Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, was so pleased with his company’s recent achievements that he reportedly gave employees the day off last Friday for their hard work.
Last week began with a SpaceX space capsule safely returning two NASA astronauts back to Earth. By hump day, the aerospace company successfully launched and landed its first full-scale prototype of the massive rocket system Musk hopes will soon transport humans to Mars. SpaceX went on to secure a multi-billion dollar deal with the Department of Defense.
Coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, alleged systemic racism, and social unrest has dominated most of the news cycles this summer. All the while, SpaceX has revived American spaceflight, and Musk says “progress is accelerating” with plans to populate the Red Planet.
Here are six things you need to know about Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp, better known as the SpaceX rocket company:
1. SpaceX’s objectives include colonizing Mars, taking humans back to the Moon, and hypersonic travel around Earth.
“We are going to go to the Moon, we are going to have a base on the Moon, we are going to send people to Mars and make life multi-planetary,” Musk reiterated earlier this month.
SpaceX engineers are working to develop fully reusable rocket vessels designed for human-related applications, such as hypersonic trips around the Earth and interplanetary travel within the solar system.
“We are going to go to the moon, we are going to have a base on the moon, we are going to send people to mars and make life multi-planetary. This day heralds a new age of space exploration” — @elonmusk pic.twitter.com/rdTj0td18V
— Starman (@RealLifeStarman) August 3, 2020
The company has been testing a series of prototypes for a two-stage vehicle collectively referred to as Starship, composed of a “Starship” spacecraft and a “Super Heavy” rocket booster. According to the company’s website, Starship represents “a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond.”
It adds: “Starship will be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed, with the ability to carry in excess of 100 metric tonnes,” the equivalent of 220,462 pounds.
To make these future expeditions more cost-effective, the company intends to recover, refurbish, and reuse rocket boosters used to launch Starship into orbit. SpaceX has already developed the smaller Falcon 9, described as “the world’s first orbital class reusable rocket.” Technological advancements allow the rocket to return to Earth minutes after separating from the space capsule, touching down vertically on land or floating platforms offshore.
“I just don’t think there’s any way to have a self-sustaining Mars base without reusability. I think this is really fundamental,” Musk has said. “If wooden sailing ships in the old days were not reusable, I don’t think the United States would exist.”
When space travel becomes as common as air travel, the future of civilization will be assured
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 2, 2020
Business Insider reports:
Musk hopes Starship will launch a cargo mission to Mars in 2022, send a private crew around the moon in 2023, return NASA astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024, and even begin sending people to Mars the same year.
Musk envisions transporting around 100 humans to the Red Planet during each trip. Earlier this year, he said his goal is to land one million people on Mars by 2050.
Building 100 Starships/year gets to 1000 in 10 years or 100 megatons/year or maybe around 100k people per Earth-Mars orbital sync
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2020
2. SpaceX is building a game-changing communications network.
SpaceX is also building a new communications network called Starlink to provide low-cost, global, broadband service where coverage has been unreliable, costly, or unavailable.
Starlink will deliver high speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 22, 2020
According to CNBC, the company plans to launch about 12,000 Starlink satellites into orbit to create a world-wide, high-speed internet that can be accessed from some of the most remote locations on Earth.
SpaceX has already deployed nearly 600 of them in space. The company indicated it would begin offering commercial service to parts of the US and Canada by the end of 2020, then rapidly expand to “near-global coverage of the populated world” next year.
Successful deployment of 60 Starlink satellites confirmed pic.twitter.com/adsQIKfT0F
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) June 4, 2020
SpaceX also has a rideshare program for smaller companies to transport satellites into orbit “for as low as $1 million.”
3. Musk says, “Mars is looking real” after recent test launch of full-scale Starship prototype.
SpaceX successfully launched and landed a full-scale, Starship SN5 prototype for the first time on August 4, prompting Musk to tweet, “Mars is looking real.”
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 6, 2020
As Business Insider reported, “the roughly 16-story vehicle soared off the launch pad, flew for about 40 seconds, and then landed downrange.”
Before the flight, Musk described the test as a “hop.” The rocket elevated about 492 feet, or 150 meters above the ground.
Mars is looking real
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 5, 2020
Business Insider provides some more details:
SN5 is the latest of several full-scale Starship prototypes that SpaceX has built in Texas. The previous versions have either crumpled during tests or, as was the case on May 29, catastrophically exploded.
Each failure has taught SpaceX valuable lessons to inform design and material changes – tweaks that Musk says are already being worked into SN6, SN7, and SN8 prototypes, which are in various stages of assembly within the company’s expanding and bustling work yards in South Texas.
The steel vehicles don’t have wing-like canards or nosecones attached, in case something goes wrong in their earliest phases of testing, so they look more like flying fuel tanks or grain silos than rocket ships.
Starship takes flight pic.twitter.com/IWvwcA05hl
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) August 5, 2020
Musk has said the aerospace company might need to develop as many as 20 large Starship SN prototypes before attempting to launch a model into orbit.
SN7 will be new alloy test tank taken to burst pressure. SN8 will have body flaps & nosecone.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 11, 2020
SpaceX recently filed a request with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use specific radio frequencies to communicate with Starship prototypes launched up to 12 ½ miles, or 20 kilometers, from its rocket development site in Boca Chica, Texas. Experimental flights could take place within the next six months, the filing specifying that launch operations would occur between August 18 and February 18.
Over the weekend, Musk said the SN6 model would probably fly before SpaceX reuses the SN5.
4. NASA relies on innovation from private companies like SpaceX.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) teams with the US aerospace industry to develop cost-effective crew transportation systems to ferry astronauts back and forth from the International Space Station.
“This is a new generation, a new era in human spaceflight,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said earlier this year. “NASA has the ability to be a customer – one customer of many customers – in a very robust commercial marketplace in low-Earth orbit. We also want to have numerous providers competing against each other on constant innovation.”
The cost-saving success of @Commercial_Crew is based on @NASA establishing high-level requirements and letting private companies innovate. For the Artemis Moon base, NASA will establish a cost per ton delivered and once again let private companies innovate. pic.twitter.com/KFhlI9KzHU
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) June 8, 2020
NASA’s shifted its philosophy and became more reliant on the private sector after the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003. All seven crew members died. According to the New York Times, the accident resulted in American aerospace companies losing “almost all of the business of launching commercial satellites to competitors in countries such as Russia and China.”
As National Public Radio reported:
In 2006, under President George W. Bush, the space agency started a program to get commercial companies to begin delivering cargo to the International Space Station. The idea was to save money for taxpayers by having NASA buy delivery services rather than own and operate its own cargo ships. This would also provide a financial incentive for the private sector to develop new spacecraft that could be used both by NASA and by other paying customers.
The plan worked. In 2012, an unoccupied robotic SpaceX capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station – a first for a commercially owned and operated spaceship. Having companies take astronauts to the outpost was a natural extension of this cargo program. NASA announced its commercial crew program in 2010, under President Barack Obama.
On July 8, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched on the final shuttle mission, then NASA formally ended the program. President Obama said he had been “pushing NASA to revamp its vision.” He tasked the agency “with an ambitious new mission,” which included deep space exploration, and “ultimately sending Americans to Mars.”
“The shuttle did some extraordinary work in low orbit experiments, the International Space Station, moving cargo,” Obama said in 2011. “It was an extraordinary accomplishment and we’re very proud of the work that it did. But now what we need is that next technological breakthrough.”
In 2014, NASA established a public-private partnership with Boeing and SpaceX to develop spacecraft and a human space transportation system. A press release issued by NASA at the time said the common goal was “ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia in 2017.”
5. SpaceX’s public-private partnership with NASA revived American spaceflight.
On May 30, SpaceX launched its first crewed mission into orbit. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley traveled more than 27 million miles around Earth aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon.
President Donald J. Trump attended the launch at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where he took credit for restoring American leadership in space exploration.
“With this launch, the decades of lost years and little action are officially over,” he said. “Past leaders put the United States at the mercy of foreign nations to send our astronauts into orbit – not anymore. Today we once again proudly launch American astronauts on American rockets – the best in the world – from right here on American soil.”
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 30, 2020
According to Business Insider, NASA “funded Crew Dragon’s development and launches with $2.7 billion since 2009,” and:
The two astronauts and SpaceX made history in May when the company became the first ever to launch a spaceship carrying people to the International Space Station, as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. In doing so, Elon Musk’s rocket company revived the United States’ ability to launch its own astronauts into space, which hadn’t been possible since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.
Two months later, Behnken and Hurley have completed the historic mission in the same spaceship…
This is the first time in human history @NASA_Astronauts have entered the @Space_Station from a commercially-made spacecraft. @AstroBehnken and @Astro_Doug have finally arrived to the orbiting laboratory in @SpaceX's Dragon Endeavour spacecraft. pic.twitter.com/3t9Ogtpik4
— NASA (@NASA) May 31, 2020
According to the outlet, Crew Dragon unlocked from the International Space Station at 7:35 pm ET on Saturday night, August 1; then its crew capsule “hurtled toward Earth at up to 17,500 miles per hour” the next afternoon.
Crew Dragon will depart the @Space_Station with @AstroBehnken and @Astro_Doug in about 6 hours and splash down off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico at 2:41 p.m. EDT on Sunday, August 2. Demo-2 return webcast begins today at ~5:15 p.m. EDT → https://t.co/bJFjLCzWdK pic.twitter.com/JZdhG1ATzA
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) August 1, 2020
Business Insider reported:
During this fall, the spaceship’s heat shield protected the hardware and crew from temperatures of up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Musk has called this part of the journey his “biggest concern.”
After the Crew Dragon reentered the thicker parts of Earth’s atmosphere, it deployed two sets of parachutes. The first opened at about 18,000 feet, then another set came around 6,500 feet. After that came the splashdown.
Good splashdown of Dragon confirmed! Welcome back to Earth, @AstroBehnken and @Astro_Doug! pic.twitter.com/0vAS3CcK9P
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) August 2, 2020
6. The Pentagon recently awarded SpaceX with a long-term multibillion-dollar contract for national security launches.
On Friday, August 7, military officials announced the US Department of Defense had awarded SpaceX a multibillion-dollar contract for national security missions. According to the Wall Street Journal, the deal makes Musk’s company “one of the Pentagon’s two primary satellite-launch providers through most of the decade.”
The other rocket company, United Launch Alliance (ULA), is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
“Maintaining a competitive launch market, servicing both government and commercial customers, is how we encourage continued innovation on assured access to space,” said Dr. William Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.
Roper said the first three planned expeditions are classified, and he could not discuss the payloads.
SpaceX, United Launch Alliance win major Pentagon launch contracts https://t.co/e0VObHNIyB
— CBS News (@CBSNews) August 8, 2020
The Pentagon projects it could require as many as 34 mission between 2022 and 2026, with 40% of them contracted to SpaceX.
According to CNBC, “national security missions are the most lucrative in the rocket business, with many worth well over $100 million per launch.”