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"Hello everyone. I am the founder of SpaceX. In five years, you will be dead." This friendly warning was the start of Elon Musk’s speech at the Satellite Lounge space conference in Washington. It was March 2006, and the cheeky confidence of the young entrepreneur, then 35 years old, made conference attendees burst out laughing. Everyone in the room knew that this millionaire in jeans and a t-shirt had boundless ambition. Four years earlier, he had made $180 million from selling PayPal to eBay and immediately announced that he was focused on conquering Mars.
But no one really took him seriously. Experts believed that it was simply impossible for a newcomer to lead as complex a sector as the space industry. Especially because the young CEO had an ambitious flight plan: the rocket, called Falcon 1 in homage to the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, was scheduled for take-off only 15 months after the company was created. "People thought we were just crazy. [... We] were going to make a low-cost rocket from scratch with a small team. People just didn’t think it could be done," said Tom Mueller, a SpaceX engineer, as quoted in the biography of Elon Musk written by American journalist Ashlee Vance.
"What Elon Musk has done for the american space program is he has brought vision and inspiration that we hadn’t had"
Jim Bridenstine, NASA CEO
But the experts were wrong. Just 18 years after it was founded in 2002, SpaceX became the first private company to send astronauts into space, in May 2020. “What Elon Musk has done for the American space program is he has brought vision and inspiration that we hadn’t had since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011. He is brilliant,” said NASA CEO, Jim Bridenstine, the day after this historic flight. This time in Cape Canaveral, everyone was taking Musk very seriously.
THE COLUMBIA EXPLOSION
"SpaceX has had impressive levels of success," says Maxime Puteaux, a consultant specialising in the space industry for the firm Euroconsult. "The company has completely disrupted an industry that until now was controlled by a handful of traditional players." To make a success of this amazing feat, SpaceX benefited from a combination of favourable factors. Surprisingly, the first was a disaster: on 1 February 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated while re-entering the atmosphere, resulting in the deaths of all seven crew members on board. "The Columbia explosion was a turning point,"ys Puteaux. "NASA realised that its shuttles were too expensive and too dangerous and as a result, they were abandoned."
To replace the shuttles and continue to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) with astronauts and equipment, NASA had to create a new programme. But in 2004, US president George W. Bush, seeking glory, announced a return to the moon by 2020, but didn’t grant NASA the additional funds to do so. The US space agency was trapped, financially unable to pursue the two objectives at the same time.
So the decision was made to pass the torch entirely to private companies, which would develop launchers and vessels designed to resupply the ISS so that NASA could focus on the moon landing. The COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) call for bids was opened in January 2006. In theory, it should have been won by long-time industry giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which already produced the Delta and Atlas rockets, respectively, used by NASA.
But rather than participate in the call for bids, the two giants decided to partner that year and combine their space activities within the co-enterprise United Launch Alliance (ULA), creating a de facto monopoly.
But that did not please Michael Griffin, the then-administrator of NASA, as he wanted to increase competition between companies to reduce launch costs. So he decided to open the call for bids to other companies. And it worked: in the early 2000s, a myriad of start-ups – including Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic – were all dreaming of lowering the cost of access to space. NASA could take their pick.
In August 2006, the space agency chose two start-ups for the COTS programme: Rocketplane Kistler and SpaceX. "The stars kind of aligned. SpaceX came onto the scene with a fierce desire to innovate, right at the time when NASA was questioning the established order. While there was lots of scepticism regarding SpaceX’s ability to accomplish its mission, NASA had carefully calculated the risk: the agency split the contract into pieces, with no guarantee that the contract would be continued until the end," explains Puteaux. "For SpaceX, winning the contract changed everything. Before NASA, it had no clients. And all of a sudden, it became a credible company."
In addition to collecting public funding, the company benefited from many of NASA’s technologies. Even so, the beginning was quite chaotic. Between March 2006 and August 2008, the first three launches of the Falcon 1 rocket all failed, and SpaceX only had enough money for four launches.
The last try was on 28 September 2008. The launch was successful and SpaceX was now in orbit. While the company was on the brink of bankruptcy, NASA was pleased with the launch and provided more funding on Christmas Eve 2008, ordering 12 re-supply flights to the International Space Station for $1.6 billion. In 2014, the two parties signed a new contract for $2.6 billion to transport astronauts to the ISS. With this manna of public funds, Musk could finance the second phase of his project: developing a reusable launch system – a ground-breaking revolution in the space industry that would allow the company to drastically reduce its launch costs.
EN ROUTE TO MARS
Despite two explosions in mid-2015 and summer 2016, SpaceX reached a milestone in December 2015, when the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket made a successful return landing. Since then, landings for SpaceX rockets have been quite routine. "It’s starting to feel kinda normal to reuse rockets," said Musk in a 2017 tweet. "Good. That’s how it is for cars & airplanes and how it should be for rockets."
But the reuse is not just for show. By reusing its rockets, SpaceX claims they are drastically reducing the price of access to space. "Cost reductions depend on the number of times each module is reused. Currently, SpaceX has used its rocket six times, but the company is aiming for 10 reuses," says Puteaux. "The other key element is the maintenance cost between two flights. SpaceX hasn’t said much about this yet."
"I’d like to die on Mars, just not on impact"
According to a report by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), launching a Falcon 9 rocket cost $61.2 million in 2017, compared to $92 million on average for its competitors. But it is difficult to know just how much of a role reusing rockets really plays in SpaceX’s advantage over competitors. "SpaceX has introduced other innovations that are much less visible than reusing rockets, but they are just as important," says Puteaux. "Its factory, for example, is completely integrated: raw materials come in one door and rockets go out the other, whereas competitor facilities are spread out across multiple locations. That also reduces costs." With its lower prices, SpaceX burst into the lucrative market of commercial satellite launches. In 2017, it became the global leader in the industry, ahead of European group ArianeSpace.
But Musk isn’t stopping there. "SpaceX wasn’t created to launch satellites," says Puteaux. "Elon Musk’s objective was always Mars." To conquer the red planet, engineers will have to transport tonnes of material, which requires building bigger and bigger launchers. The first, called Falcon Heavy, successfully made its inaugural voyage on 6 February 2018. On board, the company placed a Tesla Roadster, which now travels in a heliocentric orbit between Earth and Mars. The second launcher, the Starship-Super Heavy, was in flight for one minute in August. "Mars is looking real," tweeted Musk following this test flight.
"The only drawback of this spectacular success is that Elon Musk wasn’t able to influence NASA’s agenda," says Maxime Puteaux. "The US space agency has scheduled a return to the moon for 2024, but Musk prefers Mars. This dream comes from a lack of understanding of the Apollo mission. After man walked on the moon, an entire generation believed that this was the start of a space odyssey and that humans were going to conquer other planets. That was not the case." Musk, who calls himself an "Apollo 11 orphan", wants to remedy this misunderstanding and is focused on putting humans on Mars at all costs. In one piece, if possible. During a conference in 2013, he joked: "I’d like to die on Mars, just not on impact."