SpaceX. It sounds like the working title of a science fiction movie, right? In fact, when the aerospace manufacturer and space travel company was launched about 20 years ago by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, the idea of a private company economizing space travel and setting its sights on Mars colonies was pretty close to science fiction.
Fast forward to today and SpaceX is something of a household name for how it has helped bring the universe down to Earth, and taken the notion of space tourism from an otherworldly idea to a very attainable reality.
Just as NASA paved the way for humans to rocket to the moon and populate Earth’s lower orbit with the satellites that enable technology we take for granted every day like GPS or weather tracking capabilities, SpaceX is likely to influence future generations of technology and space exploration. But before we look too far ahead, let’s take a glimpse back at the SpaceX timeline and how this cosmic mover and shaker came to be.
What is SpaceX?
Founded in 2002 by the aforementioned Musk, SpaceX was conceived as a manufacturing and facilitator of the world’s first line of rockets and space vehicles engineered to put civilizations in lower Earth orbit in service of tourism, science, and exploration. Part of SpaceX’s mission was to deploy the most technologically advanced rockets of its era to stimulate interest and exploration of space but to also spur research and development in making humans a multiplanetary species.
Since its first launch of the Falcon 1 liquid-propellant rocket back in 2008, SpaceX has developed and launched a number of subsequent rockets each with specific objectives and goals in creating a foundational understanding of how to put humans into space as easily as we put airplanes into the sky.
SpaceX has grown leaps and bounds since its inception in 2002. While the focus is still primarily on normalizing space travel and continuing its push to make Mars a viable alternative to life on Earth, the company has also diversified with a communications arm that largely services mass comm channels on this planet, but also extending communication into space via satellites and other digital technology.
As of early 2021, SpaceX employs more than 9,500 individuals mostly in the science and technology fields, and has an annual revenue of more than $2 billion, which is only expected to grow as plans and execution for more space tourism become more concrete.
SpaceX: Important stops along the way
With a more grounded understanding of the inception and operations of SpaceX, we can now get down to the fun part, which is tracking and briefly discussing SpaceX’s major milestones to see how this plucky start-up has emerged as the world’s leading force in popularizing space as your next potential vacation spot and creating essentially a second Earth on our nearest major planetary neighbor, Mars.
Here are perhaps the most foundational or seismic moments in the SpaceX timeline that best illustrate the heights of what Musk and SpaceX have achieved, but that could also portend where SpaceX may be going in the future and what may come of that journey.
2002-2007: The Beginning
Much of the first few years of the SpaceX timeline were characterized simply by raising the fund to conduct the research and development necessary to test their rockets and space vehicles. In addition, the SpaceX team also devoted this time to creating the infrastructure here on Earth to facilitate vehicle launches and communication, as well as build confidence that the goals of the company could actually be achieved.
1). 2005: SpaceX begins testing Falcon 1, its first real rocket design created with the goal of reusable space flight.
2). 2006: SpaceX wins its first NASA award for US$278 million to help develop Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule.
3). 2007: SpaceX moves to Hawthorne, California, to build a new rocket factory that could handle its larger Falcon 9 rockets.
2008-2019: Unmanned Space Flight
SpaceX launched its first successful unmanned space flight in 2008, ushering in a new era in American space exploration whereby private industry achieved what was previously reserved for government institutions or agencies. This began a long series of unmanned space flights and launches of space vehicles in conjunction with agencies and governments across the globe, further democratizing space exploration and paving the way for the next giant leap in the SpaceX chronology.
1). 2008: Falcon 1 becomes the first privately funded, liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit.
2). 2009: SpaceX becomes the first privately funded company to put a satellite in Earth orbit.
3). 2010: SpaceX becomes the first commercial company to successfully recover a spacecraft from Earth orbit with its Dragon spacecraft.
4). 2012: SpaceX becomes the first commercial company to dock with the International Space Station.
5). 2013: SpaceX becomes the first private company to send a satellite into geosynchronous orbit (SES-8).
6). 2015: SpaceX becomes the first private company to send a probe beyond Earth orbit as well as the first to achieve landing of a first stage orbital capable rocket.
7). 2016: SpaceX achieves the first water landing of a first stage orbital capable rocket (Falcon 9).
8). 2017: SpaceX achieves one of its great ambitions, the recovery and reuse of rockets, conducting the historic first reflight of an orbital class rocket.
9) 2018: SpaceX begins launching Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful operational rocket by a factor of two.
10). 2019: SpaceX’s next-generation spacecraft, a Starship orbital prototype, begins initial tests with success.
2020: Human Spaceflight Unlocked
A mere 18 years after SpaceX was founded with the goal of putting human beings into space orbit on a regular basis for purposes both civilian and scientific, Musk and his team achieved this astronomic feat in 2020 with the launch of the first manned SpaceX mission. Subsequent manned missions have taken place since the initial launch in 2020 and many more are planned for the near future.
What’s perhaps most interesting about SpaceX is how it has already spawned competitors and imitators, most recently Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos, whose private space exploration company launched him into lower Earth orbit earlier this year; Musk himself has not yet been a passenger on a SpaceX rocket, but we have to imagine it’s just a matter of time.
If the last 18 years have taught us anything, it’s that the acceleration of private space travel and exploration will most assuredly continue, with more and more players crowding into the stars above us.
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