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Destination Mars: 15 Incredible SpaceX Milestones, Past and Future

We take a look at Space X's most important achievements on their road to taking humans to Mars.

Destination Mars: 15 Incredible SpaceX Milestones, Past and Future
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SpaceX has had some incredible highs and lows. Founded in 2002, the company has become a key player in rocket missions and has gone a long way to achieving founder Elon Musk's goal of getting space travel back on track after NASA's years of relative radio silence.

Here's a recap of some of the space company's most important rocket launches to date, as well as a look ahead at what's in store for future launches.

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1. First successful flight of Falcon 1

Things didn't start off smoothly for SpaceX. Its first rocket, the Falcon 1, only lasted one minute on its first launch. The second and third attempts also ended in failure.

On its fourth launch, however, in September 2008, the Falcon 1 successfully reached orbit, making it “the first privately developed liquid-fuel rocket to reach Earth's orbit,” according to SpaceX.

2. The Dragon spacecraft returns to Earth

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft is a capsule designed to carry astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). In 2010, SpaceX launched Dragon into orbit aboard Falcon 1's successor, the Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX made history again when the unmanned Dragon returned to Earth in December 2010, landing in the Pacific Ocean a few hundred miles off the coast of Mexico. It was the first time a private spacecraft successfully returned from orbit. 

3. The Dragon docks on the ISS

In yet another incredible achievement, SpaceX went down in history as being the first private company to dock with the International Space Station.

Destination Mars: 15 Incredible SpaceX Milestones, Past and Future
Source: NASA/SpaceX

Over a year after the Dragon's successful return to Earth, SpaceX sent it up to the ISS on May 25, 2012. Astronauts aboard the space station used a robotic arm to pull the Dragon capsule into a docking port at the station. Since that mission, SpaceX has sent Dragon to the ISS several times on resupply missions for NASA.

4. SpaceX makes history with the first rocket booster landing

Developing the technology to be able to land a spacecraft was one of the main reasons Elon Musk originally founded SpaceX. Knowing that the consensus on Mars was that it would be prohibitively expensive to send humans there with the technology of the time, Elon Musk set out to improve that technology.

One of the key improvements needed was the ability to reuse large parts of spacecraft that would otherwise disintegrate in orbit. The first step to making this possible was landing an orbital first stage rocket. SpaceX achieved this feat in 2015 with its historic first upright landing on land.

5. The first drone ship landing

SpaceX was starting to make things look easy. Only a year after its first successful landing, the company landed its spacecraft on a small platform floating in the ocean. After several failed attempts, the company successfully landed a rocket on a drone ship in 2016.

Destination Mars: 15 Incredible SpaceX Milestones, Past and Future
The CRS-19 mission, Source: SpaceX/Flickr

This was significant for future missions as landing in the ocean is more cost-effective than landing on land. 

6. SpaceX becomes the first company ever to reuse a rocket

Of course, landing a rocket is only part of the equation when it comes to reusability and reducing the expense of space travel. As SpaceX successfully showed in 2017, it is possible to reuse a rocket once it has already been used — NASA had previously reused space shuttles, but never rocket boosters.

SpaceX relaunched its Falcon 9 rocket and successfully landed it on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

7. The Dragon can be reused too

After proving that it could reuse its rockets, SpaceX demonstrated that it was also able to reuse its Dragon capsule. On June 3, 2017, the company launched a Falcon 9 rocket with a previously used Dragon capsule on board.

It was SpaceX's 11th mission to bring supplies to the ISS. The Dragon capsule that was reused had originally been used in the fourth ISS mission. The fact that the structure that will enable humans to travel in space can be reused is a great step towards making the journey to Mars possible.

8. First privately funded lunar mission in history

In February 2019, SpaceX celebrated the successful return of its rocket booster. What made this mission historic was the fact that the Falcon 9 had returned from sending a privately funded Israeli moon lander called Beresheet to the moon.

Unfortunately, Beresheet didn't land successfully on the moon, though the Israeli company behind the lander has said it plans to re-attempt the moon mission.

9. The Falcon Heavy takes off and sends a Tesla into space

The Falcon Heavy, Falcon 9's successor, first launched in 2018. With 27 engines, it was the most powerful rocket to have taken off from the U.S. since the Saturn V from NASA's Apollo heyday.

 

It became the first time that a pair of recycled boosters helped send a heavy payload to space.

Only eight minutes after launch, the same two Falcon Heavy side boosters returned and landed simultaneously at adjacent landing pads at Cape Canaveral. If that wasn't impressive enough, this launch was also the birth of a star: SpaceX and Tesla's starman.

10. Falcon Heavy's commercial flights

Since Falcon Heavy's first launch, it has become a big player with its commercial satellite launch flights.

Destination Mars: 15 Incredible SpaceX Milestones, Past and Future
The Arabsat-6A satellite mission, Source: SpaceX/Flickr

As CNET points out, the rocket is capable of carrying an impressive 141,000 pounds (64 metric tons) into orbit — I wonder how many Tesla Roadsters that would carry.

11. Starhopper's first untethered flight

Starhopper is SpaceX's MK1 prototype for Starship, the rocket that will eventually take humans to Mars. 

In order to test the immense power of Starship's Raptor engines in flight, SpaceX has conducted "hops" with Starhopper. In other words, they have sent the spacecraft up into the air without reaching orbit.

Starhopper's first successful hop sent it 65 feet (20 meters) into the air before coming back down to land. As Elon Musk put it on Twitter, "water towers can fly!"

12. Starhopper soars into the skies

Starhopper's second test flight took it further into the heavens. Its second test flight saw the company "hop" its prototype roughly 500 feet (150 meters) above the ground at SpaceX's Boca Chica, TX facilities.

Destination Mars: 15 Incredible SpaceX Milestones, Past and Future
A prototype of Starship, Source: SpaceX/Flickr

The Starhopper prototype used one specially made Raptor engine for its "hop" tests. To put this in perspective, Elon Musk has announced that the final design, including Super Heavy, will include approximately 41 Raptor engines.

13. Upcoming Launch: Crew Dragon with humans on board

Just last month, SpaceX completed the last test of its Crew Dragon capsule. The test successfully showed that the Crew Dragon could separate from the rocket boosters after launch in the case of a malfunction.

It's an exciting time for NASA, SpaceX and space travel in general, as NASA chief Jim Bridenstine points out:

With this final test complete, we can now expect the next flight of the Crew Dragon, which should take place in the spring, to be crewed.

14. Upcoming launch: planned Starship maiden voyage

Space X executive Jonathan Hofeller gave a tantalizing update on the Starship project at the APSAT conference in Jakarta last year.

“The goal is to get orbital as quickly as possible, potentially even this year, with the full stack operational by the end of next year and then customers in early 2021,” Hofeller explained.

Destination Mars: 15 Incredible SpaceX Milestones, Past and Future
Source: SpaceX/Flickr

If SpaceX keeps to that schedule, that means we are not at all far from seeing the spacecraft that will eventually take humans to Mars in action.

15. The future of SpaceX: Mars and beyond

As Elon Musk described it soon after Falcon 9's first successful landing, getting humans to Mars would be "the most incredible adventure ever." There's no doubt that that's where he had his eyes set from the moment he founded SpaceX.

Destination Mars: 15 Incredible SpaceX Milestones, Past and Future
Source: SpaceX/Flickr

While there are still several hurdles to overcome in order to reach that goal, the timeline in this article is a testament to the incredible things SpaceX has achieved so far in a relatively short time frame. 

While there is so far no date set in stone for when SpaceX will get to Mars, they are already looking at ideal locations for landing on the Red Planet. Paul Wooster, SpaceX's primary Mars development engineer, also recently went on record saying the company is on track to reach Mars within the 2020s.

Destination Mars: 15 Incredible SpaceX Milestones, Past and Future
Artist rendering of Mars Base One, Source: SpaceX/Flickr

And the pressure's on: NASA's Project Artemis and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin venture are just two examples of other space programs that are benefiting from the public's rekindled love for space travel and have set their sights beyond Earth's stratosphere.

When SpaceX does eventually get to Mars, it will be their most incredible achievement yet — and that's really saying something.

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