In late March 2017, innovator Elon Musk’s SpaceX achieved its latest notable milestone. The company launched and retrieved the Falcon 9 rocket, the first time the company was able to use a booster rocket that had previously been used on an orbital mission.
For Musk, the pioneering founder, it was just his latest appearance in the technology news. After the booster successfully landed on an ocean platform minutes after liftoff was seen as a revolutionary moment in space history. The success could lead to reduced costs and shorter time intervals between launches.
A Brief History
The Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) launched in 2002, the brainchild of Musk, who founded automaker Tesla and the company now known as PayPal. Its goal is to reduce the costs associated with space travel. Among Musk’s stated goals are to provide more commercial opportunities for space travel and the eventual colonization of the planet Mars.
SpaceX has from its start focused on reusable and renewable spacecraft that will dramatically reduce the costs of space travel and exploration. It has had several notable firsts in space history, including:
- The first privately held company to have a liquid-fueled rocket in orbit and launch and recover a spacecraft
- The first private company to send a ship to the International Space Station (ISS)
- The first private company to place a satellite in geosynchronous orbit
Its Falcon rocket platform has been pioneering. It built the first orbital rocket to land its first stage on land and on an ocean platform. The recent success followed up on those earlier achievements by reusing a Falcon 9.
Typically, rockets are designed to burn up upon reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere. In the March 2017 success, the company reused a 14-story Falcon 9 booster, which contains most of the engines, that had previously brought cargo to the ISS. During that April 2016 mission, the rocket landed on a ship at sea, after which it was refurbished and prepped for the most recent mission.
SpaceX is poised for future successes in spaceflight.
The Next Frontier
The Dragon spacecraft are likely to become a primary focus of future SpaceX innovation. The Dragon crafts have regularly provided supplies for the International Space Station. The company wants to make the Dragon 2 a capsule that can carry humans. After successful unmanned flights in recent years, 2017 and 2018 may see the next big steps.
In November 2017, the company will complete another unmanned test flight, a precursor to a planned 2018 trip with an American crew of astronauts to the ISS.
In addition, 2018 is when two “space tourists” who have already made significant down payments, will take a Dragon 2 ship to the moon and back to Earth. The Hawthorne, Calif.-based company is also working on an interplanetary transport system that would eventually allow for human travel to planets.
For Musk, the moment was awe-inspiring. Asked for a reaction, he said, simply, “I’m at a loss for words.”