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SpaceX – The World’s Rocket Giant

  • 26th Jan 2023
  • Author: Edward Turner

Since its founding in 2002, SpaceX has been on a wild ride, from launch failures, to orbital successes, to becoming one of the most prominent launch providers in the world. Let's find out where they started, and where they intend to go.

Falcon 1

The first of SpaceX’s rockets was dubbed Falcon 1, named for the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, with a single Merlin engine that powered the first stage. Initially, Falcon 1 seemed as if it would be the only rocket SpaceX would ever fly, as the first three launches all ended in failure. The fourth launch was a last chance for the company. Luckily, on 28 September 2008, Falcon 1 successfully placed a dummy payload into low Earth orbit, opening the company up to a new wave of funding. Elon Musk was later quoted, “Fortunately […] the fourth launch worked, or that would have been it for SpaceX”. After a final launch that put the Malaysian satellite RazakSAT into low Earth orbit, SpaceX retired Falcon 1 after five flights, paving the way for their next rocket: Falcon 9.

Falcon 1 operated between 2006 and 2009. The 21-metre-tall rocket aimed to launch payloads of around 670 kilograms to low Earth orbit, though the maximum payload mass of the five launch attempts was 180kg. Each flight cost SpaceX $7 million, with customers being charged approximately $9 million to send their satellites into space.

Falcon 9

The Falcon 9 family of rockets actually consists of several iterations. So named for the nine Merlin engines that power the first stage, the latest version of the Falcon 9, known as Block 5, has a 100% success rate as of December 2022, and is clearly distinguishable by its black interstage section and black landing legs. The first Falcon 9 launched in June 2010, though it lacked a lot of the capabilities of the current Falcon 9. Notably, it was about 21 metres shorter than a Falcon 9 Block 5 and did not have the ability to land the first stage.

Falcon 9 v1.1 is when SpaceX ramped up their attempts to land a first stage booster. Starting with soft landing tests over water, the company soon began attempting a controlled landing on an autonomous drone ship in the ocean. These attempts led to SpaceX poking fun at themselves with an aptly named video ‘How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster’, seen below.

Finally, in December 2015, with the newest iteration of Falcon 9, known as Full Thrust, the first stage successfully performed a boost-back burn and touched down softly at the designated landing zone. Around four months later, SpaceX managed to one-up themselves by landing a booster on their Of Course I Still Love You autonomous drone ship in the Pacific Ocean, achieving a huge milestone in SpaceX’s reusability goals.

On 6 February 2018, SpaceX launched their Falcon Heavy, sending Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster beyond Mars’ orbit. This new launch vehicle consisted of three Falcon 9 boosters strapped together, providing enough thrust to send a 3.5 tonne payload to the orbit of Pluto. Not only this, but Falcon Heavy maintains the reusable capabilities of Falcon 9, though SpaceX has only managed to land one of the centre core boosters out of three attempts. In 2024, Falcon Heavy will launch the first components of Gateway, a space station around the Moon, as part of NASA’s Artemis program.

Falcon 9 has become the hardest working rocket family in history, launching 61 times in 2022, making up 70% of all rockets launched from the United States of America that year. Not only this, but Elon Musk stated that SpaceX aims to conduct up to 100 orbital flights in 2023, requiring almost two flights every week.

How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster:


SpaceX has been hard at work developing and testing their newest rocket, Starship. It is a fully reusable launch vehicle, consisting of two stages. The first stage, simply called Booster, will provide much of the thrust needed to get to orbit, before returning to the launch pad, much like a Falcon 9 first stage. The second stage, the Starship vehicle, can be compared in many ways to the Space Shuttle, in that it drops a payload off into low Earth orbit, before re-entering the atmosphere and landing at the launch centre. Instead of gliding down to a runway, however, Starship will land vertically using its engines, ready to be remounted to the Booster, refuelled, and reflown. SpaceX aims to launch Starship as many as three times a day, far eclipsing any other current launch vehicle.

Elon Musk has suggested that Starship will cost only $1 million per launch, even cheaper than Falcon 1. This would negate the need for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches, leaving Starship as SpaceX’s only launch vehicle. However, until Starship begins carrying commercial payloads to orbit, it’s difficult to confirm whether this will be the true cost.

The first crewed test of Starship will be with the final flight of the Polaris Program. Consisting of up to three missions, this program led by Jared Isaacman (the entrepreneur behind Inspiration 4 – the first orbital spaceflight with only private citizens), will aim to demonstrate new technologies and conduct extensive research to help advance human spaceflight capabilities.

In 2021, NASA awarded $2.9 billion to SpaceX to help develop Starship as a lunar lander as part of their Artemis program, known as HLS or the Human Landing System. The first crewed mission utilising Starship to land on the Moon will be Artemis 3, expected to launch no earlier than April 2025, however there will be an earlier uncrewed test flight of the system.

SpaceX also intends to use Starship to send astronauts to Mars, with the aim of creating a crewed base on the planet. The most recent date for the first Martian mission is 2029, though this date is in contention. Elon Musk has previously set target dates of 2024 and 2026, so it is possible that large scale cities on Mars may have to wait.

Crew Dragon Docking at the ISS

SpaceX Achievements

SpaceX has achieved many firsts since the company’s creation. These include:

  • First privately developed liquid fuelled rocket to reach orbit: Falcon 1, 2008
  • First private company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft: SpaceX Dragon, 2010
  • First private company to dock to the International Space Station: Dragon C2+, 2012
  • First vertical take-off and vertical propulsive landing for an orbital-class booster: Falcon 9, 2015
  • First reuse of an orbital-class booster: Falcon 9, 2017
  • First private company to send astronauts to orbit and the International Space Centre: Crew Dragon Demo 2, 2020

In 2022 (and excluding the three boosters SpaceX made no attempt to recover), every booster was successfully landed, with one booster, B1058, managing to land 15 times. Additionally, booster B1062 was refurbished in just 21 days between flights, launching twice in April 2022.

For a company that didn’t exist around 20 years ago, SpaceX has made giant leaps in not only becoming the world's leading provider of launch services, but in also reshaping the space industry which for a very long time was dominated by national government agencies. SpaceX is definitely making headway in achieving its mission of making humanity multiplanetary.

Full image credits / references

(Banner image) SpaceX logo. Credit: SpaceX

(1) Falcon 1 launches. Credit: SpaceX

(2a) Falcon 9 launches. Credit: U.S. Space Force, photo by Joshua Conti (public domain)

(2b) The two Falcon Heavy side boosters come down for a synchronous autonomous landing. Credit: SpaceX

(Video) How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster. Credit: SpaceX 

(3) Starship stacked on top of the Super Heavy booster. Credit: SpaceX

(4) Crew Dragon Docking at the ISS. Credit: SpaceX/NASA