25 significant milestones from the past and future of SpaceX
SpaceX has had some incredible highs and lows. Founded in 2002, the private space company has become a key player in rocket missions and has helped accomplish founder and CEO Elon Musk's goal of getting U.S. space travel back on track after NASA ended the Shuttle program.
Here's a recap of some of SpaceX's most important rocket launches, landings, payloads, and tests to date – as well as a look ahead at what's in store for future launches that will take humans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
1. The first successful flight of Falcon 1
Things didn't start off smoothly for SpaceX. The first launch of its first rocket, the Falcon 1, lasted only one minute. The second and third attempts also failed. SpaceX was incredibly close to bankruptcy following that third attempt, with Musk stating the funds for the fourth attempt were "the last money we had."
On its fourth launch attempt, however, on September 28, 2008, the Falcon 1 successfully reached orbit, making it "the first privately developed liquid-fuel rocket to reach Earth's orbit," according to SpaceX.
In total, the Falcon 1 vehicle was launched five times. After the successful Falcon 1 launch, SpaceX initially planned to develop an enhanced version of the Falcon 1 called the "Falcon 1e," but that plan was scrapped in favor of the Falcon 9.
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 launch vehicle.
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.
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 land and reuse a spacecraft was one of the main reasons Elon Musk originally founded SpaceX. Knowing that the consensus on Mars at the time was that it would be prohibitively expensive to send humans there with current technologies, Elon Musk set out to improve the aerospace industry.
One of the key improvements needed was the ability to reuse large parts of a 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 unmanned upright landing with a Falcon 9 rocket booster.
5. The first drone ship landing
SpaceX was starting to make things look easy. Only a year after its first successful vertical landing, the company landed its spacecraft on a small platform floating in the ocean. After several failed attempts, the company achieved its first successful landing of a rocket booster on a drone ship called Just Read the Instructions in 2016.
Though some commentators have suggested that SpaceX lands the majority of its missions in the ocean because it is more cost-effective than landing on land, Elon Musk clarified in a series of tweets in 2016 that it's actually "all about speed" and the fact that the boosters have to climb in an arc-like trajectory to reach orbital space.
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 demonstrated in 2017, it is possible to reuse one of their rockets — NASA had also previously reused space shuttles and solid rocket boosters (which landed in the sea, were recovered by ship, and refurbished).
On March 30, 2017, SpaceX relaunched its Falcon 9 rocket with a satellite onboard and successfully recovered it again by landing it on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
7. The Dragon capsule is reusable 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 considered a great step towards making the journey to Mars possible.
8. The first privately funded lunar mission in history
In February 2019, SpaceX celebrated the successful return of its rocket booster. What made this mission truly historic was the fact that the Falcon 9, as part of the Nusantara Satu mission, had also included a privately-funded Israeli robotic moon lander called Beresheet as a secondary payload.
Unfortunately, Beresheet didn't land successfully on the moon, though the Israeli company behind the lander has said it has 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, was 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.
The Falcon Heavy Demo mission was the first time that SpaceX had used a pair of recycled boosters to help 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 flight launches set new records
Since Falcon Heavy's first launch on February 6, 2018, it has become a big player with its commercial satellite launch flights. The rocket is capable of carrying an impressive 141,000 pounds (64 tonnes) into orbit — that's a whole lot of Tesla Roadsters.
One example of a recent successful Falcon Heavy mission is last year's launch of the Arabsat-6A satellite, in which SpaceX beat its own record for distance traveled during booster recovery with a maneuver that saw it re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and travel about 770 miles (1240 km).
11. The first batch of Starlink internet satellites reach orbit
SpaceX launched its first batch of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit on May 23, 2019, atop a Falcon 9. As of May 13, 2022, SpaceX has now sent more than 2,000 Starlink satellites into orbit, and more than 1,600 of those are operational.
The service has been praised for providing coverage for Ukrainian civilians and troops following Russia's invasion of the country, though NASA has also warned that the satellites could reduce its capacity to detect a potentially hazardous asteroid headed our way.
12. Starhopper's first untethered flight
Starhopper is SpaceX's MK1 prototype for Starship, the rocket that Musk hopes will eventually take humans to Mars.
To test the immense power of Starship's Raptor engines in flight, SpaceX conducted "hops" with Starhopper. In other words, they have sent the spacecraft up into the atmosphere to hover for brief periods without reaching orbit.
Starhopper's first successful hop sent it 65 feet (20 meters) into the air on July 26, 2019, before coming back down to land. As Elon Musk put it on Twitter, "water towers can fly!"
13. SpaceX's first astronaut launch
After SpaceX completed an in-flight abort test of its Crew Dragon capsule, all systems were ready for SpaceX's first-ever astronaut launch. The historic flight took place without a hitch, launching on May 30, 2020, and docking at the ISS a day later on May 31.
Though it was smooth sailing, figuratively speaking, the astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley did say that riding a Falcon 9 was "totally different" to riding NASA's Space Shuttle and that the experience was somewhat rougher than expected.
The astronauts had stayed aboard the ISS for just over two months. After this, the newly named 'Endeavour' Demo-2 capsule returned to Earth on August 2, 2020, with the astronauts on board.
14. SN5 Starship prototype soars
After 'Starhopper's' second test flight saw the company "hop" its prototype roughly 500 feet (150 meters). Further tests, including a few less successful ones, led to the building and testing of a full Starship prototype, SN5, on August 4, 2020.
SpaceX reached almost 500 feet (150 meters) with the "hop" of its SN5 Starship prototype at its Boca Chica development facility. Following the successful test, in which SN5 took off before carrying out an incredibly smooth landing, Elon Musk tweeted, "Mars is looking real."
The SN5 Starship prototype used one Raptor engine for its test flight. To put this in perspective, Elon Musk announced that the final design, including the Super Heavy, will include approximately 41 Raptor engines.
15. SpaceX's 100th launch and sixth time reusing the same Falcon 9 booster
On August 18, 2020, SpaceX reached two impressive milestones with one launch. SpaceX's 11th Starlink satellite launch was also the 100th launch in the company's history.
What's more, the mission was also the sixth time that SpaceX reused the Falcon 9 booster B1049. That's a new record for the most times SpaceX — or any company for that matter — has reused a commercial rocket to date. A real testament to SpaceX's commitment to rocket reusability.
16. Crew Dragon's first fully operational mission
The Crew Dragon, which can be adapted to carry up to seven astronauts, launched four people to ISS on its first fully operational mission, Crew-1, on November 15, 2020. This marked the first NASA-certified commercial human spacecraft system in history. As a massive vote of confidence, NASA assigned the astronauts for Crew-1 before SpaceX's Demo-2 test mission had even taken place.
The Crew-1 mission consisted of Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, and NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Michael Hopkins, and Victor Glover.
17: The Starship prototype's 'belly flop' maneuver
On December 9, 2020, SpaceX's Starship SN8 launched to an altitude of roughly 41,000 ft (12.5 km) and exploded shortly after landing. Just before the explosion, the Starship prototype performed an impressive mid-air flip maneuver.
A flight test after SN8, last year's SN15, nailed its landing while also carrying out the flip maneuver. A glimpse at what the finalized Starship launch vehicle will be capable of.
18. Crew-2 Astronauts Head to the ISS
On April 23, 2021, a Crew Dragon spacecraft holding NASA's SpaceX Crew-2 astronauts launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. This marked the second commercial crew rotation mission aboard the ISS.
The crew consisted of NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet. The group spent six months total on the ISS and flew over an impressive Aurora Borealis before splashdown.
19. Inspiration4 mission launches the first all-private crew to orbit
On September 15, 2021, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket made history by launching a Crew Dragon spacecraft on the first all-private, all civilian orbital mission. The mission, known as Inspiration4, was privately chartered by billionaire Jared Isaacman and raised awareness and funds for St. Jude's Research Hospital.
Isaacman's companions included geoscientist and science communication specialist Sian Proctor, physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux, and data engineer Christopher Sembroski. The crew orbited Earth for a total of three days.
The mission was seen as a resounding success and a giant leap for space tourism, as the offerings from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic only take customers to suborbital space for less than 30 minutes.
20: Crew-3 and 4 also flew to the ISS
Crew-3 launched on November 11, 2021, with the 600th astronaut to reach space since human spaceflight began in 1961. During Crew-3's stay aboard the ISS, Russia conducted a missile test that sent debris flying through orbit. The Crew-3 astronauts later said they weren't "scared" of a potential impact, though they did have to take shelter in a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft as a precaution.
The Crew-4 mission lifted off on April 27, 2022, launching Jessica Watkins, the first African American woman to join a long-duration mission aboard the ISS, and the ESA's Samantha Cristoforetti, the first European woman to assume command of ISS operations. Crew-4 was SpaceX's shortest flight to the ISS, clocking in at a total of 15 hours and 45 minutes.
21: Ax-1: SpaceX launches its first private mission to the ISS
The first all-private mission to the ISS, Ax-1, launched atop a Falcon 9 on April 8, 2022. The roughly 17-day mission was organized by Texas-based startup Axiom Space, which is also developing a private orbital space station.
Ax-1 wasn't the first time civilians traveled to the ISS. Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, has also launched non-astronauts to the space station aboard their Soyuz launch vehicle. However, those were piloted by serving cosmonauts. The pilot for Ax-1, Michael López-Alegrí, is a former NASA astronaut, now contracted as a civilian pilot for Axiom Space.
22. Upcoming launch: Starship's orbital maiden flight
Since this article was first published in August 2020, several launch date estimates for Starship's orbital maiden flight have come and gone. In 2019, SpaceX executive Jonathan Hofeller gave an update on the Starship project, saying it could be orbital by 2020.
More recently, Musk tweeted in March that Starship may launch into orbit by May. The FAA scuppered those plans by delaying their environmental review of Starship, but SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell recently announced that the launch could now take place in June or July.
In any case, as SpaceX is only now awaiting the green light from the FAA, the launch will most likely take place this summer, meaning we are not at all far from seeing the first orbital flight from a spacecraft that could eventually take humans to Mars.
The first prototypes of Starship completed low-velocity flight tests of vertical launches and landings in 2019 and 2020.
23: Upcoming launch: The Polaris program launches will include Starship's first crewed spaceflight
The Polaris program is a series of launches that will be commanded by Jared Isaacman, the billionaire behind the Inspiration4 mission. The first mission, Polaris Dawn, plans to conduct the first all-private spacewalk. It also intends to achieve the highest Earth orbit ever flown, beating the current record of 853 miles above Earth.
Isaacman has also announced that he has an agreement in place with Musk to fund three additional spaceflight missions in what amounts to a privately funded space program with SpaceX. The third of these flights will be the first crewed mission of the Starship, meaning Starship's first crewed flight won't be contracted by NASA.
24: Upcoming launch: The Starship Moon landing
In April 2021, Starship was chosen by NASA to land humans back on the Moon. The private space firm was awarded a $2.9 billion contract by NASA, beating Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin to the punch and leading to an ignominious lawsuit that Blue Origin ultimately lost.
Starship will be fully reusable, massively cutting down the cost of subsequent flights, which is why NASA chose to use it for its Artemis III mission, the first Moon landing since 1972. By contrast, Artemis I and II will launch aboard the space agency's new Space Launch System (SLS). Artemis III is currently scheduled for 2025.
25. 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 little doubt that he had set his eyes on reaching the Red Planet from the moment he founded SpaceX.
While there is so far no date set in stone for when SpaceX will get to Mars, experts 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.
And the game is 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 which have also set their sights beyond Earth's stratosphere.
Editor's note 13/05/22: This article has been updated to reflect some of SpaceX's more recent notable achievements.