Joel Majano

Cannon Writer

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. or SpaceX for short, is a name that you may or may not have heard recently as they accelerate their launch cadence, and strive for higher and higher goals. However, the current success that SpaceX is enjoying was earned after many trials and it definitely was not an easy path. So the real questions are: what is SpaceX and how did they become successful? Through a few articles that I will be writing for The Cannon, I will explore this company in detail, and while it is not directly correlated to us here at Skule™, I believe that there is something to learn from breaking the mold. The engineering prowess that SpaceX brings to aerospace engineering, and more generally the engineering field, really does deserve more than one quick and sparse article that might gloss over many interesting bits. 

We begin at the very roots of how SpaceX started: as one man’s dream to reach Mars and build a “Mars Oasis”. This man’s name is Elon Musk, which is probably a name that you have heard of many times before. While he will be mentioned in passing, he will not be the focus of this closer look at SpaceX. After a failed attempt to purchase Russian ICBMs at a reasonable price, as they wanted US$21 million for each rocket, Musk decided instead to found SpaceX in El Segundo, California in May 2002. Musk invested US$100 million of his own money into the company, and hired Tom Mueller, an American rocket scientist, that same month. Also in 2002, Gwynne Shotwell was hired as SpaceX’s VP of Business development. With this team, the SpaceX journey had finally begun.

The SpaceX story is not without many failures, and as we will see, they suffered so many of them that they were at the brink of bankruptcy. After a series of failed launch attempts of its Falcon 1 rocket due to various reasons, the second one causing millions of dollars in damages due to the loss of 3 satellites on board, it looked like Falcon 1 was never going to be successful. After 3 failed launches in 3 attempts, SpaceX had run out of money leaving them facing a harsh reality. Succeed, or else the entire project was done for. On September 20, 2008, their luck would change. Falcon 1 Flight 4 with a mass simulator on board, became the first privately funded, liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit. In December 2008, after their first successful launch, NASA awarded SpaceX with a US$1.6 billion dollar “Commercial Resupply Services” contract where SpaceX would deliver cargo to the International Space Station on a fixed schedule. Following this announcement, the first ever Falcon 9 rocket was integrated, which would become the platform that was developed further and is still in use presently.

The story continues with one more successful Falcon 1 launch, and further development of the Falcon 9 platform. SpaceX worked on their Merlin engines, and in 2010, multiple tests and static fires were performed in preparation for their Dragon Spacecraft demo mission. These Merlin engines use RP-1, a kerosene based rocket fuel and liquid oxygen as propellants which is required to achieve reusable rockets. A quick fun fact was Elon Musk’s cameo in Marvel’s Iron Man 2 where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) congratulated Elon’s Merlin engines. On December 8th 2010, SpaceX became the first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft during a NASA-contracted mission named “Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Demo Flight 1”. 

There were a few more launches after this, as well as the announcement of the Grasshopper program, which aimed to develop reusable rockets that would land back on Earth after launch. In 2013, SpaceX completed the final flight of the Grasshopper program, after showcasing the possibility of rockets landing back on Earth by “hopping” to various altitudes, and landing back on land in a controlled fashion. This is where things begin to get interesting, and where I will end this background article on SpaceX’s 2002-2013 timeline. 

The next articles will contain some really interesting content ranging from rockets that launch and land back on a floating ship in the middle of the ocean, ships that launch like a rocket, fall like a glider, and land vertically, and lots more. 

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