7 out of this world facts about Elon Musk's SpaceX

SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk in the early 2000s and has literally been making history ever since. But, how much do you know about them?
Christopher McFadden
SpaceX
Long exposure photo of the SpaceX launch of 60 Starlink Internet Satellites on March 11, 2021.

Brandon Moser/iStock 

With news that Amazon may have to turn to SpaceX to help them with their planned satellite launches, we thought it might be worth highlighting what SpaceX is and how they've become a significant player in the space-based economy.

SpaceX should be well known to most readers at this point, but the company's history and significant achievements are well worth everyone getting to grips with. So, let's get stuck in.

What is SpaceX?

Given how much press the company has been receiving in the last few years, we'd be surprised if you didn't already know quite a bit about it. But, just in case you have been in a coma, or paying attention to other things, here's the down-low on this groundbreaking company.

Headquartered in Hawthorne, California, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (abbreviated to SpaceX) is an American company that produces satellites, conducts space launches, and manufactures reusable spacecraft.

It was established in 2002 by Elon Musk to revolutionize the industry and make it more economical. Since its founding, SpaceX has also made its intentions public to one day get human beings to Mars too.

Over the interim years, the company has produced a series of spacecraft, including the Cargo Dragon, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles as well as several rocket engines.

SpaceX also created the Starlink satellite internet constellation to deliver paid internet access to even the remotest parts of the planet. By the time the Starlink constellation was complete in September 2022, it had more than 3,000 tiny satellites in orbit, making it the largest satellite constellation ever to be launched.

The business is also working on Starship, a fully reusable, super heavy-lift launch system for interplanetary and orbital travel that is being privately funded. Once operational, it will replace SpaceX's current fleet of Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon as its primary orbital vehicle. But, more on those later.

To date, SpaceX has achieved some impressive historical feats in space exploration. These include, but are not limited to: -

  • The first private company to launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft successfully.
  • The first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).
  • The first vertical take-off and vertical propulsive landing for an orbital rocket booster.
  • The first reuse of such a booster.
  • The first private company to send astronauts to orbit, and the International Space Station.

Over a hundred Falcon 9 rockets have been launched and landed by SpaceX.

What spacecraft does SpaceX currently have?

As we discussed above, SpaceX has thus far produced a variety of space vehicles of varying sizes and functions. Let's take a look at them.

1. The Falcon 9 is SpaceX's workhorse

7 out of this world facts about Elon Musk's SpaceX
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft.

The Falcon 9 is a reusable medium-lift launch vehicle (MLV) capable of placing personnel and cargo into Earth orbit. Medium lift here refers to the fact that it can, according to NASA's definition, lift between 4,400 lb (2,000 kg) and 44,100 lb (20,000 kg) into low Earth orbit.

According to SpaceX, the Falcon 9 has "a two-stage rocket designed and manufactured by SpaceX for the reliable and safe transport of people and payloads into Earth orbit and beyond."

It is also "the world’s first orbital-class reusable rocket. Reusability allows SpaceX to refly the most expensive parts of the rocket, which in turn drives down the cost of space access," they add.

Being two-stage a Falcon 9 rocket launch consists of two main stages. The first stage carries the second stage and payload to a certain altitude. Once this altitude is reached, the second stage lifts the payload to its ultimate destination.

The Falcon 9 has a total height of 229.6 feet (70 meters), and a diameter of 12 feet (3.7 meters). When fully loaded (without payload), it has a mass of 1,207,920 lb (549,054 kg).

The Falcon 9 can deliver a maximum payload of 50,265 lb (22,800 kg) into LEO or 18,300 lb (8,300 kg) to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

With one of SpaceX's visions being the potential for Mars colonization in the next few decades, they also quote the Falcon 9 has a maximum payload of 8,860 lb (4,020 kg) to the Red Planet. Nice to know.

2. The Falcon Heavy is aptly named

7 out of this world facts about Elon Musk's SpaceX
Maiden launch of the Falcon Heavy.

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy is a partially reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle (HLLV). HLLV means that the launch vehicle can lift between, according to NASA's definition, 44,000 lb (20,000 kg) to 110,000 lb (50,000 kg) into low Earth orbit (LEO).

The rocket consists of a center core manufactured from a Falcon 9 first stage, two strap-on boosters made from the first stages of the Falcon 9, a second stage on top, and two strap-on boosters. The Falcon Heavy comprises three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores whose "27 Merlin engines generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft," explains SpaceX.

According to SpaceX, "Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two. With the ability to lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 lb) Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy."

Falcon Heavy draws upon Falcon 9’s proven design, which minimizes stage separation events and maximizes reliability. The second-stage Merlin Vacuum Engine delivers the rocket’s payload to orbit after the main engines cut off and the first-stage cores separate.

The Falcon Heavy has a height of 229.6 ft (70 m) and a width of 39.9 feet (12.2 m). It has a mass of 3,125,735 lb (1,420,788 kg) without payload and can carry 140,660 lb (63,800 kg) of payload into LEO. The rocket can deliver 58,860 lb (26,700 kg) into GTO and, theoretically, could transport 37,040 lb (16,800 kg) to other worlds like Mars.

Falcon Heavy has the third-largest orbital capacity of any rocket launched, after the Saturn V and Energia, and the highest payload capacity of any launch vehicle currently in use.

The in-progress Starship launch mechanism is anticipated to replace Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 eventually. 

3. Dragon is proving to be a gamechanger

7 out of this world facts about Elon Musk's SpaceX
The CRS Dragon being berthed to the ISS, 2012.

SpaceX's Dragon is a class of partially reusable cargo spacecraft, sometimes referred to as Dragon 1 or Cargo Dragon. 23 missions using the capsule were flown between 2010 and 2020, primarily with the use of the company's versatile Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

"The Dragon spacecraft can carry up to 7 passengers to and from Earth orbit and beyond. It is the only spacecraft currently flying that can return significant amounts of cargo to Earth. It is the first private spacecraft to take humans to the space station," explains SpaceX.

Each Dragon spacecraft has 16 Draco thrusters to orient the spacecraft during the mission. This will include apogee/perigee maneuvers, orbit adjustment, and attitude control.

Each of these 16 Draco thrusters can generate 90 pounds of force in the vacuum of space. Once a mission is completed, the Dragon spacecraft is equipped with two drogue parachutes to stabilize the spacecraft following reentry and four main parachutes to decelerate the spacecraft before landing further.

The Dragon was the first privately produced and piloted spacecraft to be safely recovered from orbit on its inaugural flight in December 2010. It also became the first commercial spacecraft to successfully rendezvous and connect to the ISS, a cargo variant of Dragon, on May 25, 2012. 

The last flight of the first version of the Dragon spacecraft (Dragon 1) launched on March 7, 2020, on a cargo resupply mission (CRS-20) to International Space Station (ISS).

The Dragon 1 fleet was retired after this flight, which was SpaceX's final under the inaugural Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-1) program. The cargo-carrying variant of the SpaceX Dragon 2 spacecraft is used for more SpaceX commercial resupply flights to the ISS under the second Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) program. 

4. SpaceX's Starship is being built to take humans to Mars

7 out of this world facts about Elon Musk's SpaceX
Artist's concept art of a Starship spacecraft heading towards Mars.

SpaceX's Starship is an in-development, fully reusable, super-heavy-lift launch vehicle and second stage of the Starship system. While still in development, when complete it will be the tallest and most powerful launch vehicle ever built.

"Starship will be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed, with the ability to carry more than 100 metric tonnes to Earth orbit," explains SpaceX.

The Starship has a height of 394 feet (120 m) and a diameter of 30 feet or 9 meters.

The Super Heavy booster stage and the Starship second stage, or spaceship, make up the two-stage to-orbit launch vehicle collectively called Starship by SpaceX. The spacecraft will be available in four main variants: lunar lander, crew, propellant tanker, and cargo.

In its cargo variant, Starship can deliver various payloads into orbit, including satellites.

"Starship is designed to deliver satellites further and at a lower marginal cost per launch than our current Falcon vehicles. With a payload compartment larger than any fairing currently in operation or development, Starship creates possibilities for new missions, including space telescopes even larger than the James Webb," explains SpaceX.

Both Starship rocket stages employ liquid oxygen and liquid methane as propellants, are propelled by Raptor engines, and are built for quick reuse following a vertical landing. Once fully developed and deployed, the Starship second stage will have the ability to be refueled by other Starship tankers once in low Earth orbit.

This, SpaceX hope, will enable transit to higher orbits or other destinations. SpaceX anticipates that Starship can transport 220,000 lb (100 metric tons) into orbit. The spacecraft can then either enter the planet's atmosphere and use its engines to land retropropulsively, or be left in outer space to serve as a lunar lander or a propellant depot.

The program has reached significant milestones as of July 2022, including using the Raptor engine in vehicles (Starhopper) and showing the usage of stabilizing flaps (Starship SN8–SN15). A full-scale orbital test flight is anticipated in late 2022.

5. Starlink could provide interplanetary communication in the future

7 out of this world facts about Elon Musk's SpaceX
Image of Starlink from space.

Starlink is a satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX. The constellation currently comprises more than 3,000 mass-produced tiny satellites, as of September 2022. These satellites connect with specialized ground transceivers.

SpaceX plans to deploy roughly 12,000 satellites in total, with a potential later increase to 42,000. As of June 2022, Starlink served over 500,000 customers with an internet connection in various places worldwide.  

According to SpaceX, Starlink offers "high-speed, low-latency broadband internet in remote and rural locations across the globe."

In the U.S., you can connect yourself to it for around $110 per month, with an addditional, one-time hardware cost of $599. However, prices tend to vary widely depending on your location, for example, for potential UK customers, the costs are around £75 per month with an installation cost of £529, plus shipping costs.

The satellites have Hall thrusters that use electricity and krypton gas to generate an impulse allowing them to maneuver in orbit, maintain altitude and guide the spacecraft back into the atmosphere at the end of their useful lives. The reason for choosing krypton was that it is cheaper than xenon, which is usually used for such purposes.

The satellites are also built with automated collision avoidance based on the uplinked tracking information. 

SpaceX has longer-term plans to use Starlink as the basis for a future interplanetary internet communication system.

Does SpaceX make money?

It most certainly does. While it is a little tricky to get your hands on concrete accounts data, according to some sources, SpaceX made something like $2 billion in revenue in 2021.

But how does it make this money? In several different ways, it turns out.

7 out of this world facts about Elon Musk's SpaceX
How does SpaceX make money?

The company has come a long way since it was founded in the early-2000s and now has a range of technologies (as we described earlier) it can leverage to make income.

The company's main unique selling point is lowering the cost per launch of its rockets. Because of this, they can compete with more traditional space-based organizations like NASA to such an extent that they are now one of its authorized suppliers. In fact, this is a major part of the company's income.

SpaceX is also able to provide space logistics services for private customers too.

For example, one of their main customers is communication companies. Since many of these rely on satellites to provide their service, SpaceX is an excellent choice for getting their hardware into space for a set fee. Previously they would be forced to rely on a publically-owned organization like NASA, but SpaceX can provide the same, or similar, service at a fraction of the cost.

According to Forbes, in 2020, SpaceX signed 15 commercial missions for an estimated $80 million per launch, for total estimated revenues (before costs) of $1.2 billion in 2020.

Governments are also significant customers for SpaceX, for much the same service. In the U.S., SpaceX has signed several contracts with the Pentagon to launch satellites that can track missiles and be used for national defense. SpaceX can also make a good amount of money from these contracts.

SpaceX also offers a "Rideshare" that enables multiple customers to share a single rocket launch if there is space to accommodate their payload. The cost can be as low as $275,000 for 110 pounds (50 kg).

Another essential factor to SpaceX's bottom line is its baked-in cost savings. Since, from the start, they focused on making rockets reusable, or at least partially reusable, they can reduce costs per launch significantly.

7 out of this world facts about Elon Musk's SpaceX
SpaceX has a variety of lucrative income streams.

Since rockets are costly to develop and build, any efforts to reduce the need to make new ones per launch significantly improve the company's expenses, directly impacting its profit.

To this end, SpaceX has made rockets that can be used seven times before requiring replacement or refurbishment. So, even if SpaceX gives significant discounts to customers who use used rockets, they can still make a lot more money by using rockets that can be used more than once.

As previously mentioned, another one of SpaceX's critical income streams is Starlink. While still in development, Starlink is gearing up to be a satellite-based method of communication that will be an alternative to the global internet network which is largely based on fiber optic cables. The satellite-based network will be a game-changer and can connect even the most remote parts of the world to the internet at high speeds.

Be in no doubt that the benefits of Starlink are yet to be fully realized and could revolutionize the way people on Earth communicate in the future. Morgan Stanley thinks this business will be worth $100 billion in the not-too-distant future. That's more than half of what Tesla expects in the next five years.

7 out of this world facts about Elon Musk's SpaceX
SpaceX has a very bright future.

Space tourism is also shaping up to be a potential significant income stream for SpaceX in the future. SpaceX's space tourism program currently costs more than $20 million per person. But the company plans to cut the price by a lot over time so that even people on relatively upper middle class incomes can afford it.

Because of the above and any plans the company may have for the future, SpaceX's future is looking very bright.

Can you invest in SpaceX?

In short, no, not directly unless you qualify as an accredited investor (more on that later). But, before we discuss this any further, please note the following is meant for information only and not intended as investment advice.

SpaceX is not publicly traded, so you can't directly invest with the company. However, like other large private companies, you can invest indirectly.

This means that you can invest in publically traded companies that SpaceX works with, or which SpaceX uses as suppliers.

For example, you could invest in Alphabet, Google's parent company, to get some direct exposure to SpaceX. They are one of the company's largest private investors, and you could, in theory, at least, benefit from this investment by owning a little piece of Alphabet.

7 out of this world facts about Elon Musk's SpaceX
How can you invest in SpaceX?

However, unless SpaceX suddenly rockets (pun intended) in value, your investment with Alphabet will likely be influenced more by other factors than just its stake in SpaceX.

Other private investors include the Bank of America and various private investor firms. You can see them for yourself here.

That said, you can invest directly (as we previously mentioned) if you qualify as an accredited investor. This means, according to the SEC, that you either: -

  • Have a net worth of more than $1 million (excluding residence).
  • Or have an Income of $200,000 per year (or $300,000 with a spouse).
  • Or hold a valid securities license (FINRA Series 7, 65, or 82).

But, even if you qualify for direct investment, that doesn't necessarily mean you will be able to. You can only buy a stake if the company is willing to relinquish more equity to investors or if existing investors are willing to sell their stakes.

This will often require inside connections or knowing the existing shareholders. You can also use services like EquityZen, which connects accredited investors with private company shareholders looking to liquidate their investments.

7 out of this world facts about Elon Musk's SpaceX
SpaceX is not a publically-traded company.

Since this tends to exclude most investors, this option to invest in SpaceX is unavailable for most people.

What are some facts about SpaceX?

If you've made it this far, you should already be a mini-expect in the company, but if you want some more hard-hitting facts about SpaceX then check out these 7 facts.

1. Here's why SpaceX's launch vehicles are called Falcon

7 out of this world facts about Elon Musk's SpaceX
Test firing of the Merlin 1D at SpaceX’s McGregor test facility.

As previously mentioned, SpaceX's workhorse rocket is the Falcon series of rockets. The most current version, the Falcon 9, is one of the most successful privately-funded and developed space delivery vehicles in history.

But where did it get its name?

You may or may not be surprised that the name comes from the "Millenium Falcon" from Star Wars. As for the number, the 9 in Falcon 9 refers to the nine Merlin engines used to power Falcon 9's first stage.

So, what about the engine's name? Well, one of SpaceX's key rocket engineers, Tom Mueller, explained on Quora that (edited for clarity): -

"When we first started SpaceX, we just called our booster engine the 60 K engine, but after we started running it, Elon told me to come up with a name that wasn’t numbers and letters (like RD-180, RS-68, etc.). One of the people working on the turbopump from Barber Nichols was a Falconer, and she suggested we name it after a Falcon."

Meuller thought this was a great idea and started to think of names for Falcons.

"I remember that the Kestrel is the small one, the Merlin is a medium size Falcon, and the Peregrine and Gyrfalcon are large Falcons. I thought, great, we’ll name the small second-stage engine Kestrel and the medium-sized engine the Merlin," said Mueller.

Interestingly, this post also helps explain the name of SpaceX's larger and more powerful Raptor engines.

7 out of this world facts about Elon Musk's SpaceX
First test firing of a Raptor development engine on 25 September 2016.

"I knew we would develop bigger engines in the future, so I planned to reserve Peregrine for later. Elon liked the naming, so it stayed. Years later, we started work on a staged combustion engine which was a different type than Merlin, so I was thinking about Eagle or something. I eventually came up with Raptor, a general definition of birds of prey, including Eagles, Hawks, Falcons, and Owls. No, it’s not named after a dinosaur!" Mueller explained.

So, now you know.

2. Here's how the Dragon capsule got its name

Elon Musk said that he named his spaceship "Dragon" after "Puff the Magic Dragon," a fictional character from a hit song by the band Peter, Paul, and Mary. Musk said he chose the name because many people thought he couldn't reach his goals when he started SpaceX in 2002.

If true, this might make it the most expensive refute to criticism in history.

The company turns 20 years old in 2023 and has signed various multi-billion-dollar contracts with NASA to send unmanned cargo flights to the International Space Station. Orbital Sciences Corp., based in Virginia, also has a contract with the agency to send supplies to the orbiting lab.

3. SpaceX once sent a wheel of cheese into space

SpaceX, specifically Elon Musk, is well-known for having a pointed sense of humor. Whether carrying a sink into the headquarters of Twitter after completing his purchase or sharing esoteric memes on social media platforms, it is clear that making often barbed statements is something of an occupational hazard for Elon Musk.

One prime example occurred in 2010 when the first Dragon capsule test flight was equipped with some "special cargo." In this case, it happened to be a whole wheel of cheese.

A nod to Monty Python, the payload wasn't made public until the test flight proved to be a complete success.

"It's kind of funny," Musk told reporters after the successful launch in 2010. "If you like Monty Python, you'll love the secret." (It's an homage to the "cheese shop" sketch.)

The cheese was included in the capsule's launch in Florida and its splashdown about 500 miles (804 km) west of Mexico in the Pacific Ocean. After the mission, SpaceX released photos of the cheese wheel that showed it inside a metal cylinder with a bolted-on cover. Although, it is not the first time a disc of cheese has been sent to space. As far back as 2001, Pizza Hut struck a deal with the Russian space agency Roscosmos to have a pizza delivered to the International Space Station (ISS).

4. The SpaceX Dragon capsule has no physical buttons or dials

The Crew Dragon capsule has no buttons or switches. Instead, the capsule has various large touch screens to let astronauts navigate and maneuver it.

The capsule also has built-in life support systems with automated features in case of emergencies.

5. Allegedly, Elon Musk inspired Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark

7 out of this world facts about Elon Musk's SpaceX
Elon Musk actually inspired some elements of the "Iron Man" films.

Part of the live-action superhero movie "Iron Man 2" was filmed at SpaceX's factory in Hawthorne, California. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk made a cameo appearance in the movie.

In a profile of Musk written for TIME magazine, "Iron Man 2" director Jon Favreau said that Musk inspired actor Robert Downey, Jr. portrayal as Tony Stark, the genius billionaire behind the famous Marvel Comics superhero.

6. SpaceX was the first private company to launch a payload to space and back

In 2010, SpaceX made space exploration history when it became the first company to launch a payload into orbit and return it to Earth intact.

Before this event, only massively funded and staffed publically-owned organizations, like NASA, had managed this feat. However, it was not the first privately-owned rocket to reach space. That happened all the way back in 1982, when Conestoga I, a repurposed Minuteman second stage, was launched to an altitude of 309 km (192 miles) by Space Services Inc., becoming the first privately owned and operated rocket to reach space. Although, of course, they did not build the rocket themselves.

7. SpaceX may be our best hope of getting humans to Mars

If human beings are ever to become a multi-planetary species, it is thought that one of the best first planets to visit and colonize is Mars. We have only ever been able to send probes to the Red Planet, but setting humans down on the surface might not be too far off.

The logistics of this will be mind-boggling, but Elon Musk and SpaceX are gearing up to get us there ASAP, while NASA is also gearing up for Mars, but at a more cautious pace. For this reason, SpaceX may be the best hope for achieving a colony on Mars within our lifetimes.

And that is your lot for today.

SpaceX has come a long way since the early 2000s and is only really getting into its stride. With many "firsts" under its belt, SpaceX is only likely to make more historic achievements over the year to come.

We cannot wait to see what else the company can "pull out of the hat" over the next few decades!

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