Company Deep Dive: SpaceX

By: Eli Levi  |  October 20, 2021

By Eli Levi, Business Editor

While not as well known as Tesla, SpaceX is another one of Elon Musk‘s companies. Similar to other billionaires who have dabbled in space, SpaceX was created in 2002 to fulfill Musk’s lifelong dream of creating a colony on Mars. 

Elon Musk had previously started two separate companies, both of which he was ousted from, which eventually merged into what is now PayPal. Using the equity money he made from PayPal, Elon Musk gained the ability to fund SpaceX with no outside investors, leaving no chance for him to be booted from SpaceX.

There are three stages involved in launching the  SpaceX rockets. The first stage is the main engine, the Merlin 1, that will launch the rocket into orbit. The second stage is the kestrel engine that is used in space. The third and final stage is either the payload which would include whatever SpaceX was sending up or a capsule with humans. 

Gwynne Shotwell, who is now the current president and Chief Operating Officer (COO) of SpaceX, started as a saleswoman at SpaceX. By grabbing the attention of the U.S. government, Shotwell could be the main contributor to SpaceX eventually becoming the shipping company for space. Similar to the United Parcel Service (UPS) for shipping on the surface of the Earth SpaceX would be for your space-shipping needs.

SpaceX secured the U.S. Department of Defense as their first client. When they launched their first rocket, the Falcon 1, in March 2006 the rocket blew up alongside the Department of Defense’s payload. SpaceX then launched their second rocket a year later and while the first stage went well it also blew up. The third try for the Falcon 1 rocket a year later on August 2, 2008, also blew up. But Elon musk was not deterred. 

When Musk started SpaceX he claimed he had enough money to fund the creation of three or four rockets, but in 2008 he had put all of his remaining money into Tesla. In the end, Musk was forced to take on an outside investment from Peter Thiel and his Founders Fund. Thiel invested $20 million in SpaceX for a fourth launch. By September 28, 2008, the only government that trusted SpaceX was the Malaysian government. And even they only gave them a dummy satellite to launch. The launch was successful. Elon Musk is quoted in his speech after the successful launch as saying “… as the saying goes fourth time’s the charm.” After that SpaceX launched the actual satellite payload successfully. 

Following SpaceX’s success, they moved on to phase two, the Falcon 9 rocket, which was composed of nine Falcon 1 rockets. SpaceX then received a twelve mission contract from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). This was a complete change in the way NASA had run its missions. SpaceX was ideally suited to make these missions so much cheaper for NASA because SpaceX was vertically integrated. This means that all of the components for SpaceX’s rockets were built in-house as opposed to the previous norm of outsourcing everything. If NASA had gone about making the rocket the way it had in the past, it would have cost $4 billion versus $850 million with SpaceX. After a couple of test flights of the Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX completed the first of their twelve missions, successfully resupplying the ISS on May 22, 2012. In 2015 SpaceX landed the first rocket ever successfully, on their fourth attempt. The way SpaceX lands their rockets is by a hover slam. Using extremely precise sensors and calculations, right before the rocket is about to hit the ground they fire the engines just to the point that it brings the rocket to 0 mph, and then the rocket touches down. 

SpaceX has another rocket now called the Falcon Heavy which has three Falcon 9 engines or 27 Falcon 1 engines. There is also a website that allows you to book space on one of the rockets allowing for price transparency in a market that has never had that. In a perfect world, I think this is a great investment opportunity, but sadly SpaceX is a private company.