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SpaceX simplified: A short guide to Elon Musk's boundary-pushing venture

If you've heard something about a Starship bound for Mars, NASA astronauts riding a Dragon and Starlink broadband, here are the key details.

SpaceX, the rocket company founded by tech billionaire Elon Musk, was created with the mission of taking humans to Mars. Nearly two decades on, it's already taken NASA astronauts to orbit and accomplished plenty of other milestones along the way.


Elon Musk caught on film by National Geographic during the Falcon Heavy launch.

Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

If you're having a hard time keeping up with SpaceX's plans to replace international airline flights with orbital rocket trips, send a Japanese billionaire and his favorite artists around the moon, create a global broadband network and develop a Mars rocket, don't worry. We created this SpaceX primer so you can get up to speed fast.

How SpaceX started

In 2002, Musk and friends traveled to Russia to buy a refurbished intercontinental ballistic missile. The Silicon Valley prodigy who made millions off internet startups wasn't looking to start a business at the time. He wanted to spend a big chunk, or maybe all of his fortune, on a stunt he hoped would reinvigorate interest in funding NASA and space exploration. 

The idea was to buy a Russian rocket on the cheap and use it to send plants or mice to Mars -- and hopefully bring them back, too. Ideally, the spectacle would get the world excited about space again. But Musk's Moscow meeting didn't go well and he decided he could build rockets himself, calculating that he could undercut existing launch contractors in the process. SpaceX was founded just a few months later.

What's a Falcon 9 rocket?

Musk initially hoped to make it to Mars by 2010, but just getting one rocket into orbit took six years. A SpaceX Falcon 1 orbited Earth for the first time on Sept. 28, 2008. This paved the way for a nine-engine version of the rocket, the Falcon 9, the company's workhorse since its first launch in 2010

Now playing: Watch this: SpaceX launches Bangladesh's first communications satellite

Falcon 9 is a two-stage orbital rocket that's been used to launch satellites for companies and governments, resupply the International Space Station and even send the US Air Force's super-secret space plane on its mysterious long missions. Over the past nine years the company has flown more than 80 Falcon 9 missions. 

What really sets Falcon 9 apart from the competition is its unprecedented ability to send a payload into orbit and then have its first stage return to Earth, landing either on solid ground or on a floating droneship landing pad at sea, another SpaceX innovation. After a few explosive failed attempts, a Falcon 9 finally landed safely on Dec. 22, 2015, and a few months later another touched down on a droneship for the first time. Several recovered Falcon 9 rockets have since flown and landed again. On May 11, 2018 SpaceX launched its first Block 5 Falcon 9 rocket, the "final version" designed to be reused up to 100 times with periodic refurbishments. 

On November 11, 2019, a single Falcon 9 successfully launched and landed for the fourth time -- a first for orbital rockets -- and flew using a recycled nose cone for the first time. 

A Dragon that flies

SpaceX's Dragon craft has been used to carry cargo to the International Space Station and on May 31, 2020, its Crew Dragon made history as the first commercial spaceship to send astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS. Dragon was also the first commercial spacecraft to be recovered after a trip from orbit. 

NASA selected Crew Dragon, along with Boeing's Starliner, to be the first spacecraft to carry astronauts to the ISS since the end of the shuttle program. The initiative suffered a setback in April 2019 when an unoccupied Crew Dragon exploded during a ground test because of a leak in the pressurization system. 

But the first flight of Crew Dragon with humans aboard was a success. Hurley and Behnken are set to ride the Dragon back to Earth in the coming weeks and another group of astronauts are set to fly on a Crew Dragon later in 2020.

Falcon Heavy lifting

SpaceX grabbed heaps of attention in February of 2018 when it launched Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket launched from the US since the Saturn V that sent astronauts to the moon. Basically three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together, the huge launch system sent a test payload consisting of Musk's personal red Tesla Roadster in the direction of Mars. Two of the three Falcon 9s that made up Falcon Heavy also landed nearly simultaneously at Cape Canaveral. 

More than 15 years after his initial trip to Moscow, Musk finally pulled off the international spectacle he had conceived in 2001, and he's also built a viable business in the process.

The second launch of Falcon Heavy came April 11, 2019 and was followed by the first successful landing of all three first-stage rocket cores. A third Falcon Heavy launch was conducted June 25, 2019 and SpaceX took reusability one step further by catching the payload fairing (the nose cone that shields the payload during launch) using a ship equipped with a gigantic net. 

Now playing: Watch this: Watch SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket make its first test...

How to follow Falcon flights

You can watch every Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch via the company's website and YouTube channel. Each broadcast typically goes live about 15 minutes before the scheduled launch time.

To keep up with the constantly changing schedule of launches, the best source is the SpaceX Twitter feed. It's also a good idea to follow Elon Musk's account if you don't already. 

Starship to the moon and Mars

SpaceX plans to use Falcon Heavy to launch some large payloads in the coming months, but it's already at work on an even bigger rocket called Starship (previously referred to BFR, Big Falcon Rocket or Big F***ing Rocket). Musk hopes this even more massive rocket will be able to transport cargo and eventually human passengers around the world and the solar system. He envisions using Starship to ferry people on superfast international flights via space and eventually to bases yet to be built on the moon, Mars and beyond.

A single-engine Starship prototype called Starhopper left the ground for the first time on July 25, 2019, hovering about 20 meters (66 feet) off the ground before landing a short distance away at SpaceX's test facility in south Texas. This was followed up with a 150-meter (492 feet) hop Aug. 27. SpaceX is currently developing a pair of more advanced prototypes that will be capable of reaching orbit. 

In 2018, Musk revealed that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa will be the company's first paying customer for a Starship mission, which will send the entrepreneur and six to eight of his favorite artists on a week-long flight past the moon and back to Earth in 2023. 

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If Pablo Picasso had been able to see the moon up-close, what kind of paintings would he have drawn? If John Lennon could have seen the curvature of the Earth, what kind of songs would he have written? If they had gone to space, how would the world have looked today? People are creative and have a great imagination. We all have the ability to dream dreams that have never been dreamt, to sing songs that have never been sung, to paint that which has never been seen before. I hope that this project will inspire the dreamer within all of us. Together with Earth's top artists, I will be heading to the moon... just a little earlier than everyone else. I am truly blessed by this opportunity to become Host Curator of “#dearMoon”. I would like to thank Elon Musk and SpaceX for creating the opportunity to go around the moon in their BFR. I would also like to thank all those who have continuously supported me. I vouch to make this project a success. Stay tuned! *** パブロ・ピカソが月を間近に見ていたら、どんな絵を描いたんだろう。 ジョン・レノンが地球を丸く見ていたら、どんな曲を書いたんだろう。 彼らが宇宙に行っていたら、今の世界はどうなっていたんだろう。 私たちには、想像力と創造力があります。 まだ一度も見たことのないような夢を見ることができるかもしれない。 歌ったことのないような歌が歌えるかもしれない。 描いたことのないような絵が描けるかもしれない。 このプロジェクトが皆さまの夢を拡げるきっかけになることを願っています。 地球を代表するアーティストと共に、皆さまより少しだけお先に月に行ってきます。 #dearMoonホストキュレーターとして、このようなチャンスに恵まれたことを大変誇りに思います。 BFRでの月周回飛行プログラムを提供くださるイーロン・マスクさんとSpaceX社の皆さま、そしていつも僕を支えてくださる全ての関係者の皆さま、本当にありがとうございます。 このプロジェクト必ず成功させます。 楽しみにしていてください! *** @dearmoonproject #dearmoon

A post shared by Yusaku Maezawa (@yusaku2020) on

Maezawa plans to invite artists from media like literature, film, visual arts, architecture and fashion to join him on the journey. The famed art collector is footing the bill for the whole trip with the expectation that the artists will create new works inspired by the experience. The project has been dubbed #dearMoon, and Musk has since announced plans to livestream the entire mission in VR for fans at home to follow along.

Musk offered his plans for a large city on Mars at two International Aeronautical Congress meetings, but he has yet to give many details on what life on the Red Planet would be like. He's said SpaceX is primarily interested in providing the transportation, while allowing others to worry about the infrastructure. However, company President Gwynne Shotwell said it might make sense for SpaceX sister venture, the Boring Company, to bore tunnels on Mars that could be used for human habitation. 

Paul Wooster, the company's lead engineer for its Mars plan, said at the 2018 Mars Society conference that the first people sent to the Red Planet would live on the landed Starship spacecraft indefinitely while building habitation, landing pads and other initial infrastructure. 

Sights on 'Starlink'

SpaceX isn't just working on getting things into space. It also hopes to use space to bring the universe to us. In May 2019, the company launched a first batch of 60 small satellites designed to lead the way for a massive constellation of broadband satellites. The plan, dubbed Starlink, is to use up to 42,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit to blanket the globe with high-speed internet access. The company says the service could create a new stream of revenue to help fund its pricey Mars ambitions. 

A second batch of 50 satellites launched six months later, with more to follow in relatively rapid succession. The scale of the project has some astronomers worried that a sky filled with thousands of satellites could interfere with their observations. The trains of newly launched satellites are easily viewable from the ground as they gain altitude. SpaceX says it plans to work with astronomers and take steps to mitigate Starlink's impacts on astronomy, including launching upcoming satellites with a sunshade dubbed "visorsat" to reduce their reflectivity.

What's next? 

Since its inception, SpaceX has aimed to get to Mars, but the company is involved in non-space-related projects on Earth like the high-speed Hyperloop transit concept. Musk's Boring Company tunnel-digging and traffic-mitigating ventures are also largely operating out of SpaceX headquarters in Southern California. 

Unlike the other big Musk company, Tesla Motors, SpaceX is not publicly traded. Musk has said he doesn't plan to take SpaceX public until the company realizes its Mars ambitions. That means SpaceX might make sense as the home of any other future Muskian side projects like Hyperloop and the Boring Company in the meantime. 

Originally published June 2, 2018 and updated as new SpaceX developments come in.