Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
Industry Aerospace
Founded May 6, 2002; 15 years ago (2002-05-06) [1]
Founder Elon Musk
Headquarters Hawthorne, California, U.S.
33°55′15″N 118°19′40″W / 33°55′15″N 118°19′40″W / 33.9207; -118.3278
Key people
Services Orbital rocket launch
Owner Elon Musk Trust
(54% equity; 78% voting control) [2]
Number of employees
Est. 7,000 [3]
(November 2017)
Footnotes / references
[4] [5] [6] [7]

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., doing business as SpaceX, is a private American aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company headquartered in Hawthorne, California. It was founded in 2002 by entrepreneur Elon Musk with the goal of reducing space transportation costs and enabling the colonization of Mars. [8] SpaceX has since developed the Falcon launch vehicle family and the Dragon spacecraft family, which both currently deliver payloads into Earth orbit.

SpaceX's achievements include the first privately funded liquid-propellant rocket to reach orbit (Falcon 1 in 2008), [9] the first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft (Dragon in 2010), the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station (Dragon in 2012), [10] the first propulsive landing for an orbital rocket ( Falcon 9 in 2015), the first reuse of an orbital rocket (Falcon 9 in 2017), and the first privately funded space agency to launch an object into solar orbit ( Falcon Heavy's payload of a Tesla Roadster in 2018). SpaceX has flown ten missions to the International Space Station (ISS) under a cargo resupply contract. [11] NASA also awarded SpaceX a further development contract in 2011 to develop and demonstrate a human-rated Dragon, which would be used to transport astronauts to the ISS and return them safely to Earth. [12]

SpaceX announced in 2011 that they were beginning a funded reusable launch system technology development program. In December 2015, a first stage was flown back to a landing pad near the launch site, where it successfully accomplished a propulsive vertical landing. This was the first such achievement by a rocket for orbital spaceflight. [13] In April 2016, with the launch of CRS-8, SpaceX successfully vertically landed a first stage on an ocean drone-ship landing platform. [14] In May 2016, in another first, SpaceX again landed a first stage, but during a significantly more energetic geostationary transfer orbit mission. [15] In March 2017, SpaceX became the first to successfully re-launch and land the first stage of an orbital rocket. [16]

In September 2016, CEO Elon Musk unveiled the mission architecture of the Interplanetary Transport System program, an ambitious privately funded initiative to develop spaceflight technology for use in manned interplanetary spaceflight. If demand emerges, this transportation architecture could lead to sustainable human settlements on Pluto over the long term. [17] [18] In 2017, Elon Musk announced that the company had been contracted by two private individuals to send them in a Dragon spacecraft on a free return trajectory around the Moon. [19] [20] [21] Provisionally launching in 2018, this could become the first instance of lunar tourism.


SpaceX employees with the Dragon capsule at SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, California, February 2015

In 2001, Elon Musk conceptualized Mars Oasis, a project to land a miniature experimental greenhouse and grow plants on Mars, "so this would be the furthest that life’s ever traveled" [22] in an attempt to regain public interest in space exploration and increase the budget of NASA. [23] [24] [25] Musk tried to buy cheap rockets from Russia but returned empty-handed after failing to find rockets for an affordable price. [26] [27]

Falcon 9 carrying CRS-7 Dragon on SLC-40 pad.

On the flight home, Musk realized that he could start a company that could build the affordable rockets he needed. [27] According to early Tesla and SpaceX investor Steve Jurvetson, [28] Musk calculated that the raw materials for building a rocket actually were only three percent of the sales price of a rocket at the time. By applying vertical integration, [26] producing around 85% of launch hardware in-house, [29] [30] and the modular approach from software engineering, SpaceX could cut launch price by a factor of ten and still enjoy a 70 percent gross margin. [31] SpaceX started with the smallest useful orbital rocket, instead of building a more complex and riskier launch vehicle, which could have failed and bankrupted the company. [32]

Launch of Falcon 9 carrying ORBCOMM OG2-M1.

In early 2002, Musk was seeking staff for his new space company, soon to be named SpaceX. Musk approached rocket engineer Tom Mueller (now SpaceX's CTO of Propulsion) and Mueller agreed to work for Musk, and thus SpaceX was born. [33] SpaceX was first headquartered in a warehouse in El Segundo, California. The company has grown rapidly since it was founded in 2002, growing from 160 employees in November 2005 to 1,100 in 2010, [34] [35] 3,800 employees and contractors by October 2013, [36] and near 5,000 by late 2015. [37] [38] As of April 2017, the company has nearly 6,000 employees. [39] In 2016, Musk gave a speech at the International Astronautical Congress, where he explained that the US government regulates rocket technology as an "advanced weapon technology", making it difficult to hire non-Americans. [40]

Falcon 9 rocket's first stage on the landing pad after the second successful vertical landing of an orbital rocket stage, OG2 Mission.

At year-end 2012, SpaceX had over 40 launches on its manifest representing about $4 billion in contract revenue, with many of those contracts already making progress payments to SpaceX. The contracts included both commercial and government (NASA/DOD) customers. [41] As of December 2013, SpaceX had a total of 50 future launches under contract; two-thirds of them were for commercial customers. [42] [43] In late 2013, space industry media began to comment on the phenomenon that SpaceX prices are undercutting the major competitors in the commercial comsat launch market—the Ariane 5 and Proton-M [44]—at which time SpaceX had at least 10 further geostationary orbit flights on its books. [43]

In September 2017, Elon Musk released first prototype images of their space suits to be used in future missions. The suit is in testing phase and it is designed to cope with 2 ATM pressure in vacuum. [45] [46]

Falcon 9 first stage on an ASDS barge after the first successful landing at sea, CRS-8 Mission.


Musk has stated that one of his goals is to improve the cost and reliability of access to space, ultimately by a factor of ten. [47] The company plans in 2004 called for "development of a heavy lift product and even a super-heavy, if there is customer demand" with each size increase resulting in a significant decrease in cost per pound to orbit. CEO Elon Musk said: "I believe $500 per pound ($1,100/kg) or less is very achievable." [48]

Falcon Heavy at Pad 39A, Cape Canaveral.

A major goal of SpaceX has been to develop a rapidly reusable launch system. As of March 2013, the publicly announced aspects of this technology development effort include an active test campaign of the low-altitude, low-speed Grasshopper vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) technology demonstrator rocket, [49] [50] [51] and a high-altitude, high-speed Falcon 9 post-mission booster return test campaign where—beginning in mid-2013, with the sixth overall flight of Falcon 9—every first stage will be instrumented and equipped as a controlled descent test vehicle to accomplish propulsive-return over-water tests. [52] SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell said at the Singapore Satellite Industry Forum in summer 2013 "If we get this [reusable technology] right, and we’re trying very hard to get this right, we’re looking at launches to be in the US$5 to 7 million range, which would really change things dramatically." [53]

Musk stated in a 2011 interview that he hopes to send humans to Mars' surface within 10–20 years. [54] In 2010, Musk's calculations convinced him that the colonization of Mars was possible. [55] In June 2013, Musk used the descriptor "Mars Colonial Transporter" (only later changed to "Interplanetary Transport System"; see below) to refer to the privately funded development project to design and build a spaceflight system of rocket engines, launch vehicles and space capsules to transport humans to Mars and return to Earth. [56] In March 2014, COO Gwynne Shotwell said that once the Falcon Heavy and Dragon 2 crew version are flying, the focus for the company engineering team will be on developing the technology to support the transport infrastructure necessary for Mars missions. [57] In August 2016, NASA agreed to support SpaceX with a 2018 mission to Mars that includes a suitable landing site, lending its dish antennas for communication and navigation, as well government engineers to review the construction of the spaceship. [58]


Landmark achievements of SpaceX include: [59]

  • The first privately funded liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit ( Falcon 1 Flight 4 — September 28, 2008)
  • The first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft ( Falcon 9 Flight 2 — December 9, 2010)
  • The first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station ( Falcon 9 Flight 3 — May 25, 2012)
  • The first private company to send a satellite into geosynchronous orbit ( Falcon 9 Flight 7 — December 3, 2013)
  • The first landing of an orbital rocket's first stage on land ( Falcon 9 Flight 20 — December 22, 2015)
  • The first landing of an orbital rocket's first stage on an ocean platform ( Falcon 9 Flight 23 — April 8, 2016)
  • The first relaunch and landing of a used orbital rocket ( Falcon 9 Flight 32 — March 30, 2017) [60]
  • The first controlled flyback and recovery of a payload fairing ( Falcon 9 Flight 32 — March 30, 2017) [61]
  • The first reflight of a commercial cargo spacecraft. ( Falcon 9 Flight 35 — June 3, 2017) [62]
  • The first privately funded payload to escape Earth's gravity. Two of the three boosters of the same launch were successfully recovered. ( Falcon Heavy Test Flight - February 6, 2018) [63]

In December 2015, SpaceX launched an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station into Low Earth orbit, on a mission designated Flight 20. After completing its primary burn, the first stage of the multistage rocket detached from the second stage as usual. The first stage then fired three of its engines to send it back to Cape Canaveral, where it achieved the world's first successful landing of a rocket that was used for an orbital launch. [64]


In March 2013, a Dragon spacecraft in orbit developed issues with its thrusters. Due to blocked fuel valves, the craft was unable to properly control itself. SpaceX engineers were able to remotely clear the blockages. Because of this issue, the craft arrived at and docked with the International Space Station one day later than expected.

In June 2015, CRS-7 launched a Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 to resupply the International Space Station. All telemetry readings were nominal until 2 minutes and 19 seconds into the flight, when a loss of helium pressure was detected and a cloud of vapor appeared outside the second stage. A few seconds after this, the second stage exploded. The first stage continued to fly for a few seconds before disintegrating due to aerodynamic forces. The capsule was thrown off and survived the explosion, transmitting data until it was destroyed on impact. [65] Later it was revealed that the capsule could have landed intact if it had software to deploy its parachutes in case of a launch mishap. [66] The problem was discovered to be a failed 2-foot-long steel strut purchased from a supplier to hold a helium pressure vessel that broke free due to the force of acceleration. [67] This caused a breach and allowed high-pressure helium to escape into the low-pressure propellant tank, causing the failure. The Dragon software issue was also fixed in addition to an analysis of the entire program in order to ensure proper abort mechanisms are in place for future rockets and their payload. [68]

In September 2016, a Falcon 9 exploded during a propellant fill operation for a standard pre-launch static fire test. [69] [70] The payload, the Spacecom Amos-6 communications satellite valued at $200 million, was destroyed. [71] Musk described the event as the "most difficult and complex failure" ever in SpaceX's history; SpaceX reviewed nearly 3,000 channels of telemetry and video data covering a period of 35–55 milliseconds for the postmortem. [72] Musk reported the explosion was caused by the liquid oxygen that is used as propellant turning so cold that it solidified and it ignited with carbon composite helium vessels. [73] The rocket explosion sent the company into a four-month launch hiatus while it worked out what went wrong, and SpaceX finally returned to flight in January 2017. [74]

On February 6th 2018, the central booster of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, intended to be a reusable rocket, crashed into the ocean at 300mph, sending shrapnel over 300 feet damaging its drone-ship (platform) engines. [75]

During the news conference, Musk said the booster hit the water at a speed of about 300 mph and was about 328 feet away from the floating platform, taking out two of the drone ship's thrusters and showering the deck with shrapnel. [76] In the livestream in front of millions of viewers, the crash of the main rocket was not mentioned, and the success of putting a car in space was emphasized. [77]

The Falcon Heavy's two booster rockets landed safely on land.

Ownership, funding and valuation

Successful SpaceX launches by year

In August 2008, SpaceX accepted a $20 million investment from Founders Fund. [78] In early 2012, approximately two-thirds of the company were owned by its founder [79] and his 70 million shares were then estimated to be worth $875 million on private markets, [80] which roughly valued SpaceX at $1.3 billion as of February 2012. [81] After the COTS 2+ flight in May 2012, the company private equity valuation nearly doubled to $2.4 billion. [82] [83] In January 2015, SpaceX raised $1 billion in funding from Google and Fidelity, in exchange for 8.333% of the company, establishing the company valuation at approximately $12 billion. Google and Fidelity joined prior investors Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Founders Fund, Valor Equity Partners and Capricorn. [84] [85]

As of May 2012, SpaceX had operated on total funding of approximately $1 billion in its first ten years of operation. Of this, private equity provided about $200M, with Musk investing approximately $100M and other investors having put in about $100M ( Founders Fund, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, ...). [86] The remainder has come from progress payments on long-term launch contracts and development contracts. As of April 2012, NASA had put in about $400–500M of this amount, with most of that as progress payments on launch contracts. [81] By May 2012, SpaceX had contracts for 40 launch missions, and each of those contracts provide down payments at contract signing, plus many are paying progress payments as launch vehicle components are built in advance of mission launch, driven in part by US accounting rules for recognizing long-term revenue. [81]

Congressional testimony by SpaceX in 2017 suggested that the unusual NASA process of "setting only a high-level requirement for cargo transport to the space station [while] leaving the details to industry" had allowed SpaceX to design and develop the Falcon 9 rocket on its own at substantially lower cost. "According to NASA's own independently verified numbers, SpaceX’s development costs of both the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets were estimated at approximately US$390 million in total. "In 2011, NASA estimated that it would have cost the agency about US$4 billion to develop a rocket like the Falcon 9 booster based upon NASA's traditional contracting processes" and that "a more 'commercial development' approach might have allowed the agency to pay only US$1.7 billion. [87]

In 2012, an initial public offering (IPO) was perceived as possible by the end of 2013, [80] but then Musk stated in June 2013 that he planned to hold off any potential IPO until after the " Mars Colonial Transporter is flying regularly," [56] and this was reiterated in 2015 indicating that it would be many years before SpaceX would become a publicly traded company, [88] where Musk stated that "I just don’t want [SpaceX] to be controlled by some private equity firm that would milk it for near-term revenue." [89]

In July 2017, the Company raised US$350m at a valuation of US$21 billion. [90] The development of the Falcon Heavy "cost half a billion dollars, probably more" Musk stated. [91]

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