SpaceX has had some incredible highs and lows. Founded in 2002, the company has become a key player in rocket missions and accomplished founder Elon Musk’s goal of getting space travel for the U.S. back on track after NASA ended the shuttle program.
Here’s a recap of some of the company’s most important rocket launches, landings, payloads, and tests to date – as well as a look ahead at what’s in store for future launches that will take humans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
1. The first successful flight of Falcon 1
Things didn’t start off smoothly for SpaceX. The Falcon 1 first launch only lasted one minute. The second and third attempts also failed.
On its fourth launch, however, in September 2008, the Falcon 1 successfully reached orbit, making it “the first privately developed liquid-fuel rocket to reach Earth’s orbit,” according to SpaceX. In total, the vehicle was launched five times.
Originally, the company planned to develop an enhanced version of the Falcon 1 called the “Falcon 1e,” but that was scrapped in favor of the Falcon9.
2. The Dragon spacecraft returns to Earth
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft is a capsule designed to carry astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). In 2010, SpaceX launched Dragon into orbit aboard Falcon 1’s successor, the Falcon 9 rocket.
SpaceX made history again when the unmanned Dragon returned to Earth in December 2010, landing in the Pacific Ocean a few hundred miles off the coast of Mexico. It was the first time a private spacecraft successfully returned from orbit.
3. The Dragon docks on the ISS
In yet another incredible achievement, SpaceX went down in history as being the first private company to dock with the International Space Station.
Over a year after the Dragon’s successful return to Earth, SpaceX sent it up to the ISS on May 25, 2012. Astronauts aboard the space station used a robotic arm to pull the Dragon capsule into a docking port at the station. Since that mission, SpaceX has sent Dragon to the ISS several times on resupply missions for NASA.
4. SpaceX makes history with the first rocket booster landing
Developing the technology to be able to land a spacecraft was one of the main reasons Elon Musk originally founded SpaceX. Knowing that the consensus on Mars was that it would be prohibitively expensive to send humans there with the technology of the time, Elon Musk set out to improve it.
One of the key improvements needed was the ability to reuse large parts of the spacecraft which would otherwise disintegrate in orbit. The first step to making this possible was landing an orbital first stage rocket. SpaceX achieved this feat in 2015 with its historic first unmanned upright landing on land.
5. The first drone ship landing
SpaceX was starting to make things look easy. Only a year after its first successful vertical landing, the company landed its spacecraft on a small platform floating in the ocean. After several failed attempts, the company achieved its first successful landing of a rocket booster on a drone ship, called Just Read the Instructions, in 2016.
Though some commentators have suggested that SpaceX lands the majority of its missions in the ocean because it is more cost-effective than landing on land, Elon Musk clarified in a series of tweets in 2016 that it’s actually “all about speed” and the fact that the boosters have to climb in an arc-like trajectory to reach orbital space.
6. SpaceX becomes the first company ever to reuse a rocket
Of course, landing a rocket is only part of the equation when it comes to reusability and reducing the expense of space travel. As SpaceX successfully showed in 2017, it is possible to reuse a rocket — NASA had previously reused space shuttles, but never rocket boosters.
On March 30, 2017, SpaceX relaunched its Falcon 9 rocket, with a satellite onboard, and successfully recovered it again by landing it on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
7. The Dragon can be reused too
After proving that it could reuse its rockets, SpaceX demonstrated that it was also able to reuse its Dragon capsule. On June 3, 2017, the company launched a Falcon 9 rocket with a previously used Dragon capsule on board.
It was SpaceX’s 11th mission to bring supplies to the ISS. The Dragon capsule that was reused had originally been used in the fourth ISS mission. The fact that the structure that will enable humans to travel in space can be reused is considered a great step towards making the journey to Mars possible.
8. The first privately funded lunar mission in history
In February 2019, SpaceX celebrated the successful return of its rocket booster. What made this mission truly historic was the fact that the Falcon 9, as part of the Nusantara Satu mission, had also included a privately-funded Israeli robotic moon lander called Beresheet as a secondary payload.
Unfortunately, Beresheet didn’t land successfully on the moon, though the Israeli company behind the lander has said it has plans to re-attempt the moon mission.
9. The Falcon Heavy takes off and sends a Tesla into space
The Falcon Heavy, Falcon 9’s successor, was first launched in 2018. With 27 engines, it was the most powerful rocket to have taken off from the U.S. since the Saturn V from NASA’s Apollo heyday.
The Falcon Heavy Demo mission was the first time that a pair of recycled boosters helped send a heavy payload to space. Only eight minutes after launch, the same two Falcon Heavy side boosters returned and landed simultaneously at adjacent landing pads at Cape Canaveral.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, this launch was also the birth of a ‘star’: SpaceX and Tesla’s starman.
10. Falcon Heavy’s commercial flights launch, setting new records
Since Falcon Heavy’s first launch, it has become a big player with its commercial satellite launch flights. The rocket is capable of carrying an impressive 141,000 pounds (64 tonnes) into orbit — that’s a whole lot of Tesla Roadsters.
One example of a recent successful Falcon Heavy mission is last year’s launch of the Arabsat-6A satellite, in which SpaceX beat its own record for distance traveled during booster recovery with a maneuver that saw it re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and travel about 770 miles (1240 km).
11. Starhopper’s first untethered flight
Starhopper is SpaceX’s MK1 prototype for Starship, the rocket that Musk hopes will eventually take humans to Mars.
To test the immense power of Starship’s Raptor engines in flight, SpaceX has conducted “hops” with Starhopper. In other words, they have sent the spacecraft up into the air without reaching orbit.
Starhopper’s first successful hop sent it 65 feet (20 meters) into the air before coming back down to land. As Elon Musk put it on Twitter, “water towers can fly!”
12. SpaceX’s first astronaut launch
After SpaceX completed an in-flight abort test of its Crew Dragon capsule, all systems were ready for SpaceX’s first-ever astronaut launch. The historic flight took place without a hitch, launching on May 30, 2020, and docking at the ISS a day later on May 31.
Though it was smooth sailing, figuratively speaking, the astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley did say that riding a Falcon 9 was “totally different” to riding NASA’s Space Shuttle and that the experience was somewhat rougher than expected.
The astronauts had stayed aboard the ISS for just over two months. After this, the newly named ‘Endeavour’ Demo-2 capsule returned to Earth on August 2, 2020, with the astronauts on board.
13. SN5 Starship prototype soars
After ‘Starhopper’s’ second test flight saw the company “hop” its prototype roughly 500 feet (150 meters). Further tests, including a few less successful ones, led to the building and testing of a full Starship prototype, SN5 on August 5, 2020.
SpaceX reached almost 500 feet (150 meters) with the “hop” of its SN5 Starship prototype at its Boca Chica development facility. Following the successful test, in which SN5 took off before carrying out an incredibly smooth landing, Elon Musk tweeted, “Mars is looking real.”
The SN5 Starship prototype used one Raptor engine for its test flight. To put this in perspective, Elon Musk previously announced that the final design, including Super Heavy, will include approximately 41 Raptor engines.
14. SpaceX’s 100th launch and sixth time reusing the same Falcon 9 booster
On August 18, 2020, SpaceX reached two impressive milestones with one launch. SpaceX’s 11th Starlink satellite launch was also the 100th launch in the company’s history.
What’s more, the mission was also the sixth time that SpaceX reused the Falcon9 booster B1049. That’s a new record for the most times SpaceX — or any company for that matter — has reused a commercial rocket to date. A real testament to SpaceX’s commitment to rocket reusability.
15. Crew Dragon’s first fully operational mission
The Crew Dragon, which can be adapted to carry up to seven astronauts, launched four people to ISS on its first fully operational mission, Crew-1 on November 15, 2020. This marked the first NASA-certified commercial human spacecraft system in history. As a massive vote of confidence, NASA assigned the astronauts for Crew-1 before SpaceX’s Demo-2 test mission had even taken place.
The Crew-1 mission consists of Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, and NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Michael Hopkins, and Victor Glover.
16. Crew-2 Astronauts Head to the ISS
On April 23, 2021, a Crew Dragon spacecraft holding NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2 astronauts launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. This marked the second commercial crew rotation mission aboard the ISS.
The crew consisted of NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet. The group will spend six months total on the ISS.
17. Upcoming launch: Inspiration4
Slated for September 15, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will make history as it launches a Crew Dragon spacecraft on the first all-private, all civilian orbital mission. The mission, known as Inspiration4, will raise money for St. Jude’s Research Hospital.
The mission is commanded by Jared Isaacman. His companions include scientist and educator Sian Proctor, medical officer Hayley Arceneaux, and mission specialist Christopher Sembroski.
18. Upcoming launch: Starship maiden voyage
SpaceX executive Jonathan Hofeller gave a tantalizing update on the Starship project at the APSAT conference in Jakarta last year.
“The goal is to get orbital as quickly as possible, potentially even this year, with the full stack operational by the end of next year and then customers in early 2021,” Hofeller explained.
If SpaceX keeps to that schedule, that means we are not at all far from seeing the spacecraft that will eventually take humans to Mars in action.
The first prototypes of the vehicle completed low-velocity flight tests of vertical launches and landings in 2019 and 2020. Most recently, in April 2021, Starship was chosen by NASA to land humans back on the Moon. In the same month, it performed the first static fire test.
19. Upcoming launch: Crew 3
Slated for Oct. 23, 2021, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch a Crew Dragon spacecraft on its third operational flight with astronauts on board to the ISS.
The crew will consist of NASA astronauts Raja Chari and Thomas Marshburn, and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer. A fourth crew member will be assigned at a later date.
20. The future of SpaceX: Mars and beyond
As Elon Musk described it soon after Falcon 9’s first successful landing, getting humans to Mars would be “the most incredible adventure ever.” There’s little doubt that he had set his eyes on reaching the Red Planet from the moment he founded SpaceX.
While there is so far no date set in stone for when SpaceX will get to Mars, experts are already looking at ideal locations for landing on the Red Planet. Paul Wooster, SpaceX’s primary Mars development engineer, also recently went on record saying the company is on track to reach Mars within the 2020s.
And the game is on: NASA’s Project Artemis and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture are just two examples of other space programs that are benefiting from the public’s rekindled love for space travel and which have also set their sights beyond Earth’s stratosphere.
When SpaceX does eventually get to Mars, it will be the company’s most momentous achievement yet — and that is saying something.
Editor’s note 28/04/21: This article has been updated to reflect some of SpaceX’s more recent notable achievements.