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Falcon 9's 20th Flight: A New Era in Space Travel | Elon Musk

Falcon 9 Rocket.
Courtesy of Popular Mechanics

There’s great news about SpaceX, which in late April did something unprecedented in the annals of rocketry. It used the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket to launch a vehicle for the 20th time. That kind of reuse of a rocket had never been done before, and ironically, happened on the 43rd anniversary of NASA’s first space shuttle mission in 1981, the dawn of reusable spacecraft.

But with every SpaceX launch comes an ongoing challenge–space junk. Since the launch of the first Starlink spacecraft in 2019, the SpaceX satellites have had to move more than 50,000 times to prevent collisions with other items in orbit.

A British professor of astronautics says maneuvers continue to grow, nearly doubling every six months, adding “the problem with exponential trends is that they get to very large numbers very quickly.”

SpaceX has a long and storied history. It was founded as Space Exploration Technologies Corporation in 2001, about a year after co-founders Jim Cantrell and Elon Musk decided to take on the task to build their own rockets. The story goes that Musk was insulted when a Russian rocket designer spat on his shoes after Musk had visited Russia to inquire about buying rockets. Four years later, Falcon 1, SpaceX’s first rocket, was unveiled. It was named Falcon in a nod to the Millennium Falcon from “Star Wars, was an expendable two-stage launch vehicle that cost nearly $100 million.

The company’s second spaceship was called the Dragon, named after the song “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary. By 2006, Musk had invested a third of his fortune into the space venture, having sold PayPal to eBay for multi millions of dollars. He also got a contract from NASA for $278 million.

But SpaceX had a rough start. I’s first three launch attempts all failed, nearly bankrupting the company. Musk was also facing a challenge with his automobile company, Tesla, causing him physical pain and mental anguish. Still, he endured. The Falcon 1’s first successful launch was on September 28, 2008 from Omelek Island in the Marshall Islands. It marked the first successful orbital launch from a privately funded company.

The Dragon program gained success as well, with Dragon 1 flying 23 missions to the International Space Station before it was retired in 2020. 

In 2016, SpaceX successfully recovered the first stage of Falcon 9 rocket, introducing the reusable concept. Musk said recovering the first stage reduced the cost of launch by 30 percent–significant to be sure. That allowed Musk to begin offering 10 percent discounts for transporting payloads into space. By 2017, the company launched its first reusable Falcon 9.

In 2020, two American astronauts successfully returned to Earth from the ISS with a Crew Dragon spacecraft.

So now Musk has his sights set on Starship, designed to send astronauts to Mars and build settlements on the red planet. It also had a rocky start, with Starship-Super Heavy having four prototypes explode–either in mid air, by crashing into a landing pad or exploding 10 minutes after touchdown. But a fifth Starship landed in one piece, proving to SpaceX that it could reuse the second-stage spacecraft of its Mars launch system. Musk says that could cut the cost of reaching deep space by more than 100 times.


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