Useful Notes / SpaceX

"There has to be an intersection of sets of people who wish to go to Mars and people who can afford to go to Mars, and if that intersection of sets equals a number of people necessary to make Mars self-sustaining, that’s the critical solution.'"
Elon Musk

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX for short, is a private corporation based in Hawthorne, California, United States. They have catapulted to the forefront of the privatization of spaceflight in recent years with their Falcon rocket series, and the Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX's main goal is the perfection of launch vehicles and spacecraft necessary to accomplish not only a manned landing of Mars, but its colonization.

Founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, it committed itself to creating its own equipment in-house. Their earliest rocket, the Falcon 1, went through a long series of trial-and-error in a series of launch attempts from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, until it finally successfully orbited a satellite on September 28, 2008. It completed its first launch for an outside entity on July 14, 2009, with the launch of RazakSAT, an imaging satellite, for Malaysia.

From there, they moved up to the Falcon 9 rocket, a rocket intended to compete with the workhorses used by NASA: the Lockheed Martin Atlas V and Boeing Delta IV. The first stage of the rocket uses nine Merlin 1 engines (currently Merlin 1D, specifically), and is capable of compensating if one engine fails. This is something only two other launchers have ever been able to do: the Saturn V, and the Space Shuttle. This was demonstrated on a launch in October 2012, when one of the first stage engines exploded. Its Dragon capsule made it to orbit, but NASA refused to allow SpaceX to try to orbit the secondary payloads on the rocket.

The primary purpose of Falcon 9 is the Dragon spacecraft. First launched in December 2010, it is capable of delivering over 7,000 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station. More importantly, with the end of the Space Shuttle program and the limited capacity of the Soyuz spacecraft, it is now the only spacecraft capable of returning bulk cargo to Earth from the ISS. The capsule typically returns by splashing down in the Pacific off the coast of Baja California, Mexico.

The Falcon 9 is also now being used to lift satellites for commercial customers. The first such launch occured on December 3, 2013, when it lifted a communications satellite for an European customer. The launch vehicle has had 28 flights since its debut, with flight 19 as its first loss in June, 2015 when it exploded minutes after launch due to an unexpected over-pressurization of the second stage. Another "anomaly" occurred on September 1, 2016 when the rocket spontaneously blew up eight minutes prior to an engine test, destroying the payload and inflicting significant damage to the launch pad. The cause of this second failure is still being investigated.

Since 2014, SpaceX gives the Falcon 9 first stage the capability to be reused. After making a "soft" water landing tests (in April 2014; the rocket sunk before they could retrieve it) and a few unsuccessful attempts at landing on an ocean-going barge, the evening of 21 December 2015 (the first launch after the loss of flight 19 in June that year), successfully landed the rocket on a landing-pad on dry-land at Cape Canaveral. They finally nailed their first barge landing on April 8, 2016, and successfully performed their second barge-landing in a row just under a month later, with the landing on May 6, 2016 being the more difficult ballistic-reentry trajectory landing, requiring the use of three engines to slow the first-stage on final descent, instead of just one. With this third landing, SpaceX has successfully landed one rocket from each of their 3 reentry trajectories: Return-to-launch-site on the OrbComm 2 launch, vertical reentry on the CRS-8 launch, and ballistic reentry on the JCSAT 14 launch. The ballistic-reentry trajectory is especially important since that's the type of reentry that the majority of Falcon Heavy cores will need to land from, with the two side-boosters using the return-to-launch-site trajectory to touch down on dry-land.

SpaceX typically releases videos of both successes and spectacular landing failures, to many a space fan's merriment, not just to show the technological challenges of landing a rocket, but because Stuff Blowing Up is also pretty cool. Musk often uses the term "RUD," or "rapid unscheduled disassembly," when such an event occurs.

They are also creating a human-rated version of the cargo Dragon spacecraft. Originally known as "Dragon V2", it's developmental name is "Crew Dragon" when NASA discusses it, probably to avoid an unintended association with the first mass-produced ballistic missile from World War II. Crew Dragon will carry humans to the ISS as well as cargo and is large enough to carry seven astronauts.

As to the company's central objectives, SpaceX has preliminary plans to use Dragon to explore Mars as well, with their heat shield (theoretically) capable of Apollo-style high-speed re-entry.

SpaceX currently conducts launches from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, and Pad 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Their mission control center is located at their headquarters in Hawthorne. In December 2013, they entered negotiations to take over Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, where they plan to launch the Falcon Heavy heavy-lift rocket as well as their manned missions. Their inaugural Pad 39A launch was the CRS-10 mission delivering supplies to the International Space Station on 19 February 2017, which also marked their first daytime landing of a booster at their dry-land landing-zone. They are also building a launch center in Brownsville, Texas, with sights on conducting their commercial payload launches from there.

Tropes used by SpaceX:

  • Cool Spaceship: The planned Interplanetary Transport System is expected to be capable of delivering more than a hundred colonists to the surface of Mars, making it the most capable spacecraft ever built by far. It also looks absolutely stunning.
  • Crowning Moment of Awesome: The Hawthorne facility erupted in cheers when CRS-8's booster, F9-023, successfully landed on April 8th, 2016. The same happened for OrbComm OG2 back on December 21st, 2015 and the JCSAT 14 launch in the wee hours of the morning on May 6th, 2016. The landing on May 6th was their second successful landing in a row, and their second successful landing at sea in a row.
    • You can bet the champagne has been flowing at their Hawthorne headquarters of late.
  • Darkest Hour: The third Falcon 1 test failure in August 2008 was devastating to everyone at SpaceX and came very close to bankrupting the fledgling company. Fortunately, the fourth launch two months later was successful and proved they were capable of putting payloads into orbit. NASA soon offered them a contract to deliver cargo to the ISS, and the rest is history.
  • Enormous Engine: Averted. They prefer to use clusters of smaller engines, both to take advantage of mass-production and to give the rockets extra redundancy in case one of the engines fails mid-flight (the others will increase thrust and/or burn longer to compensate). The Falcon 9 has nine engines on its first stage; the Falcon Heavy has twenty-seven, and the Interplanetary Transport Ship's booster-stage has forty-two.
  • Everything Is An I Pod In The Future: They are deliberately designing their vehicles and spacesuits to look "badass", to make them stand out from the somewhat dated vehicles normally used to send stuff to the ISS. Compare their Dragon V2 with the Russian Soyuz.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Musk actively discourages this, to the extent that there is an "ASS" (or Acronyms Seriously Suck) rule.
    Musk: For example, there should be no “HTS” [horizontal test stand] or “VTS” [vertical test stand] designations for test stands. Those are particularly dumb, as they contain unnecessary words. A “stand” at our test site is obviously a *test* stand. VTS-3 is four syllables compared with “Tripod,” which is two, so the bloody acronym version actually takes longer to say than the name!
    • That's more a trait of initialisms, though. Acronyms are pronounceable as words, which can make their syllable count vastly lower than saying each letter by name. For instance the initials of "Vehicle Assembly Building" can be pronounced as a single-syllable-word which does save time.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • In Wernher von Braun's Project Mars the leader of the Martian society is named the Elon, spawning a number of Elon for Elon jokes.
    • Musk has said that he wants to name the first Mars colony ship the Heart of Gold, because the transformation of SpaceX from a tiny start-up company in 2002 to one of the biggest drivers of the space industry in fifteen short years strikes him as the most unlikely Darkhorse Victory ever (and the fictional starship runs on an Infinite Improbability Drive).
  • Settling the Frontier: Their eventual goal is to enable the colonization of Mars, beginning with manned missions as early as 2025.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The Falcon family of rockets is named after the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars.
    • Their autonomous spaceport drone ships ("Just Read The Instructions" and "Of Course I Still Love You") are named after starships from Iain M. Banks' The Culture novels.
    • They ended the live webcast of CRS-9 with a shout-out to Pokémon Go.
    • As noted above, Musk wants to name the first colony ship the Heart of Gold, after Zaphod Beeblebrox's starship from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
    • Their live webcast of the launch of EchoStar XXIII from Pad 39A was signed off with a nod to Pi Day, which initially was when the rocket would have lifted off, if not for a two-day weather-related delay.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: The Falcon 9 landing attempts, complete with fireballs and sound, are better than the finest Hollywood creations.
  • Understatement: Unveiling the Interplanetary Transport System at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress, Musk described the vehicle as "quite big", provoking incredulous laughter from the crowd.