"You want to wake up in the morning and think that the future is going to be bright - that's the feeling that comes over a true spacefaring race. You must believe in the future and think the future is better than the past. I can't imagine anything more exciting than going out among the stars." These thoughts come from Elon Musk, the man who led the paradigm shift in space exploration. With the SpaceX mission, the eccentric owner and CEO, who gained fame for founding PayPal and notoriety for his impulsive use of Twitter, has proven that space exploration is not just a matter for individual governments, but for companies and even humanity. Of course, as much as it is a matter close to his heart, it is also an enterprise that promises considerable profit.
NASA, Roscosmos, ESA - here come the pretenders
30 May 2020 will go down in the history books as one of the most significant dates in space exploration. SpaceX, a private company, became the first on Earth to launch a man in orbit with a working device. The value of this sensation lies precisely in the fact that it was not a great event driven by a great power rivalry but controlled by a state organisation. SpaceX, although it has a contract and specialist links with NASA, is the first company to demonstrate that it can get astronauts into space. This is the official start of a fascinating chapter in commercial spaceflight.
For the US, the day was a double delight, as SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft was launched from American soil, not from Baikonur. The last Space Shuttle mission was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in 2011 and since then the world's leading power in this field has had to rely on international cooperation and the services of the Russian Space Agency. SpaceX has therefore also been a boon to patriotic feelings and has brought optimism to a country that suffered a heavy loss of life in the wake of the tsunami.
The launch of SpaceX
Before the first SpaceX spacecraft could be launched, the company itself had to be launched.
In 1995, Elon Musk, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, founded Zip2 with his brother and a friend, which offered urban programming opportunities and helped with advertising space in newspapers and magazines. One of the giants of the time, Compaq, struck a deal with the dot-com revolution and bought the company for a whopping $307 million in 1999. Musk became a millionaire in just a few years and invested his $22 million in a new venture like a true capitalist. The result was PayPal, the world's first and most widespread neo-banking system, which was bought by eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion, and SpaceX was born the same year.
Elon Musk didn't delay, but - to the utter dismay of outsiders - bet on technologies and industries that at the time didn't seem so attractive and modern. The $165 million he received for his stake did not rest for long, as he launched Tesla with an investment of $70 million and SpaceX with $100 million. In both cases, the very act was risky and bold: the creation of SpaceX, for example, put the new, small company in the same league as such potent giants as the military manufacturing complex, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, all of which had long-standing and good relations with the government. The competition was therefore going to be fierce and difficult.
The revolution led by SpaceX
Like all great ideas, SpaceX was initially built on a single idea: what if launched vehicles were no single-use? How could we make sure that the devices that put their payloads into space return safely to Earth? The concept of a reusable rocket seemed a steep one, and Musk was not backed by an organisation with a knowledge base that traditionally has the biggest brains in the world, such as NASA, which is lax with public money.
SpaceX is like a rocket: unlike a rocket, it burns money, not fuel, to reach its desired destination.
This is how a revolutionary company works
From the outset, SpaceX's vision was of a smaller company that could beat the competition with smarter solutions. To achieve this, as with Tesla, it wanted to control the entire rocket manufacturing process: designing its engine, a mobile launch pad, negotiating with suppliers and refining its internal operations. As a result, to the consternation of outsiders, they were able to afford several rocket launches a month, while allowing for the possibility of failure. Elon Musk's Silicon Valley, with the knowledge he gained in technology start-ups, has created a company with tighter cost controls and more streamlined, efficient operations, unlike those contracted by the state. But then came an even bigger bang.
Falcon, which is no Millennium…
Musk is a big Star Wars fan, so his announcement that his first launch vehicle would be named after Han Solo's legendary ship didn't surprise those who know him. Even more so is the commitment: the optimistic leader has promised that Falcon 1 will carry a 635 kg payload for just $6.9 million. For comparison: at the time, the cost of launching a 250 kg payload was around $30 million! It was an astonishing achievement that in November 2003, 15 months after the company was founded, the first launch, then unsuccessful, was already underway. The world's first fully privately funded liquid-fuelled launch vehicle was a two-stage rocket, and the fourth launch in 2008 delivered the device to its target. SpaceX made history. A year later, Falcon 1 was in action, getting a Malaysian remote sensing satellite into orbit. The venture was a technological and commercial success.
Enter the Dragon
The next big challenge for Musk and SpaceX was to design and build a spacecraft of their own. The Dragon, a partially reusable cargo spacecraft, was also assembled in record time by SpaceX engineers working with outstanding efficiency, corporate logic, and expectations. The new spacecraft had its test flight in 2019, with the first manned mission taking place a year later. Its successor, Dragon 2, has been upgraded to a seven-person crewed flight (Crew Dragon) and is designed primarily to serve the International Space Station. The former cargo carrier was further developed as Cargo Dragon.
The Dragon's calendar is full of SpaceX missions until 2023, such as the Inspiration4 mission, which is planned to be launched on 15 September 2021. You can find out more about the amazing milestone here:
To infinity and beyond
Elon Musk is well-known for his plans for Mars: a permanent base, a new home for humanity on the red planet. We are still a long way from that. But SpaceX's operations have shown that space does belong to everyone and that space exploration will not remain the preserve of governments. In the hands of real, risk-taking, aggressively communicative businessmen, we can conquer the cosmos sooner than we have thought since the Cold War. In the meantime, it seems to pay off financially to think through the stages of development from the front, pricing in a staggering $60 million per launch, leaving no room for competitors.
They are not leaving out destinations closer to Mars: in 2023 they will launch their #dearMoon project, in which a SpaceX spacecraft carrying space tourists will orbit the Moon and return to Earth. This is further proof that SpaceX is also looking to diversify into space services and generate revenue from multiple sources.