(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 21 June 2012, retrieved from http://newindianexpress.com/education/school/article547183.ece)
On May 31 this year, private company SpaceX made history, as its unmanned Dragon capsule shot into the Pacific, returning after a 9-day test flight on which its tasks included delivering supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).
This mission, the first such successful attempt by a private company, is very important, because NASA’s fleet of space shuttles retired last year, and the space agency is exploring the idea of using private companies to send cargo, and later perhaps astronauts, to the ISS.
What is SpaceX?
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, is a space transport company headquartered in Hawthorne, California. It was founded by Elon Musk, who is now 40, in 2002. Musk had made his money at PayPal, which he co-founded. He also runs electric car company Tesla Motors.
What has it done?
Since its inception, SpaceX has often collaborated with NASA. The Falcon series of launch vehicles were designed after the company signed a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract with NASA in 2006.
Soon after, the company began to develop the Dragon spacecraft, which was to be flown into orbit by the Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
On 9 December 2010, SpaceX became the first private company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft, as the Dragon capsule returned after a two-orbit flight. The launch had been postponed several times, but was successful on the first attempt.
It was the second flight of the Dragon spacecraft, which was first tested on June 4, 2010, with a mock-up version. The operational spacecraft was launched in December. The capsule made a controlled re-entry burn, splashing into the Pacific Ocean. It was subsequently recovered – before this, only government agencies had been able to recover orbital spacecraft.
This achievement was recognised by the Space Foundation, which gave SpaceX the Space Achievement Award in 2011.
On 25 May 2012, SpaceX sent a cargo payload on the Dragon spacecraft, to the ISS, where it docked. It is hoped that this spacecraft will eventually be able to carry humans.
The Dragon spacecraft
The building of the Dragon spacecraft was preceded by a 2005 announcement from SpaceX, saying it was planning a commercial space programme that would allow humans to jet off. The capsule was intended to carry cargo, humans, or a mixture of both, to and from the orbit of the Earth.
On 4 June, 2010, a flight of the Dragon structural test article took place from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, during the first flight of Falcon 9. The fully operational spacecraft was launched on Falcon 9 six months later, and returned after fulfilling its mission objectives.
Where does SpaceX get its funding?
From June 2002 to March 2006, Musk had invested $100 million of his own money. Other investors contributed approximately the same amount over a 10-year period.
By May 2012, the company is believed to have received funding of up to $1 billion. Most of this comes from payments on launch and development contracts.
NASA’s contribution works out to about $500 million. This includes a grant of $75 million, to develop Dragon’s integrated launch escape system, to prepare for its eventually transporting people to space – a project that may be realised in the next two or three years.
How much is SpaceX worth?
Since it was founded, the company has grown progressively larger, with about 1800 employees today, as compared to 160 employees in 2005.
Musk has recovered his investment many times over. His 70 million shares, which form two-thirds of the company, were calculated as worth roughly $875 million on private markets in February.
After the successful mission with the Dragon Spacecraft, the company’s worth shot up to $ 4.8 billion, and Musk’s to $1.6 billion.
In collaboration with NASA, SpaceX is planning its first crewed Dragon spacecraft launch in 2015. The space agency also plans to send a robotic mission to Mars in 2018, through SpaceX. Musk has said the long-term plan of the company is to help human exploration and settlement in Mars.
Called The Red Dragon, this project is expected to be proposed for funding next year, as a NASA Discovery mission. The robotic mission, which will cost about $425 million, will seek out evidence of life, and drill underground to sample reservoirs of water ice below the surface.
SpaceX had also signed contracts with government agencies outside the US, private sector companies and the American military for its launch services. The company hopes to launch its first commercial geostationary satellite, the medium-sized SES-8, in 2013, from a Falcon 9.
Musk has also said he hopes to make space more accessible and lower the cost of travel.
June, 2002: SpaceX is founded by PayPal and Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk.
January, 2005: SpaceX buys a 10% stake in Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.
May 2, 2005: SpaceX announces signing of an Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract for Responsive Small Spacelift launch services by the US Air Force.
August 18 2006: NASA signs Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract with SpaceX, to demonstrate cargo delivery to the ISS, with the possibility of sending crew later.
April 22, 2008: SpaceX announces signing of IDIQ contract with NASA for launches of Falcon 1 and Falcon 9. Also says it has sold 14 contracts for flights on the Falcon vehicles.
August 4, 2008: SpaceX accepts $20 million investment from the Founders Fund.
September 28, 2008: Falcon 1 makes its first successful flight.
December 23, 2008: SpaceX announces that it has won a Commercial Resupply Services contract, for at least 12 missions to carry supplies and cargo to and from the ISS.
June 16, 2009: SpaceX opens its Astronaut Safety and Mission Assurance Department, hires former NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox to head it.
June 4, 2010: Falcon 9 successfully flies into orbit on its maiden launch.
June, 2010: SpaceX is awarded the largest-ever commercial space launch contract, worth $492 million, to launch Iridium satellites using Falcon 9 rockets.
December 9, 2010: SpaceX becomes the first privately-funded company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft, with the launch of the COTS Demo Flight 1.
July 13, 2011: SpaceX breaks ground on its own launch site, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, as Falcon 1 carries its first successful commercial payload, RazakSAT, into orbit.
May 22, 2012: Unmanned Dragon capsule is sent into space, marking the first time a private company has sent a spacecraft to the ISS.
May 25, 2012: SpaceX becomes the first private company to send a cargo payload to the ISS.