launches from the continental United States, it is as close to the equator as possible, while remaining distanced from populated areas. SpaceX South Texas will be optimized for commercial launches, and will support launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy to low-Earth orbit, geostationary orbit, and beyond.
The Dragon is a free-flying spacecraft designed to deliver both cargo and people to orbiting destinations. Dragon made history in 2012 when it became the first commercial spacecraft in history to deliver cargo to the ISS and safely returned cargo to Earth, a feat previously achieved only by governments. It is the only spacecraft currently flying that is capable of returning significant amounts of cargo back to Earth. Currently Dragon carries cargo to space, but it was designed from the beginning to carry humans. Under an agreement with NASA, SpaceX is now developing the refinements that will enable Dragon to fly crew. Dragon’s first manned test flight is expected to take place in 2-3 years.
The Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket designed and manufactured by SpaceX for the reliable and safe transport of satellites and the Dragon spacecraft into orbit. As the first rocket completely developed in the 21st century, Falcon 9 was designed from the ground up for maximum reliability. Falcon 9’s simple two-stage configuration minimizes the number of separation events — and with nine first-stage engines, it can safely complete its mission even in the event of an engine shutdown.
The Falcon 9 made history in 2012 when it delivered Dragon into the correct orbit for rendezvous with the International Space Station, making SpaceX the first commercial company ever to visit the station. Since then SpaceX has made multiple flights to the space station, both delivering and returning cargo for NASA. Falcon 9, along with the Dragon spacecraft, was designed from the outset to deliver humans into space and under an agreement with NASA, SpaceX is actively working towards that goal.
When Falcon Heavy lifted off in late 2016, it was the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two. With the ability to lift into orbit over 54 metric tons (119,000 lbs), a mass equivalent to a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel. Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, at one-third the cost.
Falcon Heavy draws upon the proven heritage and reliability of Falcon 9. Its first stage is composed of three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores whose 27 Merlin engines together generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft. Only the Saturn V moon rocket, last flown in 1973, delivered more payloads to orbit. Falcon Heavy was designed from the outset to carry humans into space and restores the possibility of flying missions with crew to the Moon or Mars.
Launch market competition and pricing pressure
SpaceX’s low launch prices (less than 2,500 USD per pound to orbit for Falcon 9 v1.1 and 1,000 USD for Falcon Heavy), especially for communication satellites flying to geostationary (GTO) orbit, have resulted in market pressure on the competition to lower their own prices. The communications satellites launch market had been dominated in the years preceding 2013 by launch operators Arianespace with the Ariane 5, International Launch Services (ILS) with their Proton vehicle, United Launch Alliance (ULA) with Atlas and Delta launchers and Sea Launch with their Zenit-3SL launch system from sea.
By late 2013, with a published price of 56.5 million USD per launch to low Earth orbit SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets were already the cheapest in the industry. Reusable Falcon 9s could drop the price by an order of magnitude, sparking more space-based enterprise, which in turn would drop the cost of access to space still further through economies of scale.
SpaceX capabilities and prices are affecting the global market considerably. European launch operator Arianespace requested in early 2014 that European governments provide additional subsidies to face the competition from SpaceX. ESA is pushed by European satellite operators to reduce Ariane 5 and the future Ariane 6 rocket launch prices as a result of competition from SpaceX. This results in company restructurings and consolidations.
By November 2014 SpaceX took already market share from Arianespace. In 2014, Falcon 9 GTO mission pricing was approximately 15 million USD less than a launch on the Chinese Great Wall Industry company (CASTC) built Long March 3B rocket. However, the Chinese Government made a policy decision to maintain satellite launch prices at approximately 70 million USD. SpaceX capabilities and lower launch prices have also begun to affect the market for launch of US military payloads, where for nearly a decade launch operator United Launch Alliance (ULA) had faced no competition for the military launches. In October 2014 ULA announced a major restructuring of processes and workforce in order to decrease launch costs by half, in part as a result of competition from SpaceX.
In May 2015, ULA stated that it would go out of business unless it won commercial and civil satellite launch orders to offset an expected slump in U.S. military and spy launches. Jean Botti, Director of innovation for Airbus (which makes the Ariane 5) warned that “those who don’t take Elon Musk and SpaceX seriously will have a lot to worry about.”
When the final numbers were in for 2014, SpaceX had won nine contracts out of 20 that were competed worldwide in 2014 at commercial launch service providers. This was the first year in some time that no commercial launches were booked on the Russian (Proton) and Russian-Ukrainian (Zenit) launch service providers. SpaceX launched their first communication satellite to geosynchronous orbit only in late 2013.
SpaceX has publicly indicated that if they are successful with developing the reusable technology, launch prices in the 5 to 7 million USD range for the reusable Falcon 9 are possible.
On April 27th 2016, the Pentagon announced its decision to award an 82.7 million USD contract to SpaceX from the U.S. Air Force to launch a next-generation GPS satellite aboard its Falcon 9 rocket in May 2018. The estimated cost was approximately 40% less than the estimated cost for previous missions.
In July 2021 SpaceX acquired privately owned satellite Internet of Things (IoT) company Swarm Technologies, to become a whole subsidiary of SpaceX. Swarm has about 100 small satellites in orbit and is headquartered in Paolo Alto in California USA.
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www.space.com edition May 6th 2016
www.satellitetoday.com edition August 9th, 2021