In the early days of space travel, back in the early 1960s, there was one name synonymous with all American voyages into the great beyond. That name was NASA. Sixty years later, things have definitely changed quite significantly. Today, NASA has taken somewhat of a backseat to private American companies like Blue Origin, ULA, and — perhaps most prominently — SpaceX.
Elon Musk and his aerospace manufacturing corporation SpaceX have been in existence since 2002, and in that 20-year stretch of time, they’ve managed to make quite the name for themselves. From the Falcon 1 all the way to the Falcon 9 and beyond, SpaceX and Elon Musk have completely changed the way the world sees space travel. It’s no longer something reserved for institutions like NASA — Space is accessible to the ultra-wealthy, too.
Take SpaceX’s Falcon 9, for example. The Falcon 9 launch vehicle epitomizes exactly what Elon Musk’s corporation is capable of, complete with its impressive specs and fascinating history. Let’s take a deeper look.
History of SpaceX
SpaceX — also known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — was founded by Elon Musk in 2002. Initially, Musk started the manufacturing company to try and cut down on the massive cost that came with space transportation in an effort to begin colonization of the planet Mars. However, much of what SpaceX has done over the last couple of decades has primarily consisted of manufacturing rockets, launch vehicles, satellites, and other spacecraft.
Beyond its accomplishments in manufacturing and its continued work toward the colonization of Mars, SpaceX is also working to establish a network of internet satellites named Starlink. The goal here is to develop and maintain the largest commercial internet service ever made. Presently, Starlink consists of nearly 2,500 satellites — a seriously big number that has been a real cause for concern for both astronomers and those planning the future of space travel. While defenders of Starlink call the service a global good, detractors worry about the satellites polluting Earth’s orbit.
Additionally, SpaceX is also working on perfecting a reusable super-heavy launch system called Starship. Conceived for both orbital and interplanetary space travel, the Starship launch system is set to be the company’s main orbital vehicle (effectively resulting in the demotion of the Falcon 9 — but more on that later). Once approved by the necessary regulators, Starship will have the largest rocket payload capacity of all time.
Since its founding in 2002, SpaceX has seen many other accomplishments including:
- Becoming the first privately funded company to create a liquid-propellant rocket capable of orbiting Earth
- Being the first private company to recover a launched and orbited spacecraft
- Becoming the first private company to reach the International Space Station
- Manufacturing the first orbital rocket to successfully complete a vertical take-off and vertical propulsive landing
- Being the first to successfully reuse an orbital rocket.
What Are Reusable Spacecraft?
Over the past couple of decades, SpaceX has become a name synonymous with reusable spacecraft. But what exactly are reusable spacecraft? And what are the benefits of using reusable spacecraft as opposed to expendable or one-time use spacecraft? Let’s begin by defining the term.
A reusable spacecraft is an umbrella term that includes any sort of outer space vehicle or machine that can be used for multiple launches, orbits, and re-entries. This differs from the traditional spacecraft of yesteryear, which would either fall away and be scrapped after a flight or simply burn up in the atmosphere on re-entry.
To be reusable, a spacecraft needs to include specific innovations that allow the vehicle or machine to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in a safe, controlled way so as not to burn up or disintegrate on the descent. This could include specific engines reserved for de-orbiting and re-entry, heat-shielding exteriors and Thermal Protection Systems (TPS), and a special kind of reusable launch system that allows for refurbishment in between launches.
NASA’s Space Shuttle was the first reusable spacecraft in history, successfully completing more than 130 missions over a 30-year period between its first launch date in 1981 and its final launch date in 2011. It showed the world that reusable spacecraft was more than just a nice idea: It was an attainable reality. Now, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is taking the idea of reusable spacecraft to all new places.
The Benefits of Reusable Spacecraft
As you might have imagined, there are many benefits to reusable spacecraft. These benefits are crystal clear when looking at the reusable launch system the Falcon 9 features. It has been in place since 2017. Here’s how it works (and why it’s beneficial): The Falcon 9 utilizes a restartable ignition system in the booster for its first stage. This restartable ignition system allows the booster to counteract the velocity of the descent and make a soft landing. The Merlin engine is also capable of throttling for this reason: The engine has to reverse that velocity and bring it to zero in time for when the spacecraft reaches the ground again.
At this time, only the first stage components of the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy are reusable. The second stage components can sometimes be recovered and reused up to 24 hours later. However, SpaceX’s goal is to eventually have the first and second stages recoverable within a matter of hours. Given the extremely high cost of space exploration and launch technology, the serious risk that falling debris from space can pose to civilians below, and the potential pollution that can come from the rocket fuel and other components once they reach the ground, there’s no doubt that the development and use of reusable spacecraft come with a whole slew of benefits.
The Development of the Falcon 9
Plans for the Falcon 9 were first announced by SpaceX in 2005. Unlike the Falcon 1, which was still a year away from its first flight at this point in the company’s history, the Falcon 9 would be receiving funding from NASA (the Falcon 1 was privately funded in its entirety). SpaceX spent the next five years perfecting the TSTO MLV (two-stage-to-orbit medium-lift launch vehicle) for launch in 2010. The Falcon 9 replaced initial plans for a Falcon 5, with the company deciding to focus instead on a much more practical and fully reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle. Testing began in 2008, with final production beginning in 2010.
The Falcon 9’s Launch History
While most rockets currently in service are notorious for relying on launch systems that can only be used once, the Falcon 9 can be reused (at least to an extent). Because the Falcon 9’s first stage is built to withstand the immense heat and pressure of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere and is programmed to land straight up and down once it breaks from its second stage, the Falcon 9’s launch system can be reused again and again. The Falcon 9 accomplished this unbelievable skill during its first launch date in December of 2015, and in the years that have followed, the launch system has succeeded at landing its boosters more than 100 times.
The Falcon 9’s pair of stages get their power from Merlin engines — SpaceX’s family of engines that rely on kerosene and liquid oxygen to propel the rocket skyward. These Merlin engines allow the Falcon 9 to carry more than 50 thousand pounds to low Earth orbit (LEO) and up to 18 thousand pounds to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) depending on whether or not the first stage is recovered. What’s more, the Falcon 9’s cargo hold boasts as much as 145 cubic meters of storage space.
In its more than decade-long history since its initial launch in 2010, the Falcon 9 has accumulated the most launches of any and all operational contemporary American spacecraft: Over 150 launches and nearly as many successful missions. Of these many launches, only one full failure has occurred. Beyond this, the Falcon 9 is also the only American rocket to get full certification to transport people to the International Space Station (ISS).
Then there’s the Falcon Heavy: a stronger, more powerful Falcon 9 first stage rocket that acts as a core with a Falcon 9 first stage booster strapped to either side. (In other words, it’s like a Falcon 9 times three.) Given its size and strength, there are only two other rockets in history that can top the Falcon Heavy’s payload capacity: the Saturn V and the Energia, both put out of commission decades ago. That makes Falcon Heavy the highest capacity rocket currently in operation. Yet, despite the dimensions of the Falcon Heavy’s enormous payload capacity, this derivative of the Falcon 9 has only seen three launches in its history.
Falcon 9 Specs
|Height:||70 m/229.6 ft|
|Total Weight:||333-549 tons|
|Diameter:||3.7 m/12 ft|
|Payload Weight:||13.1-25 tons (LEO), 3.5-8.3 tons (GTO)|
|Features:||Two stages, large payload, 98.7% success rate, and a reusable launch system|
|Cost:||$300 million to develop, $50-90 million per launch|
|Launch Date:||June 4th, 2010|
What’s Next for the Falcon 9?
In 2017, Elon Musk and SpaceX indicated that the end of Falcon 9’s reign was on the horizon. With the development and testing of the bigger, better Starship launch vehicle, the plan is to eventually allow the Starship to take over as SpaceX’s primary launch vehicle and slowly phase out the Falcon 9. While there’s no concrete date of when this phasing out might begin, the Starship’s features get closer and closer to completion with each day.