The company offers commercial satellite-based internet service via its constellation of Starlink satellites, which became the largest-ever satellite constellation in January 2020 and as of June 2023 comprised more than 4,300 small satellites in orbit.
In early 2001, Elon Musk donated US$100,000 to the Mars Society and joined its board of directors for a short time.: 30–31 He gave a plenary talk at their fourth convention where he announced Mars Oasis, a project to land a greenhouse and grow plants on Mars. Musk initially attempted to acquire a Dnepr ICBM for the project through Russian contacts from Jim Cantrell. Two months later, however, the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty and created the Missile Defense Agency, increasing tensions with Russia and generating new strategic interest for rapid and re-usable launch capability similar to the DC-X.
When Musk returned to Moscow, Russia, with Michael Griffin (who led the CIA's venture capital arm In-Q-Tel), they found the Russians increasingly unreceptive. On the flight home Musk announced he could start a company to build the affordable rockets they needed instead. By applying vertical integration, using cheap commercial off-the-shelf components when possible, and adopting the modular approach of modern software engineering, Musk believed SpaceX could significantly cut launch price. Griffin would later be appointed NASA administrator, conceive the COTS program, and approve SpaceX for the $278million award in 2006 before SpaceX had flown any rockets.
In early 2002, Musk started to look for staff for his company, soon to be named SpaceX. Musk approached rocket engineer Tom Mueller (later SpaceX's CTO of propulsion) and invited him to become his business partner. Mueller agreed to work for Musk, and thus SpaceX was born. SpaceX was first headquartered in a warehouse in El Segundo, California. Early SpaceX employees, such as Tom Mueller (CTO), Gwynne Shotwell (COO), and Chris Thompson (VP of Operations), came from neighboring TRW and Boeing corporations following the cancellation of the Brilliant Pebbles program. By November 2005, the company had 160 employees. Musk personally interviewed and approved all of SpaceX's early employees. Musk has stated that one of his goals with SpaceX is to decrease the cost and improve the reliability of access to space, ultimately by a factor of ten.
2005–2009: Falcon 1 and first orbital launches
In 2005, SpaceX announced plans to pursue a human-rated commercial space program through the end of the decade, a program that would later become the Dragon spacecraft. In 2006, the company was selected by NASA and awarded $396million to provide crew and cargo resupply demonstration contracts to the ISS under the COTS program.
The first two Falcon 1 launches were purchased by the United States Department of Defense under a program that evaluates new US launch vehicles suitable for use by DARPA. The first three launches of the rocket, between 2006 and 2008, all resulted in failures, which almost ended the company. Financing for Tesla Motors had failed, as well, and consequently Tesla, SolarCity, and Musk personally were all nearly bankrupt at the same time. Musk was reportedly "waking from nightmares, screaming and in physical pain" because of the stress.
The financial situation started to turn around with the first successful launch achieved on the fourth attempt on 28 September 2008. Musk split his remaining $30million between SpaceX and Tesla, and NASA awarded the first Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract awarding $1.6billion to SpaceX in December, thus financially saving the company. Based on these factors and the further business operations they enabled, the Falcon 1 was soon retired following its second successful, and fifth total, launch in July 2009; this allowed SpaceX to focus company resources on the development of a larger orbital rocket, the Falcon 9.Gwynne Shotwell was also promoted to company president at this time, for her role in successfully negotiating the CRS contract with the NASA Administrator (and former SpaceX contractor) Michael Griffin. Griffin later estimated that SpaceX was around 85% funded by the federal government, mostly through his NASA awards, with the remaining 15% funding split between Elon Musk and other private investors. He felt the amount of government funding was "excessive in his view" compared with what he originally envisioned for the commercial space program.
2010–2012: Falcon 9, Dragon, and NASA contracts
SpaceX originally intended to follow its light Falcon 1 launch vehicle with an intermediate capacity vehicle, the Falcon 5. The company instead decided in 2005 to proceed with the development of the Falcon 9, a reusableheavier lift vehicle. Development of the Falcon 9 was accelerated by NASA, which committed to purchasing several commercial flights if specific capabilities were demonstrated. This started with seed money from the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program in 2006. The overall contract award was $278million to provide development funding for the Dragon spacecraft, Falcon 9, and demonstration launches of Falcon 9 with Dragon. As part of this contract, the Falcon 9 launched for the first time in June 2010 with the Dragon Spacecraft Qualification Unit, using a mockup of the Dragon spacecraft.
The first operational Dragon spacecraft was launched in December 2010 aboard COTS Demo Flight 1, the Falcon 9's second flight, and safely returned to Earth after two orbits, completing all its mission objectives. By December 2010, the SpaceX production line was manufacturing one Falcon 9 and Dragon every three months.
In April 2011, as part of its second-round Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, NASA issued a $75million contract for SpaceX to develop an integrated launch escape system for Dragon in preparation for human-rating it as a crew transport vehicle to the ISS. NASA awarded SpaceX a fixed-price Space Act Agreement (SAA) to produce a detailed design of the crew transportation system in August 2012.
In early 2012, approximately two-thirds of SpaceX stock was owned by Musk and his seventy million shares were then estimated to be worth $875million on private markets, valuing SpaceX at $1.3billion. In May 2012, with the Dragon C2+ launch Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. After the flight, the company private equity valuation nearly doubled to $2.4billion or $20/share. By that time, SpaceX had operated on total funding of approximately $1billion over its first decade of operation. Of this, private equity provided approximately $200million, with Musk investing approximately $100million and other investors having put in about $100million.
SpaceX's active reusability test program began in late 2012 with testing low-altitude, low-speed aspects of the landing technology. The Falcon 9 prototypes performed vertical takeoffs and landings (VTOL). High-velocity, high-altitude tests of the booster atmospheric return technology began in late 2013.
2013–2015: Commercial launches and rapid growth
SpaceX launched the first commercial mission for a private customer in 2013. In 2014, SpaceX won nine contracts out of the 20 that were openly competed worldwide. That year Arianespace requested that European governments provide additional subsidies to face the competition from SpaceX. Beginning in 2014, SpaceX capabilities and pricing also began to affect the market for launch of U.S. military payloads, which for nearly a decade had been dominated by the large U.S. launch provider United Launch Alliance (ULA). The monopoly had allowed launch costs by the U.S. provider to rise to over $400million over the years. In September 2014, NASA awarded SpaceX the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract to finalize the development of the Crew Transportation System. The contract included several technical and certification milestones, an uncrewed flight test, a crewed flight test, and six operational missions after certification.
In January 2015, SpaceX raised $1billion in funding from Google and Fidelity, in exchange for 8.33% of the company, establishing the company valuation at approximately $12billion. The same month SpaceX announced the development of a new satellite constellation, called Starlink, to provide global broadband internet service with 4,000 satellites.
The Falcon 9 had its first major failure in late June 2015, when the seventh ISS resupply mission, CRS-7 exploded two minutes into the flight. The problem was traced to a failed 2-foot-long steel strut that held a heliumpressure vessel, which broke free due to the force of acceleration. This caused a breach and allowed high-pressure helium to escape into the low-pressure propellant tank, causing the failure.
SpaceX first achieved a successful landing and recovery of a first stage in December 2015 with Falcon 9 Flight 20. In April 2016, the company achieved the first successful landing on the autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic Ocean. By October 2016, following the successful landings, SpaceX indicated they were offering their customers a 10% price discount if they choose to fly their payload on a reused Falcon 9 first stage.
A second major rocket failure happened in early September 2016, when a Falcon 9 exploded during a propellant fill operation for a standard pre-launch static fire test. The payload, the AMOS-6 communications satellite valued at $200million, was destroyed. The explosion was caused by the liquid oxygen that is used as propellant turning so cold that it solidified and ignited with carbon composite helium vessels. Though not considered an unsuccessful flight, the rocket explosion sent the company into a four-month launch hiatus while it worked out what went wrong. SpaceX returned to flight in January 2017.
Later that year, in March 2017, SpaceX launched a returned Falcon 9 for the SES-10 satellite. This was the first time a re-launch of a payload-carrying orbital rocket went back to space. The first stage was recovered again, also making it the first landing of a reused orbital class rocket.
2017–2018: Leading global commercial launch provider
In July 2017, the company raised $350million, which raised its valuation to $21billion. In 2017, SpaceX achieved a 45% global market share for awarded commercial launch contracts. By March 2018, SpaceX had more than 100 launches on its manifest representing about $12billion in contract revenue. The contracts included both commercial and government (NASA/DOD) customers. This made SpaceX the leading global commercial launch provider measured by manifested launches.
In 2017, SpaceX formed a subsidiary, The Boring Company, and began work to construct a short test tunnel on and adjacent to the SpaceX headquarters and manufacturing facility, using a small number of SpaceX employees, which was completed in May 2018, and opened to the public in December 2018. During 2018, The Boring Company was spun out into a separate corporate entity with 6% of the equity going to SpaceX, less than 10% to early employees, and the remainder of the equity to Elon Musk.
2019–present: Starship, Starlink, and first crewed launches
In January 2019, SpaceX announced it would lay off 10% of its workforce to help finance the Starship and Starlink projects. Construction of initial prototypes and tests for Starship started in early 2019 in Florida and Texas. All Starship construction and testing moved to the new SpaceX South Texas launch site later that year. In May 2019, SpaceX also launched the first large batch of 60 Starlink satellites, beginning to deploy what would become the world's largest commercial satellite constellation the following year. The company raised $1.33billion of capital across three funding rounds in 2019. By May 2019, the valuation of SpaceX had risen to $33.3billion and reached $36billion by March 2020.
On 19 August 2020, after a $1.9billion funding round, one of the largest single fundraising pushes by any privately held company, SpaceX's valuation increased to $46billion.
In February 2021, SpaceX raised an additional $1.61billion in an equity round from 99 investors at a per share value of approximately $420, raising the company valuation to approximately $74billion. By 2021, SpaceX had raised more than $6billion in equity financing. Most of the capital raised since 2019 has been used to support the operational fielding of the Starlink satellite constellation and the development and manufacture of the Starship launch vehicle. By October 2021, the valuation of SpaceX had risen to $100.3billion. On 16 April 2021, Starship HLS won the contract, and will play a critical role in the Artemis program. By 2021, SpaceX had entered into agreements with Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure to provide on-ground computer and networking services for Starlink. A new round of financing in 2022 values SpaceX at $127billion.
In 2022, SpaceX's Falcon 9 became the world record holder for the most launches of a single vehicle type in a single year.[non-primary source needed] SpaceX launched a rocket approximately every six days in 2022, with 61 launches in total. All but one (a Falcon Heavy in November) was on a Falcon 9 rocket.
On 20 April 2023, Starship's first orbital flight test ended in a mid-air explosion over the Gulf of Mexico before booster separation. After launch, multiple engines in the booster progressively failed, causing the vehicle to reach max q later than planned. Eventually, the vehicle lost control and spun erratically until the automated flight termination system was activated, which intentionally destroyed the rocket. Elon Musk and SpaceX have publicly referred to this test flight as a success.
SpaceX has developed three launch vehicles. The small-lift Falcon 1 was the first launch vehicle developed and was retired in 2009. The medium-lift Falcon 9 and the heavy-lift Falcon Heavy are both operational. The Falcon 1 was a small rocket capable of placing several hundred kilograms into low Earth orbit. It launched five times between 2006 and 2009, of which 2 were successful. The Falcon 1 was the first privately funded, liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit.
Merlin is a family of rocket engines that uses liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 propellants. Merlin was first used to power the Falcon 1's first stage and is now used on both stages of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles. Kestrel uses the same propellants and was used as the Falcon 1 rocket's second stage main engine.
Raptor is a new family of liquid oxygen and liquid methane-fueled full-flow staged combustion cycle engines to power the first and second stages of the in-development Starship launch system. Development versions were test-fired in late 2016, and the engine flew for the first time in 2019, powering the Starhopper vehicle to an altitude of 20 m (66 ft).
In March 2020 SpaceX revealed the Dragon XL, designed as a resupply spacecraft for NASA's planned Lunar Gateway space station under a Gateway Logistics Services (GLS) contract. Dragon XL is planned to launch on the Falcon Heavy, and is able to transport over 5,000 kg (11,000 lb) to the Gateway. Dragon XL will be docked at the Gateway for six to twelve months at a time.
SpaceX routinely returns the first stage of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets after orbital launches. The rocket flights and land to a predetermined landing site using only its own propulsion systems. When propellant margins do not permit a return to launch site (RTLS), rockets return to floating landing platform in the ocean, called autonomous spaceport drone ships (ASDS).
SpaceX also plans to introduce floating launch platforms. These are modified oil rigs to use in the 2020s to provide a sea launch option for their second-generation launch vehicle: the heavy-lift Starship system, consisting of the Super Heavy booster and Starship second stage. SpaceX has purchased two deepwater oil rigs and are refitting them to support Starship launches.
SpaceX is developing a fully reusable super-heavy lift launch system known as Starship. It comprises a reusable first stage, called Super Heavy, and the reusable Starship second stage space vehicle. The system is intended to supersede the company's existing launch vehicle hardware by the early 2020s.
SpaceX initially envisioned a 12-meter-diameter ITS concept in 2016 solely aimed at Mars transit and other interplanetary uses. In 2017 it articulated a smaller 9-meter-diameter vehicle to replace all of its launch service provider capabilities – Earth-orbit; lunar-orbit; interplanetary missions; and potentially, even intercontinental passenger transport on Earth – but do so on a fully reusable set of vehicles with a markedly lower-cost structure.
SpaceX started manufacturing the first prototypes of Starship in 2019 at the company's facility in Boca Chica, Texas, later renamed Starbase. It is developing Starship using iterative design principles, aiming to build and test several prototypes at a fast pace. The first successful suborbital flight and landing of a full Starship prototype was achieved in May 2021.
Starlink is an internet satellite constellation under development by SpaceX that consists of thousands of cross-linked communications satellites in ~550km orbits. Owned and operated by SpaceX, its goal is to address the significant unmet demand worldwide for low-cost broadband capabilities.
Development began in 2015, and initial prototype test-flight satellites were launched on the SpaceX Paz satellite mission in 2017. In May 2019, SpaceX launched the first batch of 60 satellites aboard a Falcon 9. Initial test operation of the constellation began in late 2020 and first orders were taken in early 2021. Customers were told to expect internet service speeds of 50 Mbps to 150 Mbps and latency from 20 ms to 40 ms. In December 2022, Starlink reached over 1 million subscribers worldwide.
The planned large number of Starlink satellites has been criticized by astronomers due to concerns over light pollution, with the brightness of Starlink satellites in both optical and radio wavelengths interfering with scientific observations. In response, SpaceX has implemented several upgrades to Starlink satellites aimed at reducing their brightness. The large number of satellites employed by Starlink also creates long-term dangers of space debris collisions. However, the satellites are equipped with krypton-fueled Hall thrusters which allow them to de-orbit at the end of their life. They are also designed to autonomously avoid collisions based on uplinked tracking data.
In June 2015, SpaceX announced that they would sponsor a Hyperloop competition, and would build a 1.6 km (0.99 mi) long subscale test track near SpaceX's headquarters for the competitive events. The company has held the annual competition since 2017.
In collaboration with doctors and academic researchers, SpaceX invited all employees to participate in the creation of a COVID-19 antibody-testing program in 2020. As such, 4300 employees volunteered to provide blood-samples resulting in a peer-reviewed scientific paper crediting eight SpaceX employees as coauthors and suggesting that a certain level of COVID-19 antibodies may provide lasting protection against the virus.
SpaceX is headquartered in Hawthorne, California, which also serves as its primary manufacturing plant. The company operates a research and major operation in Redmond, Washington, owns a test site in Texas and operates three launch sites, with another under development. SpaceX also operates regional offices in Texas, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. SpaceX was incorporated in the state of Delaware.
Headquarters, manufacturing, and refurbishment facilities
In January 2015, SpaceX announced it would be entering the satellite production business and global satellite internet business. The first satellite facility is a 30,000 sq ft (2,800 m2) office building located in Redmond, Washington. As of January 2017, a second facility in Redmond was acquired with 40,625 sq ft (3,774.2 m2) and has become a research and development laboratory for the satellites. In July 2016, SpaceX acquired an additional 8,000 sq ft (740 m2) office space in Irvine, California to focus on satellite communications.
The company purchased the McGregor facilities from Beal Aerospace, where it refitted the largest test stand for Falcon 9 engine testing. SpaceX has made a number of improvements to the facility since its purchase and has also extended the acreage by purchasing several pieces of adjacent farmland. As of October 2012, the McGregor facility had seven test stands that are operated "18 hours a day, six days a week" and is building more test stands because production is ramping up and the company has a large manifest in the next several years. In addition to routine testing, Dragon capsules (following recovery after an orbital mission), are shipped to McGregor for de-fueling, cleanup, and refurbishment for reuse in future missions.
Vandenberg Space Launch Complex 4 (SLC-4E) was leased from the military in 2011 and is used for payloads to polar orbits. The Vandenberg site can launch both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles, but cannot launch to low inclination orbits. The neighboring SLC-4W was converted to Landing Zone 4 in 2015 for booster landings.
In 2006, SpaceX won a NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Phase 1 contract to demonstrate cargo delivery to the International Space Station (ISS), with a possible contract option for crew transport. Through this contract, designed by NASA to provide "seed money" through Space Act Agreements for developing new capabilities, NASA paid SpaceX $396million to develop the cargo configuration of the Dragon spacecraft, while SpaceX developed the Falcon 9 launch vehicle with their own resources. These Space Act Agreements have been shown to have saved NASA millions of dollars in development costs, making rocket development 4–10 times cheaper than if produced by NASA alone.
Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) are a series of contracts awarded by NASA from 2008 to 2016 for delivery of cargo and supplies to the International Space Station on commercially operated spacecraft. The first CRS contracts were signed in 2008 and awarded $1.6billion to SpaceX for 12 cargo transport missions, covering deliveries to 2016.SpaceX CRS-1, the first of the 12 planned resupply missions, launched in October 2012, achieved orbit, berthed and remained on station for 20 days, before re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
CRS missions have flown approximately twice a year to the ISS since then. In 2015, NASA extended the Phase 1 contracts by ordering an additional three resupply flights from SpaceX, and then extended the contract further for a total of twenty cargo missions to the ISS. The final Dragon 1 mission, SpaceX CRS-20, departed the ISS in April 2020, and Dragon was subsequently retired from service. A second phase of contracts was awarded in January 2016 with SpaceX as one of the awardees. SpaceX will fly up to nine additional CRS flights with the upgraded Dragon 2 spacecraft. In March 2020, NASA contracted SpaceX to develop the Dragon XL spacecraft to send supplies to the Lunar Gateway space station. Dragon XL will be launched on a Falcon Heavy.
SpaceX is responsible for the transportation of NASA astronauts to and from the ISS. The NASA contracts started as part of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, aimed at developing commercially operated spacecraft capable of delivering astronauts to the ISS. The first contract was awarded to SpaceX in 2011, followed by another in 2012 to continue development and testing of its Dragon 2 spacecraft.
In September 2014, NASA chose SpaceX and Boeing as the two companies that would be funded to develop systems to transport U.S. crews to and from the ISS. SpaceX won $2.6billion to complete and certify Dragon 2 by 2017. The contracts called for at least one crewed flight test with at least one NASA astronaut aboard. Once Crew Dragon received NASA human-spaceflight certification, the contract required SpaceX to conduct at least two, and as many as six, crewed missions to the space station.
SpaceX completed the first key flight test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, a Pad Abort Test, in May 2015, and successfully conducted a full uncrewed test flight in early 2019. The capsule docked to the ISS and then splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. In January 2020, SpaceX conducted an in-flight abort test, the last test flight before flying crew, in which the Dragon spacecraft fired its launch escape engines in a simulated abort scenario.
The Falcon 9 v1.1 was certified for National Security Space Launch (NSSL) in 2015, allowing SpaceX to contract launch services to the Air Force for any payloads classified under national security. This broke the monopoly held since 2006 by United Launch Alliance (ULA) over U.S. Air Force launches of classified payloads. In April 2016, the U.S. Air Force awarded the first such national security launch to SpaceX to launch the second GPS III satellite for $82.7million. This was approximately 40% less than the estimated cost for similar previous missions. SpaceX also launched the third GPS III launch on 20 June 2020. In March 2018, SpaceX secured an additional $290million contract from the U.S. Air Force to launch another three GPS III satellites.
The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) also purchased launches from SpaceX, with the first taking place on 1 May 2017. In February 2019, SpaceX secured a $297million contract from the U.S. Air Force to launch another three national security missions, all slated to launch no earlier than FY 2021. In August 2020, the U.S. Space Force awarded its National Security Space Launch (NSSL) contracts for the following 5–7 years. SpaceX won a contract for $316million for one launch. In addition, SpaceX will handle 40% of the U.S. military's satellite launch requirements over the period.
SpaceX also designs and launches custom military satellites for the Space Development Agency as part of a new missile defense system in low Earth orbit. The constellation would give the United States capabilities to sense, target and potentially intercept nuclear missiles and hypersonic weapons launched from anywhere on Earth. Both China and Russia brought concerns to the United Nations about the program, and various organizations warn it could be destabilizing and trigger an arms race in space.
Launch market competition and pricing pressure
SpaceX ended the United Launch Alliance (ULA) monopoly of U.S. military payloads when it began to compete for national security launches. In 2015, anticipating a slump in domestic, military, and spy launches, ULA stated that it would go out of business unless it won commercial satellite launch orders. To that end, ULA announced a major restructuring of processes and workforce to decrease launch costs by half.
Congressional testimony by SpaceX in 2017 suggested that the NASA Space Act Agreement process of "setting only a high-level requirement for cargo transport to the space station [while] leaving the details to industry" had allowed SpaceX to design and develop the Falcon 9 rocket on its own at a substantially lower cost. According to NASA's own independently verified numbers, SpaceX's total development cost for the Falcon 9 rocket, including the Falcon 1 rocket, was estimated at $390million. In 2011, NASA estimated that it would have cost the agency about $4billion to develop a rocket like the Falcon 9 booster based upon NASA's traditional contracting processes, about ten times more. In May 2020, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine remarked that thanks to NASA's investments into SpaceX, the United States has 70% of the commercial launch market, a major improvement since 2012 when there were no commercial launches from the country.
In November 2022, the company announced COO Gwynne Shotwell and vice president Mark Juncosa would oversee Starbase, its Texas launch facility, along with Omead Afshar, who at the time oversaw operations for Tesla in Texas. Shyamal Patel, who was senior director of operations at the site, would shift to its Cape Canaveral site. CNBC reported that these executive moves demonstrated "the sense of urgency within the company to get Starship flying."
According to former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, the company overall has a male-dominated employee culture, similar to that of the spaceflight industry in general. In December 2021, claims of workplace sexual harassment from five former SpaceX employees, ranging from interns to full engineers, were published. The former employees claimed to have experienced unwanted advances and uncomfortable interactions. Additionally, the accounts included claims of a culture of sexual harassment existing at the company and one where complaints made to executives, managers, and human resources officers went largely unaddressed.
In May 2022, a Business Insider article alleged that Musk engaged in sexual misconduct with a SpaceX flight attendant in a private jet in 2016 citing an anonymous friend of the flight attendant. In response, some employees collaborated on an open letter condemning "Elon's harmful Twitter behavior". It also asks the company to clearly define SpaceX's "no-asshole" and "zero tolerance" policies, which it says is unequally enforced from one employee to the next. The next day, Gwynne Shotwell announced that those employees who were involved with the letter had been terminated and claimed that unsponsored, unsolicited surveys were sent to employees during the work day, and that some felt pressured to sign the letter.
The company has also been described as having a work culture that pushes employees to work excessively, and was described as fostering a burnout culture. According to a memo by Blue Origin, a rival aerospace company, SpaceX expected very long work hours, work on weekends, and limited use of holidays.