A Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon spacecraft blasts off on May 22, 2012; | AP/ MCT-International
On May 31, 2012 the private company SpaceX made history, as its unmanned Dragon capsule shot into the Pacific Ocean after a nine-day test flight on which its tasks included delivering supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).
This mission, the first successful attempt by a private company, is important because National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) fleet of space shuttles retired in 2011 and the space agency in the US 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 in 2002 by Elon Musk who is now 40 years old. Musk made money through PayPal, which he co-founded. He also runs an electric car company — Tesla Motors.
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 June 4, 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.
What has SpaceX done?
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 the orbit by the Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
On December 9, 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.
Dragon spacecraft’s second flight 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 and was 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 May 25, 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.
How does SpaceX get funds?
From June 2002 to March 2006, Musk 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 the company’s 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.
How much is SpaceX worth?
Since it was founded the company has grown progressively larger with about 1,800 employees today as compared to 160 employees in 2005.
Musk has recovered his investment many times over.
Musk’s 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.
SpaceX is planning its first crewed Dragon spacecraft launch in 2015 in collaboration with NASA. It 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 has 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 from a Falcon 9 in 2013.
Musk has said he hopes to make space more accessible and lower the cost of travel.