10 things you might not know about SpaceX

Historically, Space programmes have been so ruinously expensive to run that only the very wealthiest of governments could ever dream of them.  But, on 14th March 2002, Elon Musk decided to change all that and set up his own Space Exploration Technologies Corporation - better known as SpaceX.  To many, this seemed mad and Elon admits they teetered on the verge of bankruptcy a number of times; but, through his amazing drive and inspiration he was able to pull it back from the abyss.  Now, with over 142 successful missions under their belt, including over 20 resupply trips to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX has changed the rules and are now showing governments how to play the game.  

Here is a little SpaceX trivia that might intrigue: 

1. It was always Mars

Right from the very beginning Mars was, and always had been, Elon’s first key target... within the Solar System, at least.  His original dream had been to land a simple greenhouse on Mars, though plans have definitely moved on since then.  Putting the insane carnage from intense cosmic rays and proton flares to one side for the moment, what would everyday life actually be like on the red planet?  Although the Martian day of 24 Hrs and 38 mins is similar to ours, their year will be almost twice as long, at 687 days – so, theoretically, in Martian years you might stay younger for longer?  Furthermore, the gravity on Mars is only 38% of that on Earth, so you’ll lose weight too!  That said, with an average temperature of - 81 degrees F, staying warm might be one of the bigger challenges.

2. SpaceX has achieved a number of firsts

SpaceX is the:

  • First non-governmental organisation to send a land-launched, liquid-propelled rocket into orbit 
  • First private company to send a spacecraft to the ISS (carrying freight)
  • First private company to send astronauts into orbit
  • First private company to deliver astronauts to the ISS

And, if this is not enough, SpaceX were the first to build:

  • A vertical take-off and landing orbital class rocket that can be reused.

This might not sound like a big deal but in truth, is probably the most important.  Reusing the most expensive parts of the rocket drives down the cost of access to space and is the real secret to the whole future of Space travel.  Not bad for someone with no rocket experience who, in 2002, was laughed out of town and told he was mad!

3. Starlink connects over 250,000 subscribers to the internet

SpaceX Starlink

Starlink was first conceived in 2015 as a complex web of interacting satellites in low Earth orbit.  Within four years SpaceX had launched its first 60 broadband internet satellites.  At the time of writing, that number stands at over 2000 with over 1500 currently in service.  The aim is to get upwards of 7,000 – probably more like 12,000 – into orbit.  Starlink nominally delivers 50 – 150 Mb/s download speeds, with a latency as low as 20ms.  With the new Starlink Premium this jumps to an amazing 150 – 500Mbs.  For comparison, the average UK speed is about 50 Mb/s.  Without the need to lay cables, it is perfect for bringing more and more people from remote locations online for the first time – and with some of the fastest download speeds on the planet!

4. Not everyone likes Starlink

Astronomers have complained about Starlink. Like all satellites, they are visible from Earth and leave light trails on long-exposure, night-sky photographs.  As a result, Starlink immediately put a team on this problem and, rumour has it, are now leading the industry in innovations to reduce satellite brightness, minimizing the impact on astronomy, and protecting the natural night sky for all to enjoy.  Astronomers are also working on digital ways to remove the trails automatically.  It seems Starlink doesn’t necessarily need a bright future to succeed.

5. How heavy is Falcon Heavy?

SpaceX Falcon Heavy

Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of 2.  It’s basically a Falcon 9 with a strengthened first stage as the centre core and two additional Falcon 9 first stage boosters strapped on to each side.  At a very impressive 70m high the whole rocket, fully fuelled, comes in at about 1420 tonnes, plus a potential payload to lower Earth orbit of 64 tonnes.  So yes, Heavy is probably a good description. 

6. What do Birds of Prey have to do with it?

The Falcon name originated from the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars but the engine names at first were less creative and just given mundane numbers and letters such as 60K or RD-180.  Elon thought this was a little sad and so tasked the team to come up with more appealing names.  One of the team members working on the turbo pump was a Falconer and suggested they name them after different Falcons – and there it began.  The smallest engine was called the Kestrel, after the smallest Falcon and the medium sized engine was Merlin, after the next largest Falcon.  Years passed and when they started work on a completely new type of engine, they thought a new approach was in order and called it Raptor – the family name for all birds of prey. 

7. Searching for Starman

SpaceX Tesla Roadster

Falcon Heavy proved far more tricky to build than first thought and the original maiden launch in 2013 was delayed… and delayed… and delayed again.  The explosion of SpaceX CRS-7 in 2015 didn’t help.  When its maiden flight was finally scheduled for early 2018, confidence for reaching orbit was pretty low - Elon even said that if it didn’t blow up the launch pad he’d see that as a win.  As a result, an expendable payload was sought and Elon offered to send his very own Tesla Roadster into orbit.  Unexpectedly, the launch went perfectly, without a hitch, and the Roadster was launched into orbit.  In the front seat was Starman, a test dummy in a space suit that has now orbited the earth more than 2.65 times, taking him on a trajectory outside the orbit of Mars.  When launched, in Starman’s earpiece was playing Bowie’s Space Oddity on loop. Given it’s now over four years since he launched into orbit, if the battery is still working, Space Oddity has been playing over 401,565 times.  Unless anything untoward happens, Spaceman will continue to orbit the Sun for millennia to come.  You can keep track of his exact position here.

8. ISS docking happens at incredible speeds

Watching a film of the SpaceX Dragon capsule docking with the ISS, makes the manoeuvre look so slow, precise and gentle, just like a jeweller setting a diamond. What’s not so obvious is that all this is happening at 7.66 kilometres per second as the two craft hurtle through space - that’s about 17,000 mph.  This would get you from London to Rome in about 190 seconds. Admittedly, these speeds are all relative to Earth and will never seem like it in space, but just imagine trying to sky-dive down to meet up with a man in a flying wingsuit who started from a distant mountain top!  The precision engineering that enables this to happen so exactly is simply amazing.  If you don’t believe us, have a go on the simulator - just remember, you are travelling ten times faster than a high velocity rifle bullet.

9. SpaceX and an extinct volcano

SpaceX Omelek Island

Though Starbase, in Boca Chica, Texas might be SpaceX’s latest shiny Spaceport, they didn’t start there.  A short 23 hr plane ride away, situated right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawaii and Papua New Guinea, is the small island of Omelek.  It was this small island, in the middle of an extinct volcano, miles from anywhere that hosted the first five launches of Falcon 1.  This is where, on the verge of bankruptcy, SpaceX’s 4th Falcon 1 finally reached Orbit and where, on its 5th launch, SpaceX took their first commercial payload to lower earth orbit. 

10. Why Starship?

Falcon Heavy is huge but Elon’s vision of creating a self-sustaining city on Mars requires something a little bigger!  In his estimation, to build such a city on Mars will require 1,000,000 tonnes to be transported to the red planet.  As of today, there is a total payload capacity of about 500 tonnes per year to space; in this case, it would take about 2000 years to build… a little longer than planned.  However, if SpaceX were to build an army of 1000 rockets that could each carry a payload of over 100 tonnes, Elon reckons it would only take 20 years.  This is where the largest rocket the world has ever seen comes into play.  Starship, with its super heavy booster, towers over Falcon Heavy at over 120m high, weighs over 5000 tonnes and can carry payloads of between 100 – 150 tones.  As if this is not enough, Elon wants to catch Starship on two giant chopsticks, sticking out from the launch tower, as it comes back to land. He definitely knows how to entertain!