10 Facts About SpaceX And How It Is Revolutionizing Space Travel

The brainchild of entrepreneur and futurist Elon Musk, SpaceX was founded in 2002 as an attempt to rekindle public interest in space exploration and spur funding for NASA. Also, Musk really wanted to launch skyscraper-sized missiles into Earth’s orbit. And honestly, who wouldn’t?

The South African–born visionary’s ultimate goal is to enable multiplanetary human existence by drastically reducing the cost of launching material into space. With our current technology, escaping Earth’s gravity is not easy and comes with a hefty price tag.

For example, it will cost about $500 million to send NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS)—currently, the most powerful rocket to ever be developed—to low Earth orbit with about 70,000 kilograms (150,000 lb) of payload.

SpaceX’s latest and greatest, the Falcon Heavy, can do about the same for approximately $90 million dollars—less than one-fifth of the SLS and its equivalents. So what is the secret behind this unprecedented efficiency, and what exactly does Elon Musk have in mind for the future?

SpaceX Rocky Beginnings To Roaring Success

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In 2002, founding an aerospace technology company was objectively a high-stakes gamble. In a climate already dominated by industry giants like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, getting a start-up off the ground posed many challenges, with funding chief among them.

Elon Musk had thus far made a name for himself by defying the odds, having dropped out of a PhD program at Stanford after only two days to pursue his entrepreneurial interests during the dot-com bubble. However, early failures in 2006 and 2007 to launch beta versions of the SpaceX flagship Falcon 9 left the company nearly destitute.

Musk had already invested up to $100 million of his personal finances into seeing the space technology company succeed, and by 2008, it was do or die. Fortunately, billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, also a cofounder of PayPal, stepped in at the last moment and became SpaceX’s first outside investor. Thiel’s capital breathed new life into the company’s rickety legs, and progress has been steady ever since.

Now, this is not to say that SpaceX hasn’t had plenty of problems since its rejuvenation. If it hadn’t, then it wouldn’t be much of an aerospace company now, would it? Crashing and burning simply comes with the territory.

In 2014–15, SpaceX waged a legal battle with the United States Air Force for awarding launch contracts essentially without competition to the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Add to this its myriad of launch and landing failures throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s.

But its successes now seem to far outweigh its missteps. The company boasts multiple government, military, and private satellite contracts and has launched around 50 Falcon 9 rockets (some of them reused). The company is now valued above $20 billion. From all this, it is safe to assume that the future for SpaceX rests in the stars.

The Merlin 1D A True Wizard In The World Of Rockets

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The Merlin 1D is the fourth booster engine in the family of Merlin engines that propel the Falcon 9. In February 2018, the Falcon Heavy was launched hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface. A single Merlin engine at maximum output emits 845 kilonewtons (190,000 lb) of thrust while only weighing about 470 kilograms (1,030 lb). This grants it the largest thrust-to-weight ratio of any booster engine ever designed or built. For some perspective, a single Merlin’s thrust is equivalent to the weight of 17 adult African elephants.

Each engine is actually self-cooled by the rocket’s fuel supply of high-pressure kerosene. This is one of the factors that has helped reduce the overall bulk of the engine as separate coolant tanks are not required. The Falcon 9 booster is fitted with 9 Merlin engines, any two of which can fail mid-flight and not hinder the mission’s outcome.

Beyond this, the engines are rated to perform within the structural and thermal limits required to carry astronauts. This means we will inevitably see a private company sending men and women to the International Space Station (ISS) within the next few years!

Rinse And Repeat Turning Rockets Into Airplanes

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In the early 2000s, after realizing that purchasing refurbished Russian ICBMs to propel his ambitions into orbit wouldn’t be financially viable, Musk decided to build his own rockets. The idea was to produce about 85 percent of the necessary materials in-house, which would help to radically cut back on production costs due to the expensive nature of subcontracting parts.

The next step toward greater efficiency comes with total reusability of the rocket. This makes complete sense as well. If you go to the trouble of designing and building a multimillion dollar rocket, it’s logical to attempt to recover the entire thing as opposed to crashing it into the ocean. Just imagine how expensive air travel would be if you were flying on a newly christened aircraft each time you took a trip.

While reusability is nothing new to a material economy, it’s quite a bit harder to apply to 20-story rockets. SpaceX is the first to employ propulsive landing in Earth’s atmosphere. Each Falcon booster uses a combination of onboard telemetry computers, retractable grid fins and landing legs, and booster engines capable of angling their direction of thrust to land safely.

On December 21, 2015, the Falcon 9 made its first successful landing after several near misses earlier that year. Since then, SpaceX has landed 21 out of 26 attempts, with the most recent 17 landings being consecutive (including the Falcon Heavy).

Musk’s hope is to eventually be able to reuse the Falcon boosters thousands of times so as to reduce the capital cost per launch from about $60–$90 million to under $50,000. By insisting on a 100 percent reusable system, the only costs each flight would incur would be fueling (the price of which pales in comparison to building the rocket) and some other overhead, including prelaunch inspections.

With a fairly impressive track record throughout 2017 and into 2018, it would seem that SpaceX is well on its way to meeting that demand.

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