SpaceX has made astounding progress in its relatively short existence, but in many ways it is just getting started. The private space company is preparing to launch its next generation rocket booster next month, the Falcon 9 Heavy, which will become the most powerful operational rocket in the world and is the one CEO Elon Musk hopes will get us to Mars. As SpaceX embarks on a new chapter in its brief but trailblazing history, let's take a moment to appreciate some of its successes so far.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the aim of making human life multi-planetary. But doing so wasn't simply a matter of building bigger rockets and reaching for the stars. To make the whole venture profitable, he first needed to develop advanced and reliable rockets and spacecraft.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule have been regularly carrying cargo to the International Space Station for NASA since 2012, when the Dragon ship became the first private spacecraft to visit the orbiting laboratory. SpaceX now has over 70 future missions on its launch manifest, amounting to more than US$10 billion worth of contracts.
But the key element of SpaceX's strategy to land human life on other planets can be summed by one word: reusability. The company plans to massively the reduce the cost of space travel by recapturing its fired rockets and capsules, refurbishing them and then firing them again. And through a series of world-first rocket landings both on land and at sea, it has made never-seen-before steps toward that goal.
Reusability was again a key theme as Musk updated his Mars colonization plans last week, where he likened single-use rockets to destroying a multi-million dollar plane at the end of a flight. His new vision for making it to the Red Planet involves eliminating the landing legs on his rockets, autonomous docking systems for Dragon aircraft and a new booster cheekily called the BFR.
Those advances remain somewhere off in the distance, but the company has a track record of making significant strides when it comes to space technologies. Here's a quick rundown of its achievements since its inception:
• 2002: Elon Musk launches company in hope of taking human life to other planets
• September 2008: Falcon 1 becomes the first private liquid fuel rocket to reach Earth orbit
• July 2009: Falcon 1 becomes first private liquid fuel rocket to deliver commercial satellite to Earth orbit
• June 2010: Falcon 9 rocket launches for the first time
• December 2010: Dragon capsule recovered, the first private spacecraft to be retrieved from Low-Earth orbit
• 2011: Grasshopper program to develop reusable rockets announced
• May 2012: Dragon becomes first private spacecraft to visit the International Space Station
• December 2013: Falcon 9 rocket reaches Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit for the first time
• April 2014: Falcon 9 first stage lands on barge in ocean. Is destroyed by heavy seas
• December 2015: Falcon 9 first stage booster lands, the first orbital class rocket to do so
• April 2016: Falcon 9 booster lands on drone ship at sea for first time
• March 2017: Previously landed Falcon 9 first stage re-launched for the first time. Lands again.
• June 2017: Refurbished Dragon ship flies to the ISS, the first time the same unmanned spacecraft has returned to the station
• September 2017: New rocket booster, the BFR, announced, along with updated plans for Mars colonization
• November 2017: Planned launch of the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V last left for the moon in 1973
The engineers responsible for breaking down these barriers in space exploration are clearly some of the brightest minds in the business, but the staff SpaceX employs to capture its historic moments are no slouches either. Meaning, that all of this has produced some imagery that can only be described as spectacular, the best of which we've compiled into a SpaceX retrospective gallery.