Hey guys, Welcome to Swarupa’s World 🙂 Here’s wishing you all a very happy 2023 🙂
Hope you all are doing absolutely gr8 and visiting me for interesting reads 😉
Did you know… I created “Swarupa’s World” on 28 June, 2012, and published my first blog post on the 1st of July? 🙂 That was 10 years ago 😀 To celebrate 10 years of existence of “Swarupa’s World”, I thought of writing something special, something that could inspire my readers to dream big for humanity. Space, space exploration and human spaceflight 😉
So I came up with the idea of a blog series on all about SpaceX – the world’s leading aerospace company and manufacturer. You see, in March 2022, SpaceX completed 20 years of existence 😀
If you’re my regular reader, you may have noticed that I’ve always aimed for excellence in writing…be it about travel, food, history or anything and everything 🙂
And now for the first time, I have written on space and cutting-edge space technology to spark an interest in the rapidly advancing space industry 🙂 And who better to inspire than the extraordinary 20-year-old SpaceX, which has been creating space history time and time again with its advanced reusable rockets and spacecraft 😉
So I started working on the series at the start of March 2022. Since then, I worked non-stop, day and night, just like this bitmoji of mine 😀
My labour of love took almost 11 months to complete. I was a regular at a nearby Starbucks during the entire period, so I spent quite a lot of money in the process 🙂
The last time I had worked so long and non-stop with such immense dedication was more than 12 years ago, when I was writing my three e-book series on all about Mexico which took a little more time to complete than this blog series.
This is the introductory post in my 6-part series, which include the following:
All information contained in this series is as 01 January, 2023.
Highly enriched with knowledge, each and every post makes for an enlightening reading experience. So please share all of them far and wide with family, friends and followers on social media 🙂
By the way, this is not a sponsored series on SpaceX 😀 I’m not getting anything but immense pleasure from writing and sharing these inspiring pieces of work on SpaceX – founded by legendary American visionary, innovator & business leader… Elon Musk
So welcome aboard my SpaceX tour, and get mesmerized by each and every post in this beautiful series, discovering the amazing world of SpaceX 🙂
Let me begin with when and how I first learnt about SpaceX, an American private aerospace manufacturer and space transportation company headquartered in Hawthorne, California.
A bit embarrassing to admit that it was only around five years ago, in December 2017 🙂 It happened through Twitter with this viral tweet:
Back in the “dotcom bubble” between 1998 and 2000, I had known of his youthful brilliance and the formation of PayPal. But that was a very long time ago so I had forgotten him.
It was thanks to Twitter that I found him again and learnt about SpaceX and his amazing companies. So besides, 10 years of my blog and 20 years of SpaceX, 2022 also completed five years of my knowing Elon Musk 😀
Twitter is where Elon Musk regularly shares his views, provides updates on his companies – SpaceX, Tesla, Neuralink, The Boring Company and OpenAI – and interacts with fans, followers or haters.
And today, Elon Musk owns Twitter 🙂 He has already made rapid changes in his new company with innovative and revolutionary ideas in mind.
Following the viral “I love Twitter” tweet, I learnt about SpaceX’s highly innovative and revolutionary technology that makes its extraordinary 70-metre-tall (3/4th the height of London’s Big Ben) reusable Falcon 9 rockets launch significant amounts of cargo into space, and return to Earth safely.
Almost all orbital rockets in the world are expendable or single-use rockets designed to burn up on entering Earth’s atmosphere. But SpaceX’s amazing two-stage reusable Falcon 9 rocket is so highly-advanced that it can withstand the high temperatures of atmospheric re-entry and return to make a gentle vertical landing on Earth.
The role of Falcon 9 first stage is to launch the second stage and payload into orbit. Once this is done, the first stage or booster, as it’s also called, makes an aerial somersault, re-orienting itself mid-air for the return journey. The booster re-enters the atmosphere at between 17 and 25 times the speed of sound. Using its guidance system and engines, it flies back to the launch site, landing upright on its deployed legs with pinpoint precision, either on a SpaceX ground recovery zone or on a SpaceX autonomous drone ship in the sea. All this happens in less than 9 minutes from rocket lift-off. After recovery, the landed booster is re-used on a later mission.
First stage launch and return to landing zone…
First first stage landing on ground in December 2015…
First first stage landing on drone ship in April 2016…
Except for SpaceX, all other space companies and agencies around the world launch expendable rockets to orbit.
Launching a rocket into space and returning it to Earth within minutes to make a vertical landing had never been attempted in space history. And SpaceX has been doing it consistently since the first time in December 2015, proving the reliability of its rocket reusability.
Launch and landing Falcon 9 rocket exhaust plumes…
Just as I was beginning to know SpaceX, the company was preparing for the first launch of its heavy-lift Falcon Heavy rocket, which until the launch of NASA’s moon rocket SLS in November 2022, was the most powerful rocket in the world.
Falcon Heavy’s inaugural launch was scheduled for 6 February, 2018. Being a test mission, the payload (or cargo) aboard was Elon Musk’s personal red Tesla Roadster with a SpaceX spacesuit-clad mannequin astronaut Starman at the wheel.
Elon Musk’s red car inside the Falcon 9 fairing…
Starman’s current position in the Universe: https://www.whereisroadster.com
Two of the three gigantic boosters returned from space, making a soft touchdown on the landing pad, within less than eight minutes after lifting off from the launch site, a short distance away.
SpaceX has designed and manufactured three orbital rockets: Falcon 1 (retired) and the operational reusable rockets, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.
Falcon 1 (no longer operational), the world’s first privately-developed and funded liquid fuel rocket to reach Earth orbit…
Falcon 9, the world’s first and only orbital class reusable rocket…
Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful reusable rocket…
The operational Falcon rockets carry payloads for a wide range of customers, domestic as well as international. American customers include National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Department of Defence (DoD), U.S. Space Force (USSF), and private and government companies.
Powerful rockets require powerful engines. SpaceX designed and developed two powerful engine families for its powerful rockets: Merlin for the Falcon rocket family and Raptor for the newly-developed gigantic Starship rocket…
SpaceX is also the world’s leading manufacturer of rocket engines.
For low-cost space transportation, SpaceX designed and developed a reusable spacecraft which is capable of carrying significant amounts of cargo and humans to space, and returning them to Earth.
SpaceX designed and developed sleek, customized spacesuits for astronauts riding the Dragon. The spacesuits protects the crew from depressurisation (where air is lost from the capsule) and provide life support systems, including air and electrical connections.
Cargo and Crew Dragon…
Till date, SpaceX is the only American company that can fly NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
The Space Station is a football field-sized laboratory some 400 km (250 miles) above Earth that has housed international crews of astronauts for over 20 years.
Dragon not only transports NASA astronauts (since May 2020) and cargo supplies (since May 2012) to and from the ISS, but also sends civilians (since September 2021) on space tourism missions.
Super Heavy Starship rocket
SpaceX is now ready to launch its next-generation two-stage rocket system – the fully reusable, gigantic Super Heavy rocket and Starship spacecraft – which will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built when it makes its first flight to orbit in a month or so.
Built to send humanity to the Moon, Mars and beyond, Starship will begin commercial operations soon after its first orbital launch, carrying payloads first and humans later.
PICA-X heat shield for Dragon
SpaceX manufactures the world’s most powerful PICA-X high performance heat shield for its Crew and Cargo Dragon capsules.
The PICA (Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator)-X heat shield material is a rigid, lightweight material designed to withstand high temperatures during atmospheric re-entry.
The Dragon capsule enters Earth’s atmosphere at around 7 kilometres per second (15,660 miles per hour), heating the exterior of the shield to up to 1,850 degrees Celsius. Just a few inches of the PICA-X material keeps the interior of the capsule at room temperature.
Starbrick heat shield for Starship
SpaceX has designed and developed black-coloured, hexagonal ceramic heatshield tiles called ‘Starbrick’ thermal tiles for Starship’s back side to protect it from extreme heat during atmospheric re-entry from space.
SpaceX also manufactures the world’s most advanced Starlink communications satellites.
Falcon 9 has been launching SpaceX’s Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit (LEO) for the Starlink Internet Constellation since 2018.
Today, there are more than 3600 Starlink satellites (the largest number of satellites owned by any entity) orbiting the Earth, providing global internet access.
In December 2022, SpaceX announced Starshield, a program to incorporate military or government entity payloads onboard a Starshield satellite bus (based on Starlink Block v1.5 and v2.0 technology]).
While SpaceX’s Starlink satellite is designed for consumer and commercial use, its Starshield satellite is designed for government use, with an initial focus on three areas, namely, earth observation, communications and hosting payloads.
Space and Orbits
The internationally recognized boundary of space begins from the Kármán line which is 100 kilometres (54 nautical miles; 62 miles; 330,000 feet) above Earth’s mean sea level.
Spaceflight can be orbital or suborbital. Orbital spaceflight is when a spacecraft is placed on a trajectory with sufficient velocity to place it into orbit around the Earth whereas suborbital spaceflight is when a spacecraft reaches space but its velocity is such that it cannot achieve orbit.
These are various orbits around the Earth into which satellites are often placed. Among the most common are low-Earth orbit (LEO), geosynchronous orbit (GEO), geostationary orbit (GSO), and geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). Other orbits for satellites include medium-Earth orbit and sun-synchronous orbit.
LEO refers to orbits that are typically less than 2,400 km (1,491 mi) in altitude.
GEO is an orbit around the equator roughly 36,000 km (22,369 mi) above the Earth and appear to observers on the ground as stationary in the sky.
GSO refers to geosynchronous orbits where satellites are synchronized with the Earth’s rotation, orbiting once every 24 hours.
GTO is an elliptical orbit into which satellites are often first launched in order to reach GEO.
All SpaceX launches are broadcasted live and shared on Twitter. Hosted by SpaceX staff, the webcasts provide launch details and statistics as well, making it easily understandable for even a first-time viewer.
No other space company can rival SpaceX’s high-quality live launch coverage. It’s exciting to watch the 15-storey first stage lift off, propelling its payload about 110 kilometres into space. The two stages separate about 2 minutes and 30 seconds later. And the second stage takes over to shuttle the payload to its orbit.
The second stage ignites and releases the two-piece clamshell-like nose cone that shields satellites from dynamic pressure, acoustic effects and aerodynamic heating during launch through Earth atmosphere.
Meanwhile, the first stage manoeuvres back to Earth with a series of propulsive burns from its main engines, allowing it to make a pinpoint vertical touchdown on a prepared landing pad, whether on land or at sea, roughly 8-9 minutes after launch.
The Falcon 9 fairing shells return to Earth using cold gas thrusters (or small engines) to orient themselves and deploy a parafoil (or steerable parachute) to slow descent before reaching the ocean, where they are picked up by a recovery vessel stationed close by.
SpaceX has also livestreamed launches of all prototypes of its newly-developed Starship spacecraft, delighting Starship fans from all over the world including yours truly 😀
My attachment to Dragon and Starship began for the first time in May 2020, after the first planned attempt to launch the first crewed test flight of the Crew Dragon mission (called the Crew Demo-2 mission) got scrubbed due to bad weather.
Cute-looking Crew Dragon against the beautiful backdrop made me add a wide smile to it 🙂
After the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet in July 2011, the United States could no longer launch its astronauts to orbit from American soil. It had to depend upon Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for nearly nine years until SpaceX’s Crew Demo-2 mission.
The successful launch to orbit was a historic moment for SpaceX, the United States and human spaceflight history… above all, for Elon Musk!
Within a few minutes after lift-off, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket made a soft touchdown on SpaceX’s drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY), stationed in the Atlantic Ocean. This marked the first time in aerospace history that the first stage of a rocket launched a crew into Earth orbit and returned to land home safely on Earth.
The historic landed Falcon 9 booster on the way back to port…
The successful test mission paved the way for SpaceX to start its contracted crew missions to the orbiting lab for NASA.
Since that first time, I have been adding a dash of love to Dragon photos and tweeting them. Here are some of them 🙂
And to Starship as well 🙂
Starship 8 (SN8) was special and my favourite 🙂 Here she’s winking at Elon Musk while he’s inspecting her (the nose cone that survived the crash landing) 🙂
Starship with their tongues lolling out 🙂 One Starship is pointing towards the nearby restaurant 🙂
Starship 24 🙂
Then, there’s the Raptor engine family 🙂
Falcon fairing or nosecone striking a pose…
Somehow my creative efforts makes them appear lovable and sentient…and I love it 🙂
“Return to Space”, a Netflix documentary on the historic mission to return NASA astronauts to orbit after Space Shuttle program ended was released in April 2022. You can watch it here: https://www.netflix.com/in/title/81111324
And now I will share a bit about the determined young man who founded SpaceX and a number of valuable companies dedicated towards improving human lives and the world we live in. Elon Musk
So why was Elon Musk interested in buying cheap rockets?
Well, you see…besides his passion for electric cars, Elon Musk nurtured a burning desire for space travel and exploration, and to send humanity to Earth’s neighbouring planet, Mars. A lifelong space enthusiast, he dreamt of placing a small greenhouse laden with seeds and nutrient gel on the Martian surface to establish life there, if only temporarily.
Unwilling to give up on his dream, Elon Musk selected a handful of veteran space engineers and formed SpaceX (short for Space Exploration Technologies Corp). He had two staggeringly ambitious goals for SpaceX: To make low-cost reusable rockets for cheap and routine spaceflights, and to make humans a multi-planetary species.
That was in 2002. Within a short span of less than two decades, SpaceX became the world’s leading aerospace company. And has remained so after 20 years.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk became the world’s richest man with an estimated net worth of around $238 billion. A self-made man with a never-say-die attitude, he strives hard to overcome resistance and achieve incredible feats of engineering.
Born in South Africa, Elon Musk took a brave step when he was just 17. He went to Canada with a bit of money to survive on his own. Once there, he worked as a farm hand and did a few odd jobs for a while before pursuing further education on scholarships. Later, he went to settle in the land of dreams, the United States of America.
Fresh out of college, he founded a company called Zip2, one of the first internet maps and directions services, which was kind of Google Maps meets Yelp. That first venture made him rich by $22 million when it was bought by Compaq in 1999 for $307 million. He poured almost all the money into his next venture, a start-up that later became PayPal, the world’s leading online payment system.
In 2002, eBay purchased PayPal for $1.5billion. The deal made Elon Musk very wealthy, he received $180 million (roughly $297 million in today’s dollars). But then, he risked all the money into his next ventures: $100 million into SpaceX, $70 million into his revolutionary all-electric car company Tesla and $10 million into SolarCity, a solar energy services company which was acquired by Tesla in 2015 and became Tesla Energy.
His entry into aerospace, automotive and solar industries resulted in a major breakaway from accepted conventions and paved the way for clean and sustainable energy.
Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of revolutionizing space technology and reducing space transportation costs to enable the colonization of Mars.
In 2008, he and his companies were almost bankrupt with three Falcon rocket failures within a span of six years. Fortunately, that year, SpaceX tasted success on the fourth Falcon 1 launch.
Six-year-old SpaceX got a much-needed financial respite after winning its first contract from NASA.
By early 2012, Elon Musk had demonstrated his brilliance in accomplishing unprecedented feats. That year, SpaceX became the world’s first private aerospace company to ship cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS), while Tesla Motors delivered the Model S, a beautiful, all-electric sedan that caused a sensation in the automobile industry.
When Elon Musk started SpaceX, he had far less capital at his disposal. He believes in cutting costs and maximizing resource utilization while maintaining a high safety level. Following his genius ideas, SpaceX pursued advanced technological development, which was considered unthinkable in those days. And it continues to do so, developing cutting-edge space technology, paving the way for innovation beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.
He has repeatedly said that his goal is to help humanity become a multi-planetary species. He talked about the need for humanity to go interplanetary to reduce the threat of extinction. To cross the Great Filter, which is what he likes to call it.
In the 1950s, German-American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the lead designer of the Saturn V rocket, which sent humans to the moon during NASA’s Apollo program, partnered with companies like Disney to popularize space stations and future crewed space travel. Strangely, in his non-fiction book “Project Mars” published 69 years ago, Wernher von Braun wrote of an Elon, who would lead human colonists on Mars.
In the 1970s, with the Apollo program fading into history, NASA’s budget got slashed and the focus shifted from human spaceflight to low-cost missions to low Earth orbit (LEO). The Space Shuttle, although remarkable, failed to realize low-cost launches.
Then came SpaceX with its low-cost reusable orbital rockets and spacecraft.
Elon Musk spent a lot of his time and money in developing and testing SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology, which was the key to low launch costs. The reliability of that cutting-edge technology made SpaceX an industry leader and a force to be reckoned with, leaving all the major players in the space industry trailing far behind.
Now, 20 years on, SpaceX can launch all kinds of satellites to all kinds of orbits, and send cargo and crew (both, NASA and private citizens) to the ISS and beyond, all at a significantly low cost, while other space entities in the world continue using single-use rockets that make their launch costs high.
Elon Musk generates great value in whatever he does. All his companies are vertically integrated, which means that they employ a business strategy such that they have control over manufacturing and distribution of their products, rather than relying on external contractors or suppliers.
Elon Musk built a market for electric vehicles almost single-handedly. The start was very tough as he had to fight off bankruptcy as well as Wall Street short sellers. The battle with the latter goes on till today.
As the co-founder and CEO of Tesla, he leads all product design, engineering and global manufacturing of the company’s electric vehicles, battery products and solar energy products.
Since the company’s inception in 2003, Tesla’s mission has been to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
Today, Tesla’s market valuation is over $1 trillion and there are about 3.5 million Tesla cars on the road.
Model S received Consumer Reports’ Best Overall Car and has been named the Ultimate Car of the Year by Motor Trend. It received the highest overall score from the European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP) among any vehicle tested under the current protocol.
Model X was the first SUV ever to earn 5-star safety ratings in every category and sub-category in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s tests.
In 2017, Tesla began deliveries of Model 3, a mass-market electric vehicle with more than 320 miles of range, and unveiled Tesla Semi, which is designed to save owners at least $200,000 over a million miles based on fuel costs alone.
In 2019, Tesla unveiled Cybertruck, which will have better utility than a traditional truck and more performance than a sports car, as well as the Model Y compact SUV, which began customer deliveries in early 2020.
Model Y has earned a 5-star safety rating from the Euro NCAP and the Australasian New Car Assessment Programme (ANCAP).
Tesla cars offer numerous innovative features that are helpful and entertaining.
Tesla also produces three energy storage products foe uninterruptible power supplies – the Powerwall home battery, the Powerpack commercial-scale battery, and Megapack for utility-scale installations.
Solar power systems
In 2016, Tesla became the world’s first vertically-integrated sustainable energy company with the acquisition of SolarCity, the leading provider of solar power systems in the United States.
Artificial Intelligence & Autopilot
Tesla develops advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) to achieve full self-driving (FSD) and beyond for its vehicles. (https://www.tesla.com/AI)
On 30 September, 2022, Elon Musk unveiled Tesla’s humanoid robot, Optimus, who can perform tasks that are unsafe, repetitive or boring.
In 2013, he unveiled a very high-speed vactrain (or vacuum tube train) transportation system called the Hyperloop.
In 2015, he introduced his Starlink Satellite Constellation project aimed at delivering high speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable.
Open AI: https://openai.com
He was instrumental in creating Open AI, a non-profit research company promoting friendly Artificial Intelligence (AI).
In January 2021, Open AI came out with DALL-E, a neural network that creates images from text captions for a wide range of concepts expressible in natural language. A year later, DALL-E2 was introduced to generate more realistic and accurate images with 4x greater resolution.
In 2016, Elon Musk co-founded Neuralink, a neurotechnology company with the objective of developing ultra-high bandwidth brain-computer interfaces to connect the human brain to computers, which according to him, could be one way for humanity to keep up with the rise of an artificial superintelligence, which he considers to be inevitable and potentially catastrophic.
Today, Neuralink is a $1 billion company.
The Boring Company: https://www.boringcompany.com
In December 2016, he founded The Boring Company, an infrastructure and tunnel construction company that combines fast, affordable tunnelling technology with an all-electric public transportation system in order to reduce urban congestion and enable high-speed, long-distance travel. The company was formed as SpaceX’s subsidiary but became a separate and fully independent company in 2018.
The Boring Company projects are designed for intra-city (“loop”) transit system. It has built a 1.83 km high-speed test tunnel in Hawthorne, a 1.33 km long and 14-foot-wide twin tunnel providing transportation between the various buildings of the Las Vegas Convention Centre (cutting down a travel time of 15 minutes to just under a minute), and recently, completed a tunnel that will connect the Las Vegas Convention Centre with the nearby Resorts World Hotel.
The Boring Company is currently constructing a comprehensive tunnel system under Las Vegas. The project is called Vegas Loop and will consist of 24 kilometres of twin-tunnels and 51 stations that will connect local hotels, attractions, a stadium and possibly the airport.
The Boring Company is currently valued at $5.6 billion.
To expand the technological capabilities of its growing Starlink internet service, SpaceX, which tends to design and build systems in-house, acquired satellite data start-up Swarm Technologies which offers the world’s lowest-cost ($5 per month), low-bandwidth global connectivity for IoT (Internet of Things) devices using ultra-small satellites in a low orbit at 450-550 km altitude.
Books, music, television comedy shows and films have been a constant source of inspiration for Elon Musk.
He named SpaceX’s Falcon rocket family comprising Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and the long-retired smaller Falcon 1 after the fictional Millennium Falcon spaceship from the “Star Wars” films.
An avid bookworm, he named SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ships (ASDS) after sentient spaceships commanded by autonomous artificial intelligence in Iain M. Banks’s Culture series of sci-fi novels.
The names “Just Read the Instructions” (JRTI) and “Of Course I Still Love You” (OCISLY) come from the book “The Player of Games”, while A Shortfall of Gravitas comes from “Look to Windward” in which the ship is called “Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall”.
Starlink is named after John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars”.
Elon Musk is also inspired by music, and has created several music compositions of his own.
The Dragon spacecraft is named after the fictional “Puff the Magic Dragon,” from the hit song by music group Peter, Paul and Mary. Elon Musk has said that he used the name because many critics considered his goals impossible when he founded SpaceX in 2002. In those days when the space industry was dominated by large companies and agencies including NASA, and space hardware was mostly expendable (with exceptions like NASA’s space shuttle and its solid rocket boosters), there were just a few who believed his dreams were realizable.
The engineering genius, visionary, innovator and business leader has also developed a larger-than-life persona, with admirers calling him the real-life Tony Stark, the genius billionaire behind the famed Marvel Comics superhero.
Part of the live-action superhero movie “Iron Man 2” was shot in SpaceX’s factory in Hawthorne, California. Elon Musk even featured in the movie with a cameo as himself.
A statue of Iron Man, wearing company ID, guards SpaceX’s lunch area.
Elon Musk has made several appearances in popular Hollywood films and television comedy shows.
In 2021, he hosted the popular American late-night live television sketch comedy and variety show Saturday Night Live:
Elon Musk also donates generously towards education, health, scientific research, etc. Besides, all his companies carry the philanthropic mission of promoting human well-being. Last November, he donated $5.7 billion in Tesla shares to charity, making him the second biggest US donor in 2021.
His more recent high-profile donations include about $30 million toward school and downtown revitalization in the South Texan town of Brownsville, which is close to SpaceX’s Starship facility, Starbase. And a $100 million donation towards a prize for projects that would capture carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
But the economy was collapsing. And by the end of 2008, SpaceX was nearly bankrupt. A last minute contract with NASA on December 23rd saved the company.
“I couldn’t even hold the phone. I just blurted out…I love you guys,” Elon Musk later said.
There are tons of Elon Musk videos, old and new, on the internet, created by worldwide fans of the awesomeness of Elon Musk. Here’s one from 2018:
But many were still against SpaceX…including some of Musk’s space heroes. He was sad, but not discouraged.
“I don’t ever give up. I’d have to be dead or completely incapacitated.”
SpaceX’s phenomenal rise to success is all thanks to Elon Musk’s strong determination to make his crazy ideas work. His extraordinary reusable rockets and spacecraft have completely changed the face of space exploration.
SpaceX was founded on 14 March, 2002, in an old warehouse in El Segundo, California, a suburb of Los Angeles humming with the activity of the aerospace industry.
In 2008, the SpaceX headquarters was moved to Hawthorne, a few kilometres from Los Angeles International Airport.
A trailblazer, SpaceX has completely revolutionized space technology and the spaceflight industry in the global arena. The company is the leading market provider in launch services.
In 2002, SpaceX was worth $27 million and had a handful of employees. In 2022, the company worth increased to over $127 billion and the workforce grew to 12,000.
Within 20 years, SpaceX has achieved numerous firsts in aerospace history, all thanks to its reusable rocket and spacecraft technology. Elon Musk knew this a long time ago and invested his money very wisely. He said, “Reusable rockets are very desirable designs from a cost reduction standpoint.”
Launch cost includes the cost of building rockets. Expendable rockets are designed to burn up on re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. So there’s a brand-new rocket for every launch. Hence launch costs are high for all aerospace companies around the world, but not for SpaceX.
Through trials and errors, pushing the limits of aerospace technology, SpaceX learned to make low-cost and powerful, reusable orbital rockets that are 100% reliable.
SpaceX’s approach to rocket design stems from one core principle: Simplicity enables both reliability and low cost. Simplifying something as complex as a rocket is no easy task. And historically, most rocket makers have made their top priority performance, not cost.
From the very beginning, SpaceX designed its Falcon rockets with commonality in mind. Both of Falcon 9’s stages are powered by rocket-grade kerosene (RP1) and liquid oxygen, so only one type of engine is required. Both are the same diameter and are constructed from the same aluminium-lithium alloy, reducing the amount of tooling and the number of processes and resulting in huge cost savings.
SpaceX rockets can deliver spacecraft into any altitude and inclination, from low-Earth to geosynchronous orbit to planetary missions.
Being reusable, they also enable cheaper and more frequent launches. They make controlled soft landings on prepared pads close to the launch site minutes after launching to orbit. And they can fly again similar to commercial airlines, which fly the same plane multiple times a day and conducts tens of thousands of flights over its lifetime.
Ground landing pads…
Landings on autonomous drone ships stationed in the middle of the ocean…
By pioneering reusable orbital rockets, SpaceX is pursuing its long-term objective of creating a self-sustaining city on Mars.
SpaceX has come a long way since it last filed a patent in 2004, just two years after its founding. It was for an important engine component that doesn’t need replacement after every flight.
It’s still the only patent that SpaceX owns as Elon Musk doesn’t believe in filing patents
After reusable orbital rockets, SpaceX progressed towards making human spaceflights. Its first historic achievement in human spaceflight took place on 30 May, 2020, when it became the first private company to send humans to the ISS on the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission, launching American astronauts from American soil, on an American launch vehicle for the first time since the last flight of the Space Shuttle in 2011.
The following year, in September, 2021, SpaceX became the first and only company to complete an all-civilian crewed mission to orbit, travelling far beyond the ISS on the three-day Inspiration4 mission.
Building on these massive accomplishments, SpaceX moved towards fulfilling Elon’s goal of making humanity multi-planetary. Its new and fully-reusable Starship rocket will carry crew and cargo to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
In 2021, NASA selected Starship as its human landing system for the crewed Artemis-3 mission, which will land humans on the Moon for the first time since 1972.
And someday, SpaceX’s Starlink communication satellites will provide service for space travellers too.
SpaceX’s development in the US Space Industry
Space business is not just about making rockets and launching them into space. It’s expensive and difficult with a great deal of nasty politics which can kill aerospace start-ups even before they take off.
Beal Aerospace Technologies Inc. was a private company founded in 1997 by Dallas-based billionaire Andrew Beal, who hoped to design, build, and launch low-cost rockets.
Beal Aerospace not only developed a powerful engine BA-810, but also created a heavy-lift BA-2 rocket that would carry large payloads into orbit. BA-810 is the second most powerful liquid-fuel rocket engine built since NASA’s Saturn V rocket. It was tested in March 2000 at the company’s test site in McGregor, Texas (which became the SpaceX McGregor test facility) months before the company ceased its operations.
Beal Aerospace Technologies was dissolved in October 2000 with Andrew Beal citing NASA’s commercial practices as the main reason for closing, including the difficulties private companies face in competing for NASA’s governmental subsidies. NASA and the Department of Defence had decided to commit funds to the development of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV) program for which it had selected Lockheed Martin and Boeing to develop EELVs to compete for contracts. The Atlas and Delta rockets purchased under the EELV program serve NASA and Department of Defence. They launch national reconnaissance satellites that cost billions of dollars. High performance but at high costs.
Until 2004, NASA had kept private spaceflight effectively illegal. But that year, the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 required that NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) legalize private spaceflight.
Privately-operated crewed spaceflights had never existed in the world until SpaceX’s Crew Demo-2 mission aboard Dragon spacecraft in 2020.
The only private individuals to journey to space went as space tourists in the Space Shuttle or on Russian Soyuz flights to the former Soviet Union’s Mir Space Station or to the International Space Station.
The first private citizen in space was Dennis Tito, an American engineer, entrepreneur and astronaut. In mid-2001, he became the first space tourist to fund his own trip into space, when he spent nearly eight days in orbit as a crew member of ISS EP-1, a visiting mission to the International Space Station. All private individuals, who flew to space before him, had been sponsored by their home governments or by private corporations. Those trips include former US Senator and current NASA Administrator Bill Nelson’s 1986 flight on the Space Shuttle “Columbia” and Japanese television reporter Toyohiro Akiyama’s 1990 flight to the Mir Space Station.
Lori Garver, a former deputy NASA administrator (2009-2013), spent years fighting to open up NASA contracts for private companies.
In 2022, she published her book “Escaping Gravity”, a first-hand account of how a handful of revolutionaries paved the way for a new era of transcendental change at NASA. Her effort put her at crossroads with established interests who viewed her as a threat to the trillion-dollar government contracting system that has centralized power in the United States since World War II.
“Elon Musk and SpaceX changed our industry completely. Because everything is reusable, SpeceX can now launch for 1/10th the cost we had, which saves a lot of tax dollars.” – Lori Garver
Lori Garver received death threats for fostering a strong relationship between NASA and the private companies, but eventually won her case.
Still, Elon Musk had to deal with fake propaganda based on unfounded gossip spread by his competitors against him and SpaceX.
In the past, SpaceX has battled US military giants like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Its main competitor for domestic military satellites and other large payloads is United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture formed between Boeing and Lockheed Martin in 2006.
United Launch Alliance, which produces both the Delta and the Atlas, never makes its prices public. But budget documents showed that in 2010, the EELV program received $1.14 billion for three rockets—an average of $380 million per launch. And prices were expected to rise significantly in the following few years.
Elon Musk fought for the right to compete for launch bids, not for SpaceX to be directly awarded contracts for launches. In March 2014, during a congressional hearing, he made a presentation that showed how government payments for launches had skyrocketed since Boeing and Lockheed went from duopoly to monopoly. ULA charged $380 million per flight, while SpaceX would charge $90 million per flight. SpaceX’s standard cost was $60 million with the extra cost being for additional requirements for particularly sensitive launches. Moreover, ULA was using Russian-made rocket engines in its Atlas V rockets. This was when tensions were running high due to Russia’s invasion of Crimea in Ukraine.
A few months after this disclosure, ULA signed a deal with Blue Origin to develop American-made engines for its new Vulcan rocket that is under development since 2014. Recently, after eight years, Blue Origin delivered its first engines to ULA.
SpaceX’s vertically integrated business approach
SpaceX has passionately avoided space vendors because of their high prices and production time. Its major weapon in the rocket-building industry is in-house manufacturing.
Elon Musk, who is SpaceX’s chief designer as well as its CEO, is involved in virtually every technical decision. He is responsible for SpaceX’s greatest space innovations: lean manufacturing, vertical integration and flat management.
SpaceX employs a high degree of vertical integration in the production of its rockets and rocket engines, which is rare in the aerospace industry. It not only manufactures rocket engines but also between 80 percent and 90 percent of the components for its rockets, engines and spacecraft.
Other space companies including United Launch Alliance (ULA) have more than a thousand suppliers to make its end products.
SpaceX‘s heavy-lift Falcon Heavy (the world’s most powerful reusable rocket) can launch nearly 141,000 pounds into orbit, which is more than twice the payload of the next closest operational rocket, ULA’s Delta IV Heavy (introduced in 2004), and that too at one-third of the competitor’s cost.
In addition to building its own rocket engines, rocket bodies, and capsules, SpaceX designs its own motherboards and circuits, sensors to detect vibrations, flight computers, and solar panels.
There have also been numerous times when SpaceX has done pioneering work on advancing very complex hardware systems.
And at times, it has made great use of NASA’s vast technical archive while developing in-house technology like Dragon’s heat shield, for which it chose PICA (phenolic impregnated carbon ablator) material, first developed for NASA’s Stardust comet-sample-return spacecraft. Rejecting the prices they were getting from the manufacturer, they took advantage of help from NASA’s Ames Research Centre to make it themselves. SpaceX’s PICA-X material is 10 times less expensive than the original, has several great improvisations and is also easy to manufacture.
SpaceX stands for Elon Musk and the fulfilment of his ultimate goal of making humanity interplanetary. Hence he personally selects his staff. He has interviewed almost every one of SpaceX’s first thousand hires, including the janitors and technicians, and has continued to interview the engineers as the company’s workforce swelled. The first employees that he selected were an all-star crew and included some very interesting personalities, who have followed his vison and delivered the results he sought.
A key figure at SpaceX has been Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s President and COO, who was instrumental in SpaceX winning its first contract from NASA in 2008 which led to the company’s financial revival. Her deal-making skills won SpaceX lucrative contracts with NASA.
Other noteworthy first employees of SpaceX included Tom Mueller and Hans Koenigsmann. Tom Mueller was in charge of engine development at SpaceX during the most crucial years. On joining, he set to work immediately, building SpaceX’s two engines – Merlin and Kestrel, named after two falcon bird species. He was Vice-President of Propulsion Engineering and subsequently CTO of Propulsion. He left SpaceX in November 2020 to start his own company.
German-born Hans Koenigsmann started off with the charge of developing the avionics, guidance and control systems. As Vice-President of Build and Flight Reliability, he was responsible for the reliability of rocket launches and safety of flight operations at SpaceX, before he left in January 2021.
The guiding principle at SpaceX is to embrace your work and get things done. There’s no room for those who crave feedback or await guidance or detailed instructions… or tell Elon Musk that what he’s asking is impossible.
Rocket engine development is one of the longest sub-processes in the design of new rockets.
Propellant is the chemical mixture burned to produce thrust in rockets and consists of a fuel and an oxidizer. Rocket engines carry both fuel and an oxidizer. Fuel is a substance that burns, oxidizer is what makes fuel burn.
Propellants can be solid, liquid or hybrid.
Since its inception in 2002, SpaceX has developed a variety of liquid-propellant rocket engines running on rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) as fuel and liquid oxygen (LOX) as oxidizer.
SpaceX’s Falcon rockets are powered by its Merlin rocket engines. Designed for recovery and re-use, Merlin was first used to power the Falcon 1’s first stage and is now used on both stages of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles.
Kestrel, a LOX/RP-1 rocket engine, was used as Falcon 1’s second stage engine.
The current version of Falcon 9 uses nine Merlin-1D engines in its first stage…
Merlin has the highest thrust-to-weight ratio of any rocket engine ever made. The TWR ratio defines the power of a rocket engine compared to its weight.
The second stage has one Merlin-1D Vacuum engine (MVac), which is fired in space…
Merlin Vacuum has a larger exhaust section and a significantly larger expansion nozzle to maximize the engine’s efficiency in the vacuum of space. At full power, the Merlin Vacuum engine operates with the greatest efficiency ever for an American-made hydrocarbon rocket engine.
Each Merlin-1D produces over 190,000 pounds of thrust at sea-level, while the single MVac produces 220,500 pounds of thrust in the vacuum of space.
About the size of a Boeing 737 fuselage, the Falcon 9’s first-stage fuel tank feeds the nine Merlin engines, generating more than 1.7 million pounds of thrust at lift-off…
Falcon Heavy’s three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores with 27 Merlin engines generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust at lift-off, equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft.
They are hypergolic liquid-propellant engines that utilize a mixture of monomethyl hydrazine fuel and nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer.
Hypergolic propellants are fuels and oxidizers that ignite spontaneously on contact with each other and require no ignition source. The easy start and restart capability of hypergols make them ideal for spacecraft manoeuvring systems.
Dragon is equipped with 16 Draco thrusters, each generating 90 pounds of force in the vacuum of space. They are used to orient the spacecraft during the mission, including apogee/perigee manoeuvres, orbit adjustment and attitude control.
Crew Dragon’s launch escape system is powered by an array of eight SuperDraco thrusters, each of which generates an escape thrust of 16,000 pounds. In the unlikely event of an emergency, the eight SuperDraco engines can quickly separate Dragon, propelling it half a mile away from Falcon 9 in less than eight seconds.
SuperDraco is the first space-going engine built entirely by a 3D printer and is made out of a single piece of metal, the high-strength alloy Inconel. It uses the same storable or non-cryogenic hypergolic propellant as the Draco, but it’s much larger and delivers roughly 100 times the thrust of the Draco.
For its new fully reusable two-stage Super Heavy Starship (SHS) launch system, SpaceX has developed and manufactured Raptor, a family of full-flow staged combustion rocket engines running on “methalox”- cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen (LH2/LOX). Raptor is used on both the stages.
Methane was chosen as fuel because it’s cheaper, doesn’t accumulate soot and above all, can be locally produced on Mars using the planet’s natural resources.
The Super Heavy booster will have 33 powerful Raptor-2 engines…
Starship spacecraft will have 6, of which 3 will be Raptor Vacuum (RVac) engines…
SpaceX has also developed gaseous “methox” thrusters running on gaseous methane and gaseous oxygen.
Rocket and spacecraft development facilities
Originally constructed by Northrop Corporation to build Boeing 747 fuselages, the sprawling, three-storied facility not only serves as SpaceX’s primary manufacturing plant but also houses its office space and mission control.
Outside the headquarters, the first-ever Falcon 9 rocket booster that entered space, returned and landed on Earth in December 2015, is on permanent display.
Inside, a slightly-scorched cargo-carrying Dragon capsule hangs from the ceiling. It’s the very first that went to space in December 2010, orbited Earth twice before re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, becoming the first private vehicle to return from space.
SpaceX HQ remains one of the few facilities in the world where an entire launch vehicle or spacecraft comes together under one roof.
Spanning nearly 1 million square feet, the SpaceX factory currently produces more rocket engines than any other U.S. manufacturer.
There’s another factory, newly-constructed for producing Raptor-2 engines, near SpaceX’s Testing and Development facility in McGregor, Texas. It’s about 7 hours from Boca Chica, where the Starbase facility for building, testing and launching Starship rockets is located.
Starbase, in South Texas, is the home base for Starship…
Cape, the second home base for Starship, is under construction at Cape Canaveral in Florida. A render…
SpaceX tests its rocket engines, vehicle structures, and systems at its 4,000-acre state-of-the-art rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.
There are 16 specialized test stands at this facility for testing engines and rocket stages, including Falcon 9 stages, Falcon Heavy stages, Merlin engines, and future reaction control thrusters on Starship.
In addition to routine testing, Dragon capsules (following recovery after an orbital mission), are shipped to McGregor for de-fuelling, clean-up, and refurbishment for reuse in future missions.
In the past, the McGregor facility hosted test flights of Grasshopper and F9R Dev1, the first stages used for low-altitude Vertical Take-Off Vertical Landing (VTVL) testing for the rocket reusability program in 2012–2013.
While testing of the much larger Starship prototypes is done at Starbase, testing of its Raptor engines is carried out at McGregor, before delivery to Starbase.
Most launch sites or pads are built close to bodies of water to ensure that should a failure occur, no components fall over populated areas.
Moreover, the air is thinner at high altitudes. Rockets require more fuel to lift off and reach a desired acceleration compared to sea level where air is thicker and propulsion more efficient.
Each launch pad has a “lightning suppression system” around the rocket in the form of towers that redirect lightning in the immediate area. The system works as a Faraday cage, shielding the rocket from being fried by lightning.
In SpaceX’s early days, all five launches of the retired Falcon 1 took place at the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defence Test Site on Omelek Island, Kwajalein.
Currently, there are three orbital launch sites and two landing pads for Falcon 9 first-stage booster landings:
The historic LC-39A at Kennedy Space Centre, Cape Canaveral in Florida…
All Falcon Heavy and Dragon missions are launched from this pad.
LC-39A has been the launch site of NASA’s crewed spaceflight missions since the late 1960s with Saturn V launches during the Apollo program, and Space Shuttle launches since 1979.
Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral, Florida…
SLC-40 is SpaceX’s workhorse pad and the source of almost half of Falcon 9’s launches this year.
There are two SpaceX ground recovery zones at Cape Canaveral for simultaneous landings of Falcon Heavy side boosters: Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) and a smaller Landing Zone-2 (LZ-2).
LZ-1 at Cape Canaveral, Florida…
Vandenberg Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) and Landing Zone-4 pad in California…
For its new Starship rocket, the orbital launch sites are Starbase in South Texas and Kennedy Space Centre’s LC-39A.
Starbase (also called the Gateway to Mars), the world’s first commercial launch site and the build, launch and land facility for Starship located in Boca Chica, near Brownsville, South Texas…
SpaceX has made rapid progress on the construction of Starship’s first Florida launch pad and tower at Kennedy Space Centre’s LC-39A.
SpaceX has made space history numerous times in its race to reach the stars. And it all began 14 years ago, when the company achieved its first successful launch with the Falcon 1 rocket in September 2008.
SpaceX’s Falcon launch statistics as of 1 January, 2023, are as follows:
203 launches: 5 Falcon-1, 194 Falcon-9 and 4 Falcon Heavy.
160 successful landings: 125 on drone ships, 35 on land.
Re-use of first-stage boosters: 134 times.
Launches in 2022: 60 Falcon 9, 1 Falcon Heavy.
Cargo Dragon-1: 22 missions before retirement.
Cargo Dragon-2: 6 missions.
Crew Dragon: 8 crewed missions transported 30 people to orbit.
Starlink: 67 dedicated Starlink missions and 2 rideshare missions since May 2019, 3666 Starlink satellites launched to orbit.
FALCON 9 & FALCON HEAVY ROCKETS
SpaceX’s workhorse rocket, the 70-metre-tall Falcon 9, has totally shaken up the aerospace business. It holds the record of most consecutive successful orbital launches by a rocket model. No other rocket in the world has ever achieved so much.
The main objective of any SpaceX launch mission is the successful deployment of payload into its planned orbit.
More than a decade ago, Elon Musk wanted to make 100% reusable orbital rockets. That meant a safe and reliable recovery of each first-stage rocket booster, payload fairing (or Dragon spacecraft), and the second-stage, all of which would be re-used on future launch missions after cleaning and refurbishment.
It took just a few years for Elon Musk to accomplish his dream, which at that time, was scoffed at even by the most experienced players in the space industry.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and the 3-Falcon 9 strapped-together Falcon Heavy rocket are fully reusable except for the second-stage (or upper stage). Despite SpaceX’s best efforts, recovery of the rocket’s upper stage did not prove to be a worthwhile investment. Hence only the rocket nose cone (or payload fairing) is recoverable.
The rocket’s first-stage provides the initial kick to carry the rocket off of the ground and out of the atmosphere.
The first-stage booster, with a cluster of 9 powerful Merlin engines and aluminium-lithium alloy tanks containing liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) propellant, is the largest and most expensive component comprising around 50-70% of the cost of building the two-stage rocket. Its recovery for re-use is the single most important factor accounting for SpaceX’s significantly low rocket costs.
The nine engines that power the Falcon 9 first-stage are arranged in the most efficient pattern possible for delivering power (thrust) and managing heat (thermal dynamics).
It’s called the Octaweb – eight engines around the edge and one in the centre. The octaweb could be considered the backbone of the Falcon 9 – a massive metallic structure that holds the engines in place, each in their own separate bay. Its weight, combined with that of the nine Merlin engines, gives a landing first stage an extremely low centre of gravity.
The octaweb structure is put together using a series of welds. This work is done by robotic welders and is closely monitored and overseen by humans.
A robotic welder at work…
Payload fairing, second stage and inter stage…
SpaceX produced its 200th Falcon 9 second stage and Merlin Vacuum engine in November 2022.
The 200th second stage…
A Falcon 9 payload fairing (or nose cone) measures 43 feet (13.1 m) in height and 17.1 feet in diameter (5.2 m).
Like the first stage, each fairing half is a fully capable re-entry vehicle with its own thrusters, thermal protection, avionics and sensor suite.
The Inter Stage is a composite structure that connects the first and second stages, and houses the pneumatic pushers that allow the first and second stage to separate during flight. Aerodynamic grid fins are positioned at the base of the inter stage.
The grid fins are designed to withstand high atmospheric re-entry heat. They control the booster during re-entry by moving the centre of pressure as it returns to Earth.
Falcon 9’s four landing legs are made of state-of-the-art carbon fibre with aluminium honeycomb. Placed symmetrically around the base of the rocket, they are stowed at the base of the first stage and deploy just prior to landing.
SpaceX successfully landed an orbital class rocket booster for the first time on 21 December, 2015.
SpaceX was built on the mantra of “Test, test, test, test, test. We test as we fly.” For its reusability program, it combined revenue-generating satellite and cargo launches with experimental efforts to recover the first stage of its rocket and test special equipment like landing legs and grid fins.
After each rocket landing the company inspected hardware like first stage engines, landing legs, grid fins, etc. that survived the rigours of getting to space and back.
This way, it used the new knowledge to move closer towards achieving full and rapid reusability.
Almost all its early launches flew out over the ocean to avoid risk to human lives after ensuring that the sea was clear in that area. In this safe manner, it practiced getting back its rockets to Earth and landing them with pinpoint precision.
Many a time, despite strong wind weather, SpaceX went ahead with drone ship landings in the hope of gathering data on the booster’s capability to land in less-than-ideal conditions.
A Falcon 9 satellite launch mission goes as follows:
The final stages of the countdown begin at T-38 minutes when the launch director (LD) gives a go/no-go poll for loading the rocket with RP-1, a type of refined kerosene, and liquid oxygen (LOX).
Seven minutes before launch, the nine Merlin-1D engines on the first stage begin to chill down using LOX. Chilling the engines ensures there are no thermal shocks at ignition. The Transporter-Erector (T/E) retracts to its pre-launch position at T-4 minutes and 30 seconds.
With a minute left in the count, two major events take place. First, the flight computers enter their start up sequence, taking over the countdown. Second, Falcon 9’s tanks begin to pressurize to flight levels. The LD gives the final “go” for launch at T-45 seconds.
At T-3 seconds, the nine first-stage engines are commanded to ignite. A second later, the engines ignite and then begin a final health check. Once the engines are verified to be healthy and producing full thrust, the hydraulic hold-down clamps and the T/E retract, and Falcon 9 lifts off at T-0.
After lift-off, Falcon 9 climbs away from the launch pad.
The rocket’s trajectory is curved after launch with the rocket arching to orbit…
That’s because while flying, the rocket covers distance both horizontally and vertically – but only the latter is affected by the force of gravity, which bends the path of the projectile into a parabola.
Around 1 minute after lift-off, Falcon 9 goes supersonic i.e. travels faster than the speed of sound (Mach 1)…
In or around 15 seconds, the MAX-Q event (maximum dynamic pressure) takes place, which is when the rocket passes through the maximum amount of aerodynamic pressure i.e. the point where the aerodynamic stresses on the rocket are at their peak.
After leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, three events take place in quick succession: Main Engine Cut-Off (MECO), Stage Separation and Second Engine Start (SES-1).
The first-stage rocket engines burn on till the MECO event, at which point the job of the first stage in launching the payload is complete.
MECO takes place around 2 minutes, 30 seconds after lift-off, moments after two of the first stage engines are shut down. At MECO, the remaining seven Merlin engines are shut down to slow down the rocket for the next event, Stage Separation which happens within a few seconds.
Having completed its role in boosting the payload into orbit, the first stage separates and falls away from the second stage and payload, to begin its descent to Earth.
The returning booster makes a planned, controlled landing on a SpaceX landing zone near the launch pad or on a SpaceX drone ship out in the ocean, depending on its fuel levels.
A drone ship allows SpaceX to land boosters at sea on high-velocity missions that cannot carry enough fuel to allow for a return-to-launch-site landing.
A few seconds after stage separation, the third event, Second Engine Start (SES-1), takes place with the second stage making the first of its two planned burns. Firing its single Merlin-1D Vacuum (MVac) engine, the second stage continues the ascent to orbit.
Next is payload fairing separation, which happens a few seconds later SES-1, more or less around 3 minutes after lift-off.
The two fairing shells or halves fall off, exposing to space for the first time the payload mounted to the forward end of the second-stage.
This is how a fairing separates:
A GoPro inside a fairing from a Falcon 9 flight captured some spectacular views as it fell back to Earth…
View from half of the payload fairing encapsulating Starlink satellites as the fairing deploys and Falcon 9’s second stage continues on to its intended orbit.
View of Earth from second-stage onboard camera, with Starlink satellites at the forward end…
Designed to be reusable, the fairing shells return to Earth using cold gas thrusters (or small engines) to orient themselves and deploy a parafoil (or steerable parachute) to slow descent before reaching the ocean, where they are picked up by a recovery vessel stationed close by.
The second stage continues its propulsion burn for about 5 minutes and 30 seconds until it reaches a low parking orbit. While the second stage is performing this burn to reach orbit, the returning first stage continues to follow its ballistic trajectory towards the landing pad. It does 2 or 3 engine burns, depending on where it’s landing.
For drone ship landings, the boosters fly down ballistically after MECO, and make two engine burns. The first burn is for them to survive atmospheric re-entry. The second burn begins just before landing. It slows the booster to a make a soft touchdown.
For Return-To-Launch-Site (RTLS) landings, the returning boosters first make a boost-back burn that slows their forward velocity and starts their reverse movement to the launch site. This is followed by the entry burn, and finally, the landing burn.
Shortly after the stage separation event, cold gas thrusters flip the first stage booster and the “boost-back burn” begins with the main engines igniting to set the trajectory towards the landing pad on Earth.
The four titanium grid fins of the booster are deployed moments after stage separation to steer the booster and control its movement as it coasts in space.
The “entry burn” starts around 6 minutes and 30-40 seconds from lift-off with the ignition of three of the booster’s nine engines to slow it as it enters the denser regions of Earth’s atmosphere. The entry burn lasts for roughly 20-25 seconds. Slowing down the booster during atmospheric re-entry reduces heating, which would otherwise damage the booster and hamper its re-use.
Braving clouds and winds, the 15-storey first stage descends unpowered. At an altitude of two kilometres and a speed of roughly 235 m/s, it extends its four-legged landing gear and ignites a single engine for a 20-second landing burn in a final braking manoeuvre just before making a soft touchdown on a prepared landing zone or drone ship close from where it launched.
The landing takes place more or less 8 minutes and 30 seconds after lift-off (or T+0:08:30). The drone ship takes the booster back to the port to be prepared for a future flight.
While the first-stage is making a landing on Earth, the second-stage does the 1st Second Engine Cut-Off (SECO-1) event in orbit. After SECO-1, the second stage reaches a preliminary parking orbit. It coasts for around 25 minutes or more before re-igniting the MVac engine for the second burn. This is the 2nd Second Engine Start (SES-2) event. It’s a brief burn of a few seconds or more, depending upon the orbit to be achieved for payload deployment. The 2nd Second Engine Cut-Off (SECO-2) event takes place.
Some minutes after SECO-2, the payload separates from the second stage, completing the payload insertion in orbit. The mission is accomplished with the satellites deployed approximately 35-45 minutes after lift-off.
The time taken for satellite deployment after lift-off varies, depending on the mission. The second-stage usually makes two burns for satellite deployment, but if the mission demands, it makes an additional burn.
After placing the payload in the required orbit, the second stage makes the de-orbit burn in a final manoeuvre to drive itself back into Earth’s atmosphere for a destructive re-entry.
View from the International Space Station of Falcon9 second-stage flying beneath…
Starlink on-board camera view of Falcon 9 second-stage deorbit burn (after satellite deployment), which enables the second stage to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, where it gets 100% burned and destroyed…
A clear night provides the best view of Falcon 9 as it goes through the various stages of flight: lift-off, main-engine cut-off (MECO), stage separation, second-stage ignition and returning first-stage burns.
In December 2017, the amazing rocket trail over LA following Falcon 9 launch, just after sunset…
The spectacular effect is produced following stage separation, when the two stages are each doing their own thing: the second stage is firing up and propelling the payload into orbit while the first stage is firing its engines to head back to Earth.
The first stage engine gives an orange glow while the second-stage vacuum engine radiates a bluish-purple light. When the two smash into each other, their interactions create a beautiful show in the dark sky.
It looks like a space jellyfish at twilight or the “blue hour”, which lasts 20-30 minutes just before sunrise and just after sunset.
Pre-dawn Falcon 9 jellyfish seen over Florida…
In a return-to-land-landing, the flight trajectory makes the exhaust gas plume more prominent in the night sky…
A timelapse video from the drone ship “A Shortfall of Gravitas” showing the footage from Falcon 9’s launch and landing against the backdrop of the second-stage’s “jellyfish” and the first-stage booster’s entry burn.
Standing 229 feet (70 meters) tall and 40 feet (12.2 meters) wide, Falcon Heavy is the world’s most powerful reusable rocket. It was the most powerful rocket with the highest payload capacity of any operational rocket in the world until NASA’s moon rocket launched in November 2022.
Falcon Heavy is powered by 27 Merlin main engines from three strapped-together Falcon first stage boosters (or rocket cores) – a reinforced centre core with upper stage and payload atop, and two side boosters – generating 5.1 million pounds of thrust at lift-off, that’s thrice the total thrust of a Falcon 9.
The side cores, or boosters, are connected on the nosecone, the inter stage, and on the octaweb. Shortly after lift-off the centre core engines are throttled down. After the side cores separate, the centre core engine throttle back up to full thrust.
The Falcon Heavy upper stage with a single MVac engine is similar to the Falcon 9 upper stage.
Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters return to land on SpaceX’s Landing Zone -1 and Landing Zone-2 after launching from LC-39A in Florida…
All three Falcon Heavy boosters – the centre core and two side boosters – landed for the first time on the Arabsat-6A mission in April 2019. Two made simultaneous landings in the recovery zone, while the centre core landed on the drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Atlantic Ocean.
As of 1 January, 2023, Falcon Heavy has been launched four times with 100% success: February 2018, April 2019, June 2019 and November 2022.
The June 2019 mission was for the Space Test Program (STP) of the U.S. Air Force. The mission required complex orbital manoeuvres over three-and-a-half hours to place two dozen satellites into three distinct orbits. It was to demonstrate the capabilities of the powerful rocket so as to entrust it with more critical, and more expensive, operational national security payloads on future flights.
The fourth mission, USSF-44, came after three years due to delay caused by the classified satellites of the U.S. Space Force.
On 1 November, even as thick fog enveloped most of the Cape Canaveral area, Falcon Heavy blasted into orbit from LC-39A on one of SpaceX’s most demanding launches, to place the satellites to a high-altitude geosynchronous orbit.
The upper stage flight profile included a coast lasting more than five hours between several burns to place the satellites into the target orbit.
For this mission, SpaceX used three newly-manufactured boosters and the centre core was expended. The two side boosters returned to near-simultaneous landings in SpaceX’s recovery zone.
SpaceX has a backlog of twelve Falcon Heavy rocket missions, of which five are scheduled to launch over the next twelve months: USSF-67, and USSF-52 missions for the U.S. Space Force, NASA’s Psyche asteroid probe mission and internet communications satellite missions for Viasat and EchoStar.
Falcon Launch Statistics
Even though its launch missions have become routine, SpaceX optimizes its rockets and operations to squeeze more performance and more cadence out of them.
Falcon 9 has achieved 194 launches since its first launch in June 2010.
Following 18 successful launches, Falcon 9 failed for the first time on an International Space Station supply mission (CRS-7) for NASA, in June 2015. Thereafter, Falcon 9 successfully launched nine missions until the pre-flight failure of a Falcon 9 during a static fire test in September 2016, which caused an explosion that completely destroyed the rocket, the launch pad, and the Amos-6 satellite payload. As it happened before launch, the second failure is not included in the launch tally.
Since the ill-fated Amos-6 mission, Falcon 9 has completed a record-setting run of 170 successful missions in a row.
The current version, Falcon 9 Block 5, which was introduced in May 2018, has flown 136 missions, and achieved 100% mission success.
In October 2022, SpaceX set a new record of 48 launches (all successful) by the same launch vehicle type in a calendar year, breaking the previous record of 45 successful launches (out of 47 launches) in a calendar year, held by Russia’s Soyuz-U in 1979.
Starlink 4-36 was SpaceX’s 48th launch of 2022 and 56th launch in less than 12 months, so its Falcon launch program simply doesn’t have time to waste.
SpaceX’s relentless pursuit of perfection have resulted in Starlink missions becoming extraordinarily routine, given how difficult it is to successfully launch a rocket even once.
From 24 May 2019 to 1 January 2023, Spacex has made 67 dedicated Starlink launches and 2 Starlink-carrying rideshare launches with Falcon 9 successfully launching and delivering every single Starlink satellite that it has ever carried (over 3600) into the proper orbit.
SpaceX Launch Manifest: https://www.elonx.net/spacex-launch-manifest
In 2018 and 2019, SpaceX launched an average of 17 Falcon rockets per year. Its annual cadence grew to 26 launches in 2020 and 31 in 2021.
In 2022, SpaceX achieved a record-breaking launch cadence, launching on an average of once every six days. This is an unprecedented performance by a private company.
It made 61 launches (60 Falcon 9s and 1 Falcon Heavy), surpassing Elon Musk’s planned target of 60 launches, which is nearly twice the number of its launches in 2021 and 10 times more than the nearest competitor.
In December 2022 itself, SpaceX made a record 7 launches.
For 2023, the target is 100 launches.
SpaceX has continued to push the boundaries of booster reuse.
Falcon 9 first-stage boosters (or cores) were designed to fly 10 times without any major refurbishment, and perhaps 100 times with periodic overhauls. They have been proved safe to reuse over and over again, so there’s no stopping them from flying.
In 2022, a landed booster was re-used on the next launch in a record time of 21 days…
Also in 2022, SpaceX flew two different first stages on their 14th flight.
By the end of 2022, the leading booster in the Falcon 9 had made 15 launches and landings.
Now that the Falcon 9 boosters are certified for 15 flights, SpaceX is working at certifying them for up to 20 flights to bring airline-like cadence to space.
Reliability of rocket reusability and rapid launch cadence are two of the reasons why SpaceX can charge significantly lower than its competitors.
In October 2022, SpaceX created a new record of the shortest time between two launches: 7 hours, 10 minutes.
Later in December 2022, SpaceX successfully launched three Falcon 9s in in 33 hours and 46 minutes, the fastest three-flight cadence for an orbit-class rocket in modern space history, breaking its earlier record made in June at 36 hours.
SpaceX can maintain such a high launch cadence by using flight-proven first-stage boosters and payload fairings. It now delivers about twice as much payload to orbit as rest of world combined. The payloads include Starlink satellites, crew and cargo missions for NASA, Department of Defence missions, and commercial missions.
In Q2 (the second quarter) of 2022, SpaceX launched nearly 160,000 kilograms of up mass across 16 launches.
In Q3, SpaceX launched 705 spacecraft, the most of any launch provider. The closest was China who launched 43.
Read more: Discovering SpaceX: Falcon Rocket Family
SPACEX’S FLEET OF RECOVERY SHIPS
SpaceX has a growing fleet of marine vessels to support its offshore recovery program. These include drone ships (or floating landing pads) for landing Falcon 9 rockets, multi-purpose ships for recovery of payload fairings and Dragon spacecraft, tug boats, fast boats and even a “rocket-grabbing” robot aboard drone ships.
A drone ship is a large modified barge positioned downrange (close to the launch site) to catch the gigantic first stage booster as it descends back to Earth.
Their function is to provide a landing platform when the rocket has used too much fuel, either due to carrying heavy payloads that require extra energy, or due to flying to a higher orbit which requires an extra boost from the rocket’s first stage.
All Falcon flights going to geostationary orbit or exceeding escape velocity require landing at sea. Escape velocity is the minimum speed required to escape from Earth’s surface or gravitational force, which is 11.2 km per second.
SpaceX’s first drone ship was introduced into operations in early 2015. Today, there are three of them stationed in the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean.
Of Course I Still Love You (OCILY) on the West Coast…
Its first successful booster landing was on “Of Course I Still Love You” (OCISLY) drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, in April 2016.
Enjoy this hilarious SpaceX video celebrating its failures as well!
Out of total 135 drone ship landing attempts till date, only 10 landings were unsuccessful.
ASOG made 26 landing attempts (all of them successful), OCISLY made 63 landing attempts (7 of them unsuccessful) and JRTI (both Marmac 300 and 303) made 46 landing attempts (3 of them unsuccessful).
SpaceX has a current streak of 85 landing successes in a row since March 2021.
In the early years, following touchdown, the landed booster was secured manually to the deck by SpaceX crew. But over the past few years, SpaceX’s rocket-grabbing robot “OctaGrabber” (or “Roomba”) housed aboard the drone ships secures the landed booster.
Recovery ships supporting returning booster…
Arrival of landed booster on drone ship at Port Canaveral…
Two identical ships, Megan and Shannon, recover the Dragon spacecraft and crew after splashdown at the end of a mission or during certain abort scenarios.
Previously, two SpaceX fairing recovery vessels stationed at sea were employed in the fairing recovery operation. Ms Chief and Ms Tree, each fitted with giant nets would catch the fairing shells as they fell under parachutes.
The Falcon Heavy payload fairing half that was used on the STP-2 mission in June 2019 captured video of its return to Earth. A camera aboard SpaceX’s Ms. Tree boat in the Atlantic Ocean snapped video of the fairing landing in its netting.
Ms. Tree catching a fairing half after the launch of a Starlink mission in August 2020…
The fairing catcher ships were retired as SpaceX opted for wet recovery, wherein the parachute-descended fairing halves safely touch the sea surface to be then lifted by the crane of a recovery ship stationed nearby. This method supported economic reuse of fairings and often proved to be more reliable and less high-risk than catch attempts.
Recently, SpaceX has been testing a new fairing recovery rig.
Read more: Discovering SpaceX: Fleet of Recovery Ships
CARGO & CREW DRAGON
Between 1981 and 1985, NASA’s Space Shuttle was, at times, used to place commercial satellites into orbit. But after the 1986 explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger, U.S policy placed a general ban on flying non-government payloads on the Shuttle.
The Space Shuttle was used almost exclusively to support human spaceflight and the International Space Station (ISS) until it was retired from service in 2011. Thereafter, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft became the only space transportation to the ISS, and the Americans were forced to rely on it.
The Russians dominated much of the business of sending cargo and astronauts to space, but they did it using decades-old equipment with mechanical knobs and computer screens which remain unchanged.
Then, in December 2010, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched its Dragon spacecraft comprising a reusable space capsule and an expendable trunk module (jettisoned prior to deorbit burn for atmospheric re-entry while returning to Earth), which orbited Earth twice before the capsule returned and made a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Eight-year-old SpaceX became the first private company in history to accomplish this incredible feat.
Six days later, Dragon departed the orbiting laboratory and began its return to Earth.
The mission initialized the beginning of Dragon’s delivery of cargo and supplies to and from the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts with the first cargo resupply mission launched on 8 October, 2012.
In June 2017, Dragon flew to the ISS for the second time for NASA’s 11th resupply mission, becoming the first spacecraft to visit the ISS a second time since Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2011.
Dragon-1 was retired in April 2020 after completing its final mission on NASA’s 20th resupply mission (CRS-20). Since its first mission in 2012, Dragon spent over 520 days attached to the ISS, delivered over 95,000 pounds of cargo comprising scientific research and crew supplies to the ISS, and returned over 76,000 pounds back to Earth.
Its fleet of 13 spacecraft (one was lost during CRS-7 launch) carried out 22 missions.
Unlike Dragon-1, the second-generation Dragon-2 can dock to the ISS and other space habitats autonomously without requiring the help of a robotic arm. And the returning capsule makes a splashdown either in the Atlantic Ocean or in the Gulf of Mexico.
Cargo Dragon made its debut in December 2020 on the first operational resupply mission (SpaceX CRS-21) to the ISS under NASA’s CRS-2 program, which was also awarded to Northrop Grumman’s single-use Cygnus spacecraft, and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft (expected to make its debut after 2022).
Dragon’s launch payload mass is 6000 kg and return payload mass is 3000 kg.
In March 2022, NASA awarded SpaceX six more cargo missions under the CRS-2 contract, to deliver supplies and equipment to the ISS through 2026.
So, 15 missions in total since the first one. The 15th mission will be CRS-35.
Both Crew and Cargo Dragon are launched from the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
The first Dragon-2 flew for the second time to the ISS on the CRS-23 mission in August 2021.
Till date, SpaceX has successfully delivered and returned cargo to and from the ISS on six missions since December 2020: CRS-21, CRS-22, CRS-23, CRS-24, CRS-25 and CRS-26.
Dragon-2 was developed for cargo as well as crew transportation.
Crew Dragon is the first private spacecraft to take humans to the International Space Station.
Crew Dragon is the only U.S. human-rated orbital transport spacecraft, the only reusable orbital crewed spacecraft and the only reusable orbital cargo spacecraft currently in operation. Its primary role is to transport crews to and from the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, succeeding the crew orbital transportation capabilities of the Space Shuttle which retired from service in 2011.
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft comprises a capsule and trunk, which together stand around 26.7 feet (8.1m) tall, with a diameter of 13 feet (4m).
The Dragon capsule, also known as the pressurized section, allows for the transport of people as well as environmentally sensitive cargo.
The capsule’s heat shield, located at its base, must survive temperatures hotter than the surface of the Sun as the craft screams through the atmosphere at up to 25 times the speed of sound. The material used in the heat shield is ablative: it slowly burns away at high temperatures to carry away much of the extreme heat.
Dragon’s trunk has solar panels, heat-removal radiators, space for unpressurized cargo, and fins to provide stability during emergency aborts. Half of the trunk is covered in solar panels that provide power to Dragon during flight and while on-station. The trunk remains attached to Dragon until shortly before re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
Both Cargo and Crew Dragon are similar in appearance. But Crew Dragon has additional features like passenger seats, cockpit controls, astronaut life support systems, and SuperDraco abort thrusters (or engines).
While both Cargo and Crew Dragon are equipped with 16 Draco thrusters to manoeuvre the vehicle in orbit, Crew Dragon also has 8 SuperDraco thrusters to power the vehicle’s launch escape system.
In the unlikely event of an emergency on the pad or during the climb to orbit, the launch escape system (LES) will fire to propel the capsule and quickly separate it from the rocket. Parachutes are then deployed to bring the astronauts down safely.
Crew Dragon is also designed to be “two-fault tolerant”. This means that any two things can fail, such as a flight computer and a thruster, and the spacecraft can still bring the crew home safely.
Fired together at full throttle, Crew Dragon’s eight SuperDraco engines (each producing 16,000 pounds of force) can move the spacecraft 0.5 miles – the length of over 7 American football fields line up end to end – in 7.5 seconds, reaching a peak velocity of 436 mph.
Watch 8 SuperDraco engines fire for Crew Dragon descent landing tether test:
Crew Dragon combines substance with style, so it’s more like flying business class compared to Russia’s cramped Soyuz capsule.
Crew Dragon has seven thin, sturdy, contoured seats arranged with four seats in front of the four-panelled flat screen main console, and a row of three seats in the back.
There are three different seat sizes with foam that is moulded to an individual’s body.
Crew Dragon is fully autonomous, but astronauts on board can take control of the spacecraft if needed. In the middle of the console, there’s a joystick for flying the spacecraft and some physical buttons for essential functions that astronauts could press in case of an emergency or a malfunctioning touch-screen.
Dragon is equipped with GPS sensors, and cameras and imaging sensors such as Lidar (laser ranging) on the nosecone which feed data to the flight computer on the distance and relative velocity to the space station as it approaches closer to it. The flight computer then uses algorithms that determine – based on this information – how to fire the thrusters to most effectively get to the docking target.
Crew Dragon’s first flight was an automated Crew Demo-1 test mission, launched to the ISS on 2 March, 2019. The next day, it became the first American spacecraft to autonomously dock with the ISS.
On 30 May, 2020, while the entire world was in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic, SpaceX launched its historic Crew Demo-2 test mission, the first flight of astronauts aboard Crew Dragon.
Crew Dragon flawlessly sent NASA’s veteran test pilots Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley dressed in SpaceX spacesuit to the International Space Station on a two-month stay.
Crew Dragon’s splashdown on 2 August, 2020, was the United States’ first crewed splashdown since the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.
In 2019, the per-seat cost for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon was around $55 million, that’s around 65% and 55% lesser than the Russian Soyuz (then $85 million) and Boeing Starliner (projected at $90 million).
So SpaceX not only fulfilled NASA’s objective of launching American astronauts, from American soil, on an American launch vehicle since the final flight of the Space Shuttle in 2011, but also did it at a very low cost.
Following the smooth accomplishment of Crew Demo-2 test mission, SpaceX was certified by NASA for crew transportation in November 2020. It led to the start of the twice-a-year, operational crewed missions to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
As part of the NASA crewed missions, Crew Dragon transports up to four astronauts, along with critical cargo to the ISS.
The first mission, SpaceX Crew-1 was launched on 16 November, 2020, with NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japan’s JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi. After 167 days in space, Crew Dragon and the Crew-1 astronauts returned to Earth on 2 May, 2021. It was the longest duration mission by a U.S. spacecraft surpassing the 84-day mark set by an Apollo capsule on the final flight to the Skylab space station in 1974.
The SpaceX Crew-2 mission was launched on 23 April, 2021 with NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, France’s ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Japan’s JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide.
Video of Crew Dragon docking to the ISS on the Crew-2 mission:
Crew-2 mission set a new record for the longest ever stay in space at 199 days. This is just 11 days below Crew Dragon’s minimum certification of 210 days.
As per NASA’s manual, a human-rated capsule must be capable of spending at least 210 days in orbit. SpaceX designed Crew Dragon for the 210-day limit i.e. the minimum amount of time, so it can stay for much longer too.
Crew Dragon returned to Earth with the Crew-2 astronauts on 9 November, 2021.
Crew-3 mission was launched in November 2021, Crew-4 mission in April 2022 and Crew-5 in October 2022. Anna Kikina, an astronaut from the Russian space agency, Roscosmos became the first Russian to fly to the ISS aboard Crew Dragon on the Crew-5 mission and also the first Russian to fly a US vehicle from US soil in two decades.
Dragon-2 launch & splashdown
Falcon 9 launches Dragon to orbit following the same events as in satellite launches and returns to Earth. Around 12 minutes after lift-off, the second stage separates from the Dragon capsule, delivering the astronauts to orbit.
Crew Dragon separation:
Cargo Dragon separation:
Thereafter, Dragon performs a series of burns on its way to the ISS, reaching its destination at a targeted docking time…
After a completed stay, Cargo Dragon departs for Earth with cargo. Crew Dragon departs with both crew and cargo…
Dragon’s return to Earth…
Dragon parachuting into the ocean….
Dragon-2 makes a splashdown either in the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. Recovery ships stationed nearby retrieve the capsule and take the crew/cargo to safety.
A recovery ship hauls Dragon capsule out of the sea after its splashdown…
Dragon before launch and after launch…
Later, the capsule is cleaned and refurbished. NASA allowed astronauts to fly on re-used Crew Dragons and Falcon 9 boosters after SpaceX completed its third Crew Dragon launch to the ISS.
Space tourism made a big leap in 2021, with individuals flying to space with SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. The three space titans – Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, who own the respective companies are billionaires with tremendous wealth. Both Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos flew in their respective company’s first ever civilian spaceflight.
On 11 July, Virgin Galactic made history’s first “all-civilian” suborbital spaceflight. It was followed by Blue Origin’s “all-civilian” suborbital spaceflight on 20 July. Both spaceflights carried selected crew members. Being at an early stage, space tourism can be afforded only by the very wealthy. So the first timers were lucky to travel to space for free.
While both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin offer thrill rides (90-minute and 10-minute respectively) to the edge of space, SpaceX flies them on orbital missions for days.
On 16 September, 2021, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon “Resilience” made the first “all-civilian” orbital spaceflight in history. Crew Dragon and its four passengers circled Earth for three days at an altitude higher than any human has achieved since a Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission in 1999.
It was a “fund-raiser” mission, sponsored and commanded by Founder and CEO of Shift4Payments, Jared Isaacman, to raise charity for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. His chosen crew members included 29-year old Hayley Arceneaux, a paediatric bone cancer survivor. She became the first human in space with prosthetic leg bones and the youngest American to travel to space.
In April 2022, SpaceX created space history yet again, sending an all-civilian crew on a commercial flight to the ISS. The Ax-1 mission was the first non-government, fully commercial flight to the ISS and the first of several private crewed missions contracted by Axiom Space, a privately-owned space company from Houston, Texas.
The mission crew comprised a retired NASA astronaut and three wealthy civilians from different countries.
Russia’s space agency has sent civilians aboard its Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS many times in the past. But then, the civilians aboard the Soyuz were always accompanied by Russian space agency crew members.
The Axiom Space missions are intended to help pave the way to a privately-operated space lab owned by the company. It also offers spaceflight management services for civilians to visit the ISS. Its astronaut flight business is crucial experience for the company’s broader goals of deploying its own private space station by mid-decade. It plans to first attach modules to the ISS before splitting off into a fully private structure once the existing international laboratory is retired around 2030.
In the future, Crew Dragon will also be used to shuttle tourists to and from Axiom Space’s planned space station.
The Ax-2 mission is planned to launch Saudi Arabia’s first two astronauts to the ISS in early 2023, while the Ax-3 mission will launch Turkey’s first two astronauts into space in late 2023.
In February 2022, Jared Isaacman, who commanded the Inspiration4 mission, announced his Polaris Program, comprising three human spaceflight missions.
The first Polaris Dawn civilian astronaut mission on Crew Dragon will launch in late 2022. It will fly higher than any Dragon mission ever and aim to reach the highest Earth orbit ever flown.
Crew Dragon and the Polaris Dawn crew will spend up to five days in orbit, during which the crew will attempt the first-ever commercial spacewalk. SpaceX’s extravehicular spacesuit will make its debut on this mission.
Besides conducting scientific research to advance both human health on Earth and on future long-duration spaceflights, the Polaris Dawn crew will be the first to test Starlink laser-based communications in space, providing valuable data for future space communications systems necessary for missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
In August 2022, NASA awarded 5 additional Crew Dragon missions to SpaceX – Crew-10, Crew-11, Crew-12, Crew-13 and Crew-14, enabling the space agency to maintain an uninterrupted U.S. capability for human access to the ISS until 2030.
SpaceX has considered it sufficient to rotate the reuse of its existing Crew Dragon capsules to fly the company’s human spaceflight mission for NASA and private customers. Among a few other minor changes, the capsules will offer USB ports for astronauts to recharge their laptops.
SpaceX aims to launch up to 6 Crew Dragon missions per year.
Till date, SpaceX has successfully delivered 30 people to orbit across 8 missions since May 2020: Crew Demo-2, Crew-1, Crew-2, Inspiration4, Crew-3, Ax-1, Crew-4 and Crew-5.
With this, Crew Dragon has now flown more astronauts into orbit and back than NASA’s Gemini spacecraft (20). It’s nearing NASA’s Apollo capsule’s record of 45 astronauts. Its Space Shuttle’s tally at 355 astronauts remains out of reach until Starship begins operations.
Read more: Discovering SpaceX: Dragon Spacecraft
SUPER HEAVY STARSHIP
After achieving human spaceflight with its reusable Dragon spacecraft and freeing the U.S. from almost a decade-long dependence on Russia, SpaceX is now entering a new phase of space transportation to fulfil Elon Musk’s dream of human settlement on Mars.
Establishing a self-sustaining base on Mars for its ultimate colonization will be economically feasible only if the transportation cost is significantly low to make 10000 flights, carrying 100 people per flight, given that the launch window for Mars is open only once every two years.
SpaceX already has a Mars Program which includes fully reusable launch vehicles, human-rated spacecraft, on-orbit propellant tankers, rapid launches, and local production of rocket fuel on Mars. The main objective is to send a million people to Mars by 2050.
Reusability and rapid turnaround are the essential elements for low operating costs.
Elon Musk’s goal for SpaceX has been the capability to launch as many rockets as possible every hour from its launch sites by automating the processes required to hoist the rocket vertical on the pad, fuel it, and send it off. His dream of full rocket reusability will soon be fulfilled with SpaceX’s new and revolutionary Super Heavy Starship launch vehicle system for low-cost transportation of crew and cargo to Earth orbit, Moon and Mars.
Developed over the past few years, the 394-foot-tall (120 metres) Super Heavy Starship (or Starship) has a thrust of 17 million pounds at lift-off, making it the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built.
While Falcon 9 is partially reusable because its second stage is not recoverable (except for the rocket nose cone or payload fairing), Starship is 100% reusable. By eliminating the need to build new rockets and spaceships for each spaceflight, Starship will slash the cost of reaching space by a thousand fold.
Starship is 10 times more powerful than Falcon 9, and over 3 times more powerful than 3-Falcon 9-strapped Falcon Heavy and NASA’s moon rocket, Space Launch System (SLS).
Starship has the highest payload capacity of all the rockets in history. It can carry more than 150 metric tonnes (150,000 kg) of cargo or 100 people per launch to Earth orbit reusable and up to 250 metric tonnes expendable (one-time use rocket discarded in space after launch).
The only rocket second (although very far in comparison) to Starship’s payload capacity is NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) Block 1.
Earlier this year, NASA’s auditor discovered that each SLS launch would cost about $4 billion, or nearly $60,000 per kilogram to low-Earth orbit.
Elon Musk has estimated the price of each Starship launch to eventually be as low as $1 million, or $10 per kilogram to low-Earth orbit.
On its first orbital launch, Starship will become the largest flying object the world has ever seen…
Measuring 30 feet in diameter, Starship’s two-part system (394 feet tall) comprises a roughly 23-storied booster called Super Heavy (230 feet tall), equipped with a cluster of 33 powerful Raptor engines, and an upper stage Starship spaceship (164 feet tall), equipped with 6 powerful engines (3 Raptor and 3 Raptor Vacuum).
When paired with the Super Heavy booster, the gigantic rocket system stands around 400 feet tall.
A gigantic “Mechazilla” launch & catch tower equipped with a giant pair of robotic arms “Chopsticks” and a third Quick Disconnect (QD) arm will stack the two-stage rocket system onto the orbital mount for launch.
At the time of lift-off, all the 33 engines will be fired, sending the super gigantic rocket to space. On separating from the Super Heavy rocket in space, the Starship spacecraft will fire its 3 Raptor Vacuum engines and insert itself into orbit.
Super Heavy will launch Starship and return after a 6-minute ride. Starship will return once it completes its mission.
On completing their respective missions, each vehicle will return from space to the launch site, where each will be caught mid-air by Chopsticks.
SpaceX aims to launch fleets of Starships daily, reusing them several times.
Each Starship departing for Moon, Mars or any interplanetary journey will be launched into a parking orbit in low Earth to be refilled by a Starship “tanker” sent up for that purpose. Tanks filled, Starship can carry its full payload to the destination.
A single Starship, launching thrice a week, would loft more than 15,000 tons to orbit in a year, which is about as much as all the cargo that has been lifted in the entire history of spaceflight.
After on-orbit propellant refilling, Starship can travel to Mars at high speed will full payload, reaching the Red Planet in 3 months instead of 6.
SpaceX plans to launch several Starships to transport and assemble a propellant plant and build a Mars base. These will be robotic cargo flights, which after landing on Mars will be refilled with locally-produced propellants for their return trip to Earth with a reduced payload.
Mars base will have to be a pressurized transparent greenhouse unless it’s terraformed and made like Earth. The first temporary human habitats will be their own crewed Starships, as it is planned for them to have life-support systems.
In 2020, Elon Musk estimated that SpaceX’s first crewed flights to Mars will happen in 2026.
For both, first and second stages of Super Heavy Starship (SHS), SpaceX has developed and manufactured powerful Raptor engines that use a revolutionary combustion cycle running on “methalox”- cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen (LH2/LOX).
Besides being low-cost and easy to handle, methane (CH4) can be easily produced on Mars using the planet’s natural resources of water ice (H2O) and atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).
How Starship could change the space business
Besides space, SpaceX plans to use Starship for transporting people from one place to another on Earth, at insanely fast speeds only ICBMs can achieve.
SpaceX hopes to develop new markets in space mining, tourism, or other activities not yet dreamed of. It can launch probes to faraway planetary destinations, high-capacity space telescopes even larger than the James Webb telescope, heavy-duty space infrastructure, and anything at a low cost.
Starship could also radically change the way space scientists work in astronomy, planetary science, and Earth observation by flying larger and heavier instruments including space telescopes at low cost.
The 6.5-meter-wide segmented mirror of the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) had to be folded to fit in the small-size rocket fairing. Starship’s 9-meter-wide fairing, which encloses a volume about half as big as a hot air balloon, can launch a monolithic mirror as it is without folding.
Starship can be used for the construction of a giant telescope in space by robots to pick out the universe’s first galaxies and look for signs of life in the atmospheres of Earth-like exoplanets.
Starship can shield itself from heat and radiation. So there’s no need of customized hardware for space instruments. A rover can be outfitted with a spectrometer bought online, a glass mirror can be used instead of a feather-weight beryllium one used by James Webb Space Telescope.
The benefits of Starship could cover tough-to-access nearby planets like Mercury and Venus, and even the powerful Sun.
Starship could enable faster missions to the outer planets that don’t require time-consuming gravitational assists from other planets.
Interstellar probes could carry more capable instruments aboard Starship and get a faster ride to interstellar space.
Large number of rovers can be deployed on planets and planetary bodies. Large fleets of probes can survey dozens of asteroids.
Starship can make it easier to assemble large numbers of small satellites for constant surveillance of the Earth to revisit a given spot multiple times an hour, rather than every few hours, days, or weeks. It will be highly effective in keeping track of wildfires and floods.
Starship is set to revolutionize space flight and do things that have never been done before so that interplanetary space exploration no longer remains fiction.
Build and Launch sites
SpaceX has two Starship factories: Starbase in South Texas, and an under-construction Cape on Roberts Road at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
A render of Cape, Florida…
Besides the launch site at Starbase, there will be two launch sites at Cape Canaveral, Florida: LC-39A (currently under construction) and LC-49 (in the future).
Starship’s offshore launch platforms will be Phobos and Deimos, named after Mars’ two moons…
Starship’s scheduled missions
The first orbital test flight is expected to be in March 2023 after successful completion of a series of test firings.
Starship will begin commercial operations soon after the first orbital launch test mission is successfully accomplished. There are already several missions lined up for launch. These include:
- Satellite launches (for Starlink and other companies) for direct placement into target orbit.
- Starship tanker/depot launch missions for on-orbit propellant refilling of Starship in low-Earth orbit prior to embarking on the onward journey.
- First crewed flight on the Polaris mission funded and commanded by Shift4 Payments founder and CEO Jared Isaacman who will be accompanied by three other non-professional astronauts.
- First all-civilian fly-by mission to the Moon – the DearMoon Mission – conceived and funded by Japanese tycoon Yusaku Maezawa who will be accompanied by a selected crew of eight international artistes and space enthusiasts.
- Second all-civilian fly-by mission to the Moon with 12 passengers, the first two passengers booked being 82-year-old Dennis Tito – the world’s first self-funded space tourist to visit the ISS in 2001- and his 57-year-old wife Akiko.
- Demonstration missions prior to launching Starship Human Landing System (HLS) for NASA’s historic Artemis-3 crew landing mission on the Moon in 2025 or so, in the first lunar touchdown since the NASA Apollo Programme ended in 1972.
And many more to come before SpaceX’s Mars missions…
No wonder, then, that the Starship program could prove to be one of the most important accomplishments in human history.
Read more: Discovering SpaceX: Super Heavy Starship
STARLINK SATELLITE CONSTELLATION
After revolutionizing space technology and space exploration, SpaceX is now revolutionizing satellite technology and global internet access with its Starlink Satellite Constellation, the world’s most advanced broadband internet system.
Starlink is in a league of its own, rapidly developing and delivering low-cost, high-speed, broadband internet service from low Earth orbit (LEO) to customers anywhere on the planet, especially to those in the most remote parts.
By placing their Starlink constellation in low-Earth orbit, SpaceX can deliver faster Internet than other systems by decreasing the distance that information must travel to reach users, which is termed as latency.
Starlink is the world’s first and largest satellite constellation using a low-Earth orbit capable of supporting high-bandwidth activities such as video streaming, video calls, online gaming, etc. which is otherwise not possible with satellite internet service that comes from satellites located faraway from Earth in the geostationary orbit.
With over 3600 Starlink advanced satellites, SpaceX literally owns the low Earth orbit. Still, there are more of them to be deployed into LEO for the completion of the planned 12,000-satellite first generation constellation.
SpaceX has plans for an even larger fleet of 30,000 additional Starlink satellites for its second generation constellation.
Operating from the very challenging low Earth orbit, thousands of satellites are needed to ensure global coverage. Satellites can be lost due to atmospheric drag. They will have to be replaced with new ones. The old and redundant ones will have to be replaced too. With advancing technology, newer versions of satellites will have to be deployed. Once the desired technological level is achieved the satellite orbits can be raised which would mean lesser number of satellites needed.
Building a network of thousands of satellites requires low satellite cost. Hence the satellites have to be simple, easy and cheap to mass produce. They have to be lightweight and disposable.
Starlink satellites have a flat-panelled design and a single folding solar panel made of standardized cells, which makes it easy to stack as many of them as can fit in the rocket fairing, meaning more satellites per launch.
In 2022, SpaceX launched an increasing number of Starlink missions, almost four per month, thereby rapidly increasing the number of satellites in its constellation.
A Starlink launch mission is complete when the entire batch of Starlink satellites is deployed in the target orbit. And that happens after an hour or so from lift-off.
Watch SpaceX deploy 52 Starlink satellites in stunning view from space:
Once they are deployed in the parking orbit, the satellites unfurl their solar panels, undergo automated checks, and then activate their krypton ion thrusters to raise their orbits to join the rest of the Starlink constellation.
Starlink network was launched in a beta testing phase (a pre-release testing of a nearly finished product by a group of end-users to evaluate its performance before its official release) in October 2020, starting with some of the U.S. states and Canada.
Today, Starlink has its presence in over 40 countries in all continents of the world, including Antartica.
The McMurdo Station at Antartica is one of the most extreme locations in the world. Nearly 1000 people live and work there…
In October 2022, Japan became the first country in Asia to provide Starlink internet service.
SpaceX is fast expanding its Starlink service to all parts of the globe.
Starlink Availability and Access
SpaceX has a dedicated website www.starlink.com to order Starlink user terminal (also called as antenna or satellite dish) and to check the availability of Starlink in any country or region.
To access Starlink hi-speed internet, the only requirement is a Starlink kit and a clear view of the sky.
Communication with satellites is influenced by weather (rain, heavy clouds, etc.). Starlink terminals can automatically self-adjust to optimal position.
The Starlink kit comprises a user terminal, a tripod mount, a wireless router, network cables and a power supply – POE (Power over Ethernet) injector.
Once the Starlink Kit arrives, the user can easily install everything and get online in minutes using Starlink App for iOS and Android. Among other things, the mobile app helps in selecting the best location and position for the user terminal, running speed tests, troubleshooting connectivity issues, and connecting to customer service for any further assistance. It also offers real time performance data like download speed, latency and uptime.
Starlink service cost includes monthly rental plus a one-time fee for the Starlink kit. Additional mounting equipment for rooftop installation costs extra.
There’s no service contract, just a trial offer for up to 30 days. If not satisfied, the user has to return the hardware for a full refund.
All Starlink plans come with unlimited data caps. It remains a great perk that no other competitor has ever offered:
Starlink Residential or Standard Plan
Starlink for home users provides download speeds from 50 to 200 megabits per second (mbps), upload speeds of 10 to 20 mbps, and latency of 20 to 40 milliseconds (ms).
Standard plan costs $110 per month with a one-time hardware cost of $599.
Starlink terminal works even in the midst of heavy winds, rainfall and snowstorms without drawing too much power. It has an internal heating unit which makes it possible to function in harsh winter conditions.
Although the terminal is capable of detecting and melting snow that lands on it, it cannot help prevent outages and interruptions when its field of vision to the satellite is blocked by surrounding snow build-up and other obstructions.
SpaceX added a “portability” feature to its Standard Starlink service for an additional monthly fee which will allow users to temporarily move their Starlink home terminal to a new location anywhere within the same continent where active coverage exists, and receive internet service.
The Standard Starlink terminal is not made for in-motion use.
A premium service, “Starlink Business” offers faster internet speeds from 150 to 500 Mbps and improved performance to its customers in existing markets.
Starlink Business plan costs $500 per month with a one-time hardware cost of $2,500.
It promises a stronger connection with prioritized bandwidth and weather-resistant satellite internet equipment. The user terminal for Starlink Premium has more than twice the capability of the residential terminal, enabling high performance connectivity for offices of up to 20 users so customers can order as many Starlinks as needed and manage all of their service locations, no matter how remote, from a single account.
Starlink’s main objective is to provide low-cost, high-speed internet on the go – by land, air and sea – anywhere on Earth. To achieve this, it’s busy expanding its services to mobile sites and vehicles, like RVs and boats and airplanes.
The user terminals for moving vehicles are “ruggedized” to withstand harsh environments with extreme levels of heat and cold and have improved snow/ice melt capabilities.
SpaceX already uses “ruggedized” Starlink terminals on its seagoing vessels as well as on its autonomous spaceport drone ships used for landing rocket boosters at sea
Users of in-motion services can pause and un-pause service at any time and are billed in one-month increments.
The “Starlink for RVs” service is designed for customers who live life on the open road e.g. travellers, photographers, campers, etc. It offers 50-250 mbps speeds in an active coverage area at $135 per month with a one-time hardware cost of $599.
SpaceX’s new flat high-performance Starlink terminal for in-motion use has a wide field of view and enhanced GPS capabilities. It can connect to more satellites, allowing for consistent connectivity on the go. Currently available for order and use in select markets only, its deliveries begin in December 2022.
Starlink Maritime system enables high speed internet connectivity even in heavy seas and hurricane winds. It’s rated for 280+ kph (174+ mph) winds. And it works on land too.
Starlink service is available aboard a growing number of luxury yachts like SeaDream (SeaDream I and SeaDream II) and cruise lines like Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Silversea Cruises ships.
Starlink Maritime costs $5,000 per month with a one-time hardware cost of $10,000 for two high performance terminals. It delivers up to 350 Mbps download speeds while at sea.
As the world’s largest satellite constellation with coverage over land, the oceans and polar regions, Starlink is positioned to connect passengers wherever flight routes evolve. It can deliver up to 350 Mbps to each plane, enabling all passengers to access streaming-capable internet at the same time. With latency as low as 20 ms, passengers can engage in activities previously not functional in flight, including video calls, online gaming, virtual private networks and other high data rate activities.
Starlink Aviation Kit includes the Aero Terminal, power supply, two wireless access points, and harnesses.
The low-profile Starlink Aero Terminal features an electronically steered phased array antenna, which enables new levels of reliability, redundancy and performance…
With deliveries starting in 2023, SpaceX has already signed deals with air carriers like Hawaiian Airlines and JSX to add Starlink terminals aboard their aircraft.
Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity
Swarm offers low-bandwidth satellite connectivity for only $5/month. It provides the world’s lowest cost, global connectivity for IoT devices using ultra-small satellites in a low orbit at 450-550 km altitude.
They are the smallest operational satellites in space, at just ¼U (11 x 11 x 2.8 cm)…
Swarm satellites cover every point on Earth, enabling IoT devices to affordably operate in any location…
SpaceX has also partnered with T-Mobile to put an end to mobile dead zones in the United States. Using its existing midband spectrum, T-Mobile plans to enable cell phones to connect to Starlink satellites, bringing coverage to remote areas with no existing cell service. Once the service is launched, Starlink’s second-generation satellites will enable cell coverage starting with text messages, followed later by calls and internet service.
SpaceX is in talks with Apple to bring Starlink connectivity to iPhone too.
Starlink is ideally suited for areas where connectivity has been unreliable or completely unavailable. It enables access to essential online services and resources for rural communities and remote areas that have historically gone unserved by traditional internet service providers.
By providing internet access to such remote areas, Starlink not only provides its people with communication support but also access to education and health services.
Virtual doctor visits, remote learning, educational resources, environmental observation, etc. are all possible thanks to Starlink.
Moreover, Starlink supports and prioritizes service for emergency responders around the globe. In the absence of traditional ground infrastructure, Starlink can be deployed in a matter of minutes to support emergency responders in disaster scenarios.
The ability to start service quickly is a major advantage in emergency situations like in February 2022, in the tiny Pacific island nation of Tonga, and in Ukraine.
Tonga was cut off from the outside world after a devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami caused by an undersea volcano Hunga Tonga.
Starlink has won immense positive coverage for its contribution to keeping Ukraine connected. SpaceX has delivered more than 25,000 Starlink terminals to Ukraine since the beginning of the war, to provide satellite internet service across the country, and to help energy companies, fire departments, rescuers, and hospitals keep in touch. Each terminal can be used to provide an internet uplink to a cell phone tower, so potentially several thousand people can be served by a single terminal.
Such is the wonderful service of Starlink to those in need, that whenever any country faces an emergency situation, people tweet to Elon Musk for assistance.
For this reason, SpaceX has enabled public donation of Starlink terminals to needy organizations or communities. There are two ways to donate:
- Towards a Starlink cause i.e. for education, telehealth, emergency response or humanitarian efforts or
- Organization of donor’s choice
In December 2022, SpaceX announced Starshield, a program to incorporate military or government entity payloads onboard a Starshield satellite bus (based on Starlink Block v1.5 and v2.0 technology]).
While SpaceX’s Starlink satellite is designed for consumer and commercial use, its Starshield satellite is designed for government use, with an initial focus on three areas, namely, earth observation, communications and hosting payloads.
The first four Starshield national security satellites were deployed for the US government on the Transporter-3 rideshare mission in January 2022. Another group of four satellites for the US government were launched along with a single on-orbit spare Globalstar FM-15 satellite in June 2022.
SpaceX website: https://www.spacex.com
SpaceX You Tube channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/SpaceX
SpaceX Twitter: https://twitter.com/SpaceX
SpaceX Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/spacex
SpaceX Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/spacex
SpaceX Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/company/spacex
SpaceX Launches: https://www.spacex.com/launches
SpaceX Statistics: https://www.elonx.net/spacex-statistics
Starlink Statistics: https://planet4589.org/space/con/star/stats.html
This post is part of my 6-part blog series which covers the phenomenal rise of
SpaceX – the world’s no.1 aerospace company and manufacturer.
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