On the 27th August 2011, Charles Bolden, current NASA administrator delivered an emotional speech to thousands of employees gathered at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
"We're here to celebrate an incredible 30 year run," NASA Administrator and former shuttle astronaut Charles Bolden said, addressing the thousands of JSC workers and their families who came out for the "Salute Our Space Shuttle: Foundation for Our Future" celebration. "All of you need to leave here tonight with your chest stuck out as proud as you can be because we have done something that no one else was ever able to do and no one will ever do again." Unfortunately, the program would come to an official end a few days later on August 31 and with it, thousands of jobs lost.
The Space Transportation System, also known internally to NASA as the Integrated Program Plan (IPP), was a reusable manned space vehicle envisioned in 1969 to support operations beyond the Apollo program. The purpose of the system was to reduce the cost of spaceflight, and to support ambitious follow-on programs including permanent orbiting space stations around the Earth and Moon, and a human landing mission to Mars.
This was the final curtain for NASA’s 30-year, and over 135 flights shuttle program. Though ambitious, it was doomed to fail for one main reason; operating costs remained unsustainably high. Despite being able to develop a reusable shuttle, NASA was never able to achieve a promised lower recurring 'per-launch’ costs. With a stagnant budget and other areas of space research getting stifled, the shuttle program had to go.
"I think we may have over-sold in the beginning, the reusability, and how easy it would be to get into space," said William Gerstenmaier, who had been with NASA since 1977. "Intellectually, I think we've been knowing this end is coming. But I think emotionally it is still tough, as each vehicle kind of retires."
As early as nine years before STS closed down, there were already signs that it may not last very long. However, one man saw an opportunity to fill the gap that NASA was leaving behind; as it began to retreat from space flights. That man was Elon Musk.
In 2002, Elon Musk, better known for his current work at Tesla Motors, founded Space Exploration Technologies Corporation or simply SpaceX. His primary goal was to build reliable and reusable space rockets with a more long-term vision of colonising Mars.
With the US government now looking toward private space transport services, SpaceX found fertile ground for growth. In the years since its launch, SpaceX has notched some big wins and may be on its way to achieving what NASA could not, by lowering the cost of space travel. Being the legendary visionary he is, Musk plans to go even further, by exploring the prospect of Mars colonisation; first with plants and later with humans.
This is the story of SpaceX; how it came into being, its phenomenal growth, its unprecedented accomplishments and expensive failures and most importantly, its future and what that future means for humanity.
History of SpaceX
How SpaceX was born
Musk’s interest in the space industry started 2001 when he envisioned the idea of establishing a small test colony on Mars. NASA had reached its peak when the Apollo 17 landed the first humans on the moon. That incredible feat had triggered a lot of public excitement and ideas of further space exploration floated around. But with time, political and financial constraints assailed those big ambitions, and gradually public interest waned. Discouraged by this direction, Musk wanted NASA and the public to once again get excited about putting humans on other planets.
In September 2001, Musk offered to invest $20 million of his money in a Mars colonisation program, on the condition that Congress and NASA would work together toward realising that goal. Musk’s idea was to send a small robotic lander onto Mars to act as a small greenhouse; sort of a 'Mars Oasis’. Experiments carried out by the lander would be geared toward testing for human survival on the planet - for example, crops planted on treated Mars soil. He even created an organisation, Life to Mars Foundation, to help push forward the idea.
But the Government was laggard in implementing, or even considering any of Musk’s ideas. Also, public interest in space exploration was not forthcoming. Regardless, Musk went ahead with the idea on his own, with help from his friends and business colleagues.
That same year, he travelled with some colleagues to Moscow to buy refurbished Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) for use as rockets. Mocking his novice status, Elon Musk failed to get the missles he wanted. He later went back to Moscow but saw the price of the refurbished ICBM as being too steep ($8 million). However, these frustrations bore fruit in the form of SpaceX.
Musk calculated that he could build his rockets at a much-reduced cost and thus make rockets affordable. Thus, SpaceX was launched in June 2002, based at a 75,000 square foot complex in California.
Entrepreneurial and technological innovation
The one thing that could arguably be said to have contributed to SpaceX’s success story (as we will see later) is its founder’s entrepreneurial skills. Elon Musk was born in South Africa and became a US citizen in 2002. Before SpaceX, he had dabbled in various ventures such as Zip2 and most famously, PayPal. When he founded SpaceX in 2002 it was not just based on his ambitious vision to have humans living on Mars; it was just as much a rational financial decision. With the help of a friend and investor, Steve Jurvetson, Musk calculated that the raw materials for a rocket would only cost 3% of the asking price of a new rocket. To keep costs down, he used vertical integration, whereby a company owns and controls much of its supply line. By applying vertical integration, SpaceX has managed to keep 85% of rocket production in-house, allowing SpaceX to offer reliable launch services at prices 20 percent to 30 percent lower than some of its competitors and grab significant chunks of the over $2 billion civil and commercial launch markets.
Even though Musk did not fully understand rocket science, he is a technology maverick, and self-learning comes quickly to him. Also, by recruiting the top people in the industry, a large number from NASA, he was able to build a company capable of achieving some of the most technologically challenging feats in the world.
SpaceX later moved its headquarters in Hawthorne, California. The three-story complex was originally built for the manufacturing of Boeing 747 fuselages. Today it functions as a multi-purpose facility, housing both mission control and office space for the company.
Musk’s Dream: Reusable rockets and interplanetary travel
When NASA laid down plans for the space shuttle program, estimated costs were modest. Development non-recurring costs were pegged at $7.45 billion ($43 billion when adjusted for inflation), while the estimated cost was expected at under $9.3 million ($54 million after adjustments).
When the program folded in 2011, the costs had overshot the estimates by a wide margin. In the 30 years, that NASA had been in operation, the program had spent nearly $200 billion. An analysis showed that the cost per flight was as high as $450 million; and went further up to $1.5 billion in the last years of operation.
When Musk burst onto the space scene in 2002, he had one primary goal in mind; produce affordable rockets that could lower the cost of going to space. To him, the high price tag of space travel was prohibitive. It stifled development in that industry, and even governments were getting shy about trying to achieve the 'impossible’. Both the public and policymakers recognized that spaceflight programs represent a risky, expensive and long-term commitment.
To reignite interest in space travel, Musk had to do something radical. He aimed at creating the first privately funded company to achieve successful space travel using reusable rockets; but it doesn't stop there, SpaceX is looking much further out.
SpaceX has experienced exceptional growth over the years. It started out with just a few dozen employees, growing to 160 in 2005 and more than a thousand in 2010. By 2016, the company has over 4,000 employees at its Hawthorne headquarters.
The company states on its website that the ultimate goal is enabling people to live on other planets. While the company has notched a good number of successful space runs using reusable rockets, there is still a long way to go. The next step involves developing manned spaceflight.
Coming of Age: A Series of Achievements (and Setbacks)
SpaceX was put to the test in 2006 when NASA granted it a contract to demonstrate a system that could deliver cargo to the International Space Station. The contract, worth an estimated $278 million, provided SpaceX with the money to develop the Falcon 9.
Two years and three demonstrations later, NASA was sufficiently pleased with the progress SpaceX was making, and a resupply contract was granted in December 2008. The contract (partly awarded to Orbital Sciences Corporation) saw SpaceX get a payment agreement of $1.6 billion for at least 12 resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS).
Finally, SpaceX had come of age. Years of research and development were resulting, not just in history-making flights to space, but also much-needed money for the company. After all, they are a commercial enterprise, and need profit to survive.
The big wins
The first big headlines for SpaceX came in June 2010 when the Falcon 9 made its first maiden flight into orbit. On June 4, the Falcon 9 launch vehicle set off from Cape Canaveral, Florida carrying the prototype Dragon Spacecraft which is similar to the Apollo spacecraft launched on Saturn I rockets in the mid 1960s. The Dragon Spacecraft was designed to later bring supplies and eventually humans to space. The maiden flight was a complete success.
On December 8 of that same year, the first demonstration flight took place with SpaceX sending the Dragon capsule to orbit on the Falcon 9 Launch Vehicle. This would be one of the biggest moments for SpaceX. After circling the Earth twice, the spacecraft made a controlled reentry and safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean - several hundred kilometres west of Baja California in Mexico. It was retrieved 20 minutes later. This made SpaceX the first private space company to send a spacecraft into space and retrieve it; something that had only been achieved by governments in the past. In fact only five countries have done the same thing.
It was a watershed moment for the space industry, but hardly the last significant achievement by SpaceX.
Before SpaceX could be allowed to carry out ISS resupply missions, two more demo flights were planned. However, the success of the first one had convinced NASA officials to combine the second and third demo flight into one. In this demo, not only was the Dragon Spacecraft expected to meet up with the ISS, but it also had to berth, a challenging manoeuvre that was crucial to future missions.
SpaceX was up for the challenge, and on 22 May 2012, a successful launch was performed. The Dragon Spacecraft docked at the ISS days later, another first for a private space company.
The first ISS resupply mission took place in October 2012, when the Dragon/Falcon 9 pair took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida on the first of 12 contractual missions for NASA. The Dragon Spacecraft docked successfully with the ISS and unloaded a thousand pounds worth of cargo.
Over the next two years, the company completed additional resupply and satellite missions. With each mission, they tried to refine the rocket recovery manoeuvre using drone ships in the ocean. Each attempt ended in failure until 2016, when they finally managed to land the Falcon 9 in the Atlantic Ocean after a trip to low earth orbit.
The next two attempts were also successful, with the latest one being streamed live from inside the rocket itself.
SpaceX has so far proven itself capable of providing safe, low-cost spaceflights in low orbit. The next goal is offering a safe way for the crew to reach the ISS. In 2012, NASA awarded SpaceX a $440 million contract to demonstrate a human-rated spacecraft. The money was aimed at pushing along the development of the Dragon Spacecraft to full human-rated flight capabilities.
"Today, we are announcing another critical step toward launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on space systems built by American companies," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. "We have selected three companies that will help keep us on track to end the outsourcing of human spaceflight and create high-paying jobs in Florida and elsewhere across the country."
"For 50 years American industry has helped NASA push boundaries, enabling us to live, work and learn in the unique environment of microgravity and low Earth orbit," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The benefits to humanity from these endeavors are incalculable. We're counting on the creativity of industry to provide the next generation of transportation to low Earth orbit and expand human presence, making space accessible and open for business."
SpaceX has had an impressive safety record with only two notable setbacks being recorded. The most serious one occurred in June 2015 when a loss in helium tank pressure caused an explosion just over two minutes into the flight. Both the rocket and the Dragon spacecraft were damaged.
The second occurrence took place when the Dragon spacecraft was already in orbit. Blocked fuel valves affected the function of the thrusters. Fortunately, engineers at SpaceX were able to fix the issue remotely though this resulted in a delay in a planned docking with the space station.
Commercial and Government Contracts
In April 2014 SpaceX sued the U.S. Air Force to get it to open up competition for national security-related rocket launches in Defense contracts, and won. “This really doesn’t seem right to us, and we’ve tried every avenue to try to figure out ‘why is this the case,’ and to try to find other avenues beyond filing a protest,” Musk said. “This contract is costing U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars for no reason, and to add salt to the wound, the primary engine that’s used is a Russian engine.”
This pitted it against the longtime defence contractor, United Alliance, a collaboration between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. In April 2016, the company won its first defence contract to send an advanced military satellite to orbit. The deal is worth $82.7 million, and also gives the military more than one option for sensitive launches.
Awarding the contract to SpaceX "achieves a balance between mission success, meeting operational needs, lowering launch costs, and reintroducing competition for National Security Space missions," said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space.
Being a private company, it is difficult to pin down the exact financials of SpaceX. However, looking at all the lucrative contracts it has worn from NASA, the Defense Department and various other companies, it is probably a safe bet that the company is bringing in a profit.
Thanks to its competitive pricing and its high safety reputation, SpaceX has also won dozens of contracts from commercial companies, mostly those seeking to send satellites into low earth orbit. These contracts have amounted to billions of dollars, creating a healthy cash flow for the companies future.
Out and Beyond: The Future of SpaceX
It has been a great run for Musk, and SpaceX. What started as an outlet of frustration, ended up being the most successful privately-funded space company in the world - the success has been unprecedented. All signs herald an even bigger future with achievements continually pushing at the edges of space exploration. Below we take a look at what the future holds for SpaceX, including the milestones it has yet to accomplish and the possibilities that lie ahead.
Reusing of recovered rockets
SpaceX has successfully landed its Falcon 9 rocket aboard a barge three times in a row. This is an impressive feat by itself. However, the company needs to take it one step further and begin reusing those recovered rockets.
One challenge that SpaceX faces is reducing the damage sustained by the rockets upon landing; although they have been getting better, it is still another significant safety and technical challenge.
Only when they can reuse the recovered rockets, can the dream of affordable space access be realised. For now, we will just marvel at the near-perfect landings courtesy of SpaceX.
Mission to Mars
Despite having to start with other, though no less lofty, goals, Musk has never lost his initial vision of a Mars colony. By increasing access to space through better and cheaper technology, SpaceX is also looking at the bigger picture of interplanetary travel.
In April 2016, the company announced the development of a modified Dragon Spacecraft to be named 'Red Dragon’. SpaceX plans to send the spacecraft to Mars on a Falcon Heavy (currently under development) rocket. The launch is tentatively scheduled for 2018. This will trail-blaze the way for additional Mars missions, including manned ones.
Eventually, the hope is to learn more about Mars and prepare for the first life colony most probably in the form of plants.
Normalising space travel
SpaceX is having a huge effect on the space transport industry. Arianespace, a company traditionally used by other companies to launch satellites into space, is already feeling the pressure of SpaceX. Moreover, in 2014, the company requested Government subsidies to handle the competition.
“Given the weakness of the dollar and the situation with SpaceX, it is not out of the question that our effort to raise our competitiveness must be accompanied by increased government support for the exploitation of Ariane 5,” said Arianespace Chairman and CEO Stephane Israel.
To survive the onslaught by SpaceX, a company that everyone wants to do business with, competitors have to scale down their costs. This snowball effect caused by SpaceX will result in more affordable, easier access to space, and with more companies being able to access space, normalisation will happen; a bit like how air travel went from being a novelty to normality. One day, going to space will be just like booking a plane ticket, thanks to affordable prices and reusable rockets.
Manned interplanetary travel
Humans have only gone as far as the moon, and unmanned spaceships have gone far beyond that; into the vast reaches of the solar system. However, decades from now, a month-long trip to Mars may not be such a far-fetched thought.
It will take a lot of technological development, and we are still decades away from such a reality, but once technology picks up, it tends to escalate pretty quickly. To a degree, SpaceX has already concurred low-cost unmanned travels to earth orbit and ISS. In the meantime, they are working on achieving manned missions, first to the International Space Station and later to other planets, specifically Mars. Of course, there is no shortage of challenges to tackle along the way; costs, safety, terraforming Mars and so on.
With more help from the Government, Musk's tenacity, and with the right public participation, much can be achieved.
Also, remember that SpaceX is not the only player around. Jeff Bezos of Amazon has its Blue Origin Shepardd:
and Richard Branson has Virgin Galactic:
These companies will challenge each other to achieve bigger things in our near future.
A ride to the universe
What we are seeing is a re-revolution in space exploration. Governments no longer being the only players in the industry. Billionaires with an outsize vision and the money to spend are fueling the next race to the stars. Moreover, instead of going it alone, the government is now partnering with private organisations for the next big milestones of space travel.
This is a good thing for humanity. For centuries, we have been fascinated at what lies beyond the inky night sky. NASA’s space shuttle program and its much-acclaimed moon landing provided a glimpse into the world beyond our own. Several other unmanned missions (most notably New Horizon’s trip to Pluto) have brought the universe to us but not in the same spectacular way as the moon landing.
The next age of space exploration promises a more intimate interaction with the universe beyond earth. The immediate long-term goal is reaching Mars and perhaps having a person land there. When we achieve that, and we will, then the universe is ours for the taking.
SpaceX has shown exceptional resilience in getting this far. There is no doubt that they have what it takes to concur the road ahead.