SpaceX

Background 

No other private corporation has done more for humanity's efforts in space than Elon Musk-owned Space Exploration Technologies Co., the California-based company pioneering reusable rockets, launching thousands of communications satellites into orbit, and building spacecraft to colonize Mars (see accomplishments).

Founding 

After launching a series of successful startups (including what became PayPal), the South African-raised Musk looked to jump-start global interest in colonizing Mars (read more about his vision). 

He initially tried to buy ballistic missiles in Europe and Russia, hoping to launch a rocket carrying a plant or animal as a publicity move for Mars exploration. But rockets, he thought, were too expensive compared to their material cost.

So Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, implementing a vertically integrated supply chain—where materials are made in-house—and imploring his team to test and simplify every manufacturing rule and process to reduce costs (learn the five-step algorithm).

Today, a SpaceX orbital rocket is 97% cheaper than those used in the 1960s by Russia ​(​​​​​​see historical costs chart).

Rockets

The company launches more rockets into space than all other nations and companies combined (see launch tracker). Its two-stage Falcon 9 is its workhorse, with 91 successful launches in 2023.

Named after the iconic sci-fi "Star Wars" spaceship Millennium Falcon, the Falcon 9's novel reusability revolutionized spaceflight economics. After delivering its payload aboard SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft into orbit, the rocket returns to Earth and uses vertical propulsion (or thrust) to accurately land within a 30-foot diameter (how it works).

For so-called super heavy payloads—those roughly 110,000 pounds or more—SpaceX developed the partially reusable Falcon Heavy (watch the evolution of SpaceX rockets). 

Starship

To travel to Mars—which is 33 million miles away at its closest, 100 times further than the moon—SpaceX is developing its Starship, a large spacecraft (similar volume to the International Space Station) atop its Super Heavy rocket (see inside). 

The vehicle's Raptor engines are fueled with methane, a propellant theoretically able to be harvested from Mars' carbon dioxide and water (or ice). 

In a continuation of a longstanding partnership, SpaceX contracted with NASA as part of the agency's Artemis missions to return humans to the moon and beyond, with an adapted form of Starship expected to be used as the mission's human landing system. Learn more about the NASA-SpaceX collaboration.

Musk also envisions Starship as the next generation of on-Earth air travel, promising flights around the world in less than an hour. 

Starlink

Using its low-cost launch system, SpaceX has deployed over 5,000 communications satellites into low-Earth orbit to form the world's first global broadband internet service, providing key revenue for the company.

Starlink's remote, worldwide presence has enabled it to play a role in conflicts where communications are tightly controlled, including providing telecom support in the Russia-Ukraine war, amid Iranian protests, and during the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. 

Video Gallery

A collection of videos about SpaceX

Dive Deeper

Relevant articles, podcasts, videos, and more from around the internet — curated and summarized by our team

Open link on youtube.com

Elon Musk’s rocket company first began developing working prototypes of the Starship rocket in early 2019 in Boca Chica, Texas. An early version, nicknamed “Starhopper,” focused heavily on the ability to land a rocket after launching its vehicle into orbit—an enormous, but critically necessary, engineering challenge. Watch the evolution from an oversized tin can to the elegant Starship (along with some explosive failures).

Open link on iss-sim.spacex.com

Dozens of ships launch from Earth and dock at the International Space Station every year, rotating astronaut crews and delivering supplies. While it’s become standard practice, guiding a ship into an orbiting station takes exception skill. This simulator lets you try your hand at docking a SpaceX Dragon 2 at an ISS arrival port, using the same interface and controls as NASA astronauts.

A portrait photo of Gerard K. O'Neill in a library.
Open link on airandspace.si.edu

Everyone's talking about colonies on Mars or the moon—but what about colonizing space? Learn about a pioneer in the idea with this short article. In the 1970s, Princeton physicist Gerard K. O'Neill popularized the idea of building 15-mile-long cylinder-shaped colonies manufactured from lunar and asteroid materials, which would spin to create gravity. His legacy continues through work at Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' space company Blue Origin where O'Neill has served as an inspiration.

The Space Race

How to colonize Mars

An animated illustration of the surface of Mars in 2050, with theoretical habitations and other structures.
Open link on youtube.com

NASA and SpaceX have become close partners in upcoming missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. This video explores the latest scientific proposals for how humans could terraform or colonize the red planet, evaluating feasibility, current technologies, and timeline. Learn why we'll probably need an army of labor robots who have dug massive underground habitats before the first human pioneers have their first long-term stay on Mars in this video.

Open link on cosmosmagazine.com

The vast majority of space exploration has resulted from the deployment of single-use rockets, massive engines which fall to the ocean after delivering their payload. SpaceX has revolutionized the industry with its Falcon 9 reusable rocket, cutting launch costs in half or more. Learn about the rocket's design, its engines, and how it slows to 10 miles per hour just before landing on its ocean barges.

Open link on everydayastronaut.com

The setting for some of SpaceX's most daring tests is Starbase near the town of Brownsville in southern Texas. The location has become a veritable tourist spot for space aficionados lining up to see retired test vehicles and the mammoth Starship itself, the world's tallest and most powerful rocket system. Click here for the low down on the space explorer's mecca.

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