Today -- Dec. 8, 2018 -- marks a big anniversary in SpaceX history.
It's been more than 12 years since SpaceX launched its first rocket, an experimental Falcon 1, from Kwajalein Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to ensure it wouldn't hurt anyone if it blew up. (Spoiler: It blew up). It would be two more years before SpaceX succeeded in getting a rocket into orbit, and two more years after that before SpaceX built a rocket big enough to carry significant commercial payloads.
But then, things really began to take off for SpaceX.
The "SpaceX Cross." Among space companies, only SpaceX has the ability to literally brand itself with rocket fire across the skies. Image source: SpaceX.
In 2010, SpaceX (alongside larger Orbital Sciences, now a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman), won a $1.6 billion NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract to run a dozen resupply missions from Earth to the International Space Station (ISS). To fulfill its contract, SpaceX needed to build a spaceship capable of riding its Falcon 9 to orbit and docking with the ISS.
The SpaceX Dragon capsule that launched Dec. 8, 2010, was that spaceship.
NASA mission accomplished
SpaceFlightNow.com sets the scene: At 10:43 a.m. EST on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010, a Falcon 9 roared out of Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral carrying a Dragon capsule into space. Reaching its target trajectory 10 minutes later, Falcon deployed the Dragon capsule, which proceeded to orbit Earth twice before descending to splash down in the Pacific Ocean at 2:02 p.m. EST.
At the time, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk predicted only a 60% chance of success. Nonetheless, this first Commercial Orbital Transportation Services demonstration flight (a precursor to CRS), dubbed "COTS Demo 1," went flawlessly, prompting Musk to exclaim: "It's just mind-blowingly awesome. I wish I was more articulate, but it's hard to be articulate when your mind's blown, but in a very good way."
The missions that followed
SpaceX has continued blowing minds -- and not just Musk's -- in the eight years since. Initially contracted for 12 COTS missions, SpaceX had its ISS resupply contract renewed and, to date, has run a total of 16 missions to the orbital station. These include the ill-fated CRS-7, which exploded en route to ISS on June 28, 2015, and also the CRS-16 resupply mission just this past Wednesday, now infamous for being the first Falcon landing to fail after more than two dozen straight successes (although it succeeded in its primary mission of delivering a load of cargo to ISS).
At this point, it's safe to say that NASA has been richly rewarded for taking a gamble and entrusting its resupply missions to an untested space start-up eight years ago. But CRS hasn't been the only "mind-blowing success" SpaceX has achieved.
Over the years since COTS-1 launched into space, SpaceX has:
- Developed reusable rockets capable of launching -- and then landing back where they launched.
- Launched and landed those rockets dozens of times, on land and at sea.
- Consistently offered launch prices far below those charged by incumbents at United Launch Alliance, at Ariane in Europe, and even at Roscosmos in Russia.
- Built and launched (and recovered two-thirds of) the world's largest rocket ship since the Saturn V moon rocket.
- Designed an even larger rocket, comprising a "Super Heavy" booster and a "Starship" transport, that promises to put even the Saturn V to shame.
And that's not even mentioning the company's development of floating rocket landing pads, rocket fairing retrieval boats, and systems for fueling an already-loaded rocket on its launchpad -- which accelerates the launch process -- and much, much more.
A "start-up" no more
Although still privately held, SpaceX today stands as a giant of the global space industry, responsible for more launches per year than any other space company, public or private. Assuming it completes all the launches on its manifest right now, SpaceX should close out 2018 with 22 total launches -- all successful so far -- meaning it's basically launching one rocket every other week.
It's also the only space company in the world currently capable of both launching and landing those rockets. And because of this, free from the cost of building new launchers from scratch for each new mission, SpaceX is able to undercut the competition on price, charging as little as $62 million per launch -- as much as an 85% discount to the cost of a ULA Delta V Heavy. So far, none of its rivals at ULA, Ariane, or Roscosmos have figured out a way to duplicate this feat.
But even these facts pale in comparison to SpaceX's ambitions. In the new year, SpaceX aims to begin construction of its long-sought-after constellation of 12,000 communications satellites, which will sell satellite broadband internet around the world. And once funds from that project start rolling in, SpaceX will finally have the money it needs to begin its ultimate project: colonizing Mars.
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