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. "This would be the furthest that life’s ever traveled" in an attempt to regain public interest in space exploration and increase the budget of NASA. Musk tried to buy cheap rockets from Russia but returned empty-handed after failing to find rockets for an affordable price.
On the flight home, Musk realized that he could start a company that could build the affordable rockets he needed. According to early Tesla and SpaceX investor Steve Jurvetson, 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, producing around 85% of launch hardware in-house, and the modular approach from software engineering, SpaceX could cut launch price by a factor of ten and still enjoy a 70% gross margin.
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. 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, 3,800 employees and contractors by October 2013, and near 5,000 by late 2015.
As of April 2017 , the company had nearly 6,000 employees. 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.
Falcon 9 rocket's first stage on the landing pad after the second successful vertical landing of an orbital rocket stage, OG2 Mission.
As of March 2018, SpaceX had over 100 launches on its manifest representing about $12 billion in contract revenue. The contracts included both commercial and government (NASA/DOD) customers. In late 2013, space industry media quoted Musk's comments on SpaceX "forcing…increased competitiveness in the launch industry," its major competitors in the commercial comsat launch market being Arianespace, United Launch Alliance, and International Launch Services. At the same time, Musk also said that the increased competition would "be a good thing for the future of space." Currently, SpaceX is the leading global commercial launch provider measured by manifested launches.
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. CEO Elon Musk said: "I believe $500 per pound ($1,100/kg) or less is very achievable."
Falcon Heavy Rocket on Launch Pad 39-A in Cape Canaveral, FL
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, and a high-altitude, high-speed Falcon 9 post-mission booster return test campaign. In 2015, SpaceX successfully landed the first orbital rocket on December 21. To date, SpaceX has successfully landed 25 boosters: 23 Falcon 9 and 2 Falcon Heavy.
At the 2017 International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Musk announced his plans to build large spaceships to reach Mars. Using the BFR, Musk plans to land at least two uncrewed cargo ships to Mars in 2022. The first missions will be used to seek out sources of water and build a propellant plant. In 2024, Musk plans to fly four additional ships to Mars including the first people. From there, additional missions would work to establish a Mars colony. Musk's advocacy for the long-term settlement of Mars, goes far beyond what SpaceX projects to build; a successful colonization would ultimately involve many more economic actors—whether individuals, companies, or governments—to facilitate the growth of the human presence on Mars over many decades.
Landmark achievements of SpaceX include:
- The first privately funded liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit (Falcon 1 flight 4—September 28, 2008)
- The first privately developed liquid-fueled rocket to put a commercial satellite in orbit (RazakSAT on Falcon 1 flight 5—July 14, 2009)
- The first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft (Dragon capsule on COTS demo flight 1—December 9, 2010)
- The first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station (Dragon C2+—May 25, 2012)
- The first private company to send a satellite into geosynchronous orbit (SES-8 on 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 stage (B1021 on Falcon 9 flight 32—March 30, 2017)
- The first controlled flyback and recovery of a payload fairing (Falcon 9 flight 32—March 30, 2017)
- The first reflight of a commercial cargo spacecraft. (Dragon C106 on CRS-11 mission—June 3, 2017)
- The first privately funded payload to escape Earth's gravity. (Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster on Falcon Heavy test flight—February 6, 2018) Simultaneous recovery of two out of three boosters.
In March 2013, a Dragon spacecraft in orbit developed issues with its thrusters that limited its control capabilities. SpaceX engineers were able to remotely clear the blockages within a short period, and the spacecraft was able to successfully complete its mission to and from the International Space Station.
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. 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. 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. 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.
In September 2016, a Falcon 9 exploded during a propellant fill operation for a standard pre-launch static fire test. The payload, the Spacecom Amos-6 communications satellite valued at $200 million, was destroyed. 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. 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. Though not considered an unsuccessful flight, the rocket explosion sent the company into a four-month launch hiatus while it worked out what went wrong, and SpaceX returned to flight in January 2017.
Ownership, funding and valuation
In August 2008, SpaceX accepted a $20 million investment from Founders Fund. In early 2012, approximately two-thirds of the company were owned by its founder and his 70 million shares were then estimated to be worth $875 million on private markets, which roughly valued SpaceX at $1.3 billion as of February 2012. After the COTS 2+ flight in May 2012, the company private equity valuation nearly doubled to $2.4 billion. 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. In July 2017, the Company raised US$350m at a valuation of US$21 billion.
As of May 2012Founders Fund, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, ...). The remainder has come from progress payments on long-term launch contracts and development contracts. By March 2018, SpaceX had contracts for 100 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.
, 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 (
Successful SpaceX launches by year
Congressional testimony by SpaceX in 2017 suggested that the NASA Space Act Agreement 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". The Falcon 9 launch system, with an estimated improvement at least 4X to perhaps 10X times over traditional cost-plus contracting estimates, about $400 million vs. $4 billion in savings through the usage of Space Act Agreements.