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SpaceX simplified: Everything you need to know about Elon Musk's rocket empire

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

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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.

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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, 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

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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. In 2020, we saw multiple Falcon 9 boosters launch and land up for the seventh time in their individual careers. Reusing the nose cone multiple times is also becoming routine practice.

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 then rode the Dragon back to Earth a few months later, and another group of four astronauts, including one from Japan's JAXA, took the second trip to orbit on a Crew Dragon in November 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, Florida.

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 a step further by catching the payload fairing (the nose cone that shields the payload during launch) using a ship equipped with a gigantic net.

As for Starman, he finally made a close pass by Mars in October, 2020

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How to follow Falcon flights

You can watch every Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch via the company's website and YouTube channel. Quite a few of them are also carried on CNET Highlights. 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 Musk's account, if you don't already. You can also check our own feed of SpaceX stories to quickly get up to speed with what the company is up to.

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 by a few more hops in late 2019 and mid-2020.

The first high-altitude flight of a prototype that actually looks more like a rocket came on Dec. 10, 2020. The prototype SN8 successfully flew to a height similar to the cruising altitude of commercial jets and then performed a new flip maneuver to come in for a landing. It came in a bit fast, however, and the flight ended in a spectacular explosion. We expect to see a few more of these high-flying tests in 2021 with the goal of getting that landing down and also reaching orbit soon.

SpaceX SN8 flew high and landed hard.

SpaceX / CNET video capture by Jackson Ryan

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 has also started operating in 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 satellites with a sunshade dubbed "visorsat" to reduce their reflectivity.

As the company worked towards its first 1,000 Starlink satellites launched, it launched a beta of its broadband service in the final quarter of 2020 limited to northern latitudes. The rollout is expected to expand in 2021.

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 isn't 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.