Space Exploration Technologies Corp. or SpaceX is an American aerospace and communications company founded by American business magnate and billionaire Elon Musk in 2002. The initial goal behind its establishment was to reignite interest in space exploration with a proposed solution to reduce the costs of space transportation to allow the colonization of Mars.
However, over the years, the company has expanded its business interest beyond aerospace and spaceflight to include satellite-based wireless communication. SpaceX has achieved numerous milestones in its history. These include the first privately-funded fully liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit on 28 September 2008 called the Falcon 1 and the first orbital all-private crew spaceflight mission called Inspiration4 launched on 16 September 2021
The company has also secured contracts from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the International Space Station, as well as an indefinite-delivery and indefinite-quantity contract with the United States Air Force. It also offers space tourism services to private individuals and commercial internet services in over 29 countries.
What is SpaceX? What Does It Do? And What Does It Intend to Achieve?
Understanding the Mission and Vision of SpaceX and Its Specific Goals
Musk was clear with regard to the primary goal of SpaceX, and that is to disrupt the global aerospace industry and the specific launch industry. The company succeeded in achieving this because its launch services are less expensive compared with most of its competitors. Of course, Musk has also been clear that his bigger vision is to make his company instrumental in ushering in another era of space exploration and advancing the future of spaceflight.
The official website of the company captures the fundamental mission of SpaceX by quoting its founder: “You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”
For the company to accomplish this mission, it has the following more specific goals:
• Making Humanity Multiplanetary: The company builds on the achievements of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles to research and develop next-generation fully reusable launch vehicles that are capable of transporting humans to other destinations in the Solar System. SpaceX is currently building and refining its Starship rocket technology aimed at transporting humans to colonize Mars.
• Milestones and Making History: It has also aspired to set new records and introduce breakthroughs in the fields of aeronautics and spaceflight. Note that the company became the first private organization to have a usable low Earth orbit spacecraft, a commercial cargo spacecraft, and a specific spacecraft for human transportation. Starship will become the tallest and heaviest rocket ever built upon its completion.
• Reduce Cost Through Reusability: SpaceX rockets can withstand reentry for a successful landing on Earth and relaunch for future missions. Reusability is central to the cost strategy of the company. The Falcon 9 costs about the same as a commercial airliner but its reusability means that it is more cost-effective than rockets designed and deployed by other aeronautics companies. Part of the goal of SpaceX is to make spaceflight as inexpensive as possible by developing reusable rockets.
Comparison with Government Space Agencies and Other Private Space Companies
Space transportation used to be reserved for governments or intragovernmental organizations through government space agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA of the U.S. government, the China National Space Administration or CNSA of China, and the European Union Agency for the Space Programme of the European Union.
Numerous private companies have emerged to demonstrate capabilities in spaceflight and space exploration. SpaceX is one of these business organizations. Note that Jeff Bezos of Amazon founded the aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight services company Blue Origin in 2000 while the British Virgin Group Ltd. founded the American-based Virgin Galactic in 2004. The Boeing Company has also developed and manufactured space transport vehicles and the Arianespace S.A. remains the first commercial launch company.
However, among all of these entities, SpaceX stands out because of its unique business proposition. Of course, note that government space agencies such as NASA and CNSA are government-owned and publicly-funded organizations that are limited by regulatory and budget-related controls and constraints. A private space company is motivated primarily to earn profits from government contracts or through the commercialization of spaceflight-related services.
The company of Musk also differentiates itself from both government space agencies and other private space companies through cost reduction. It has built capabilities for manufacturing reusable rockets. Remember that this is the fundamental element of the cost strategy and overall business strategy of SpaceX. Other elements of its cost strategy include modular designs, specific engineering choices, and vertical control of its value chain.
For comparison, commercial satellite companies and other private organizations contract government space agencies for rocket and equipment launches. The cost of a single launch ranges from USD 100 million to USD 200 million. The size and weight of the payload are two of the main factors affecting total launch cost. Meanwhile, SpaceX demonstrated a launch cost of USD 55 million for its contract with the global satellite company SES S.A.
The cost advantage of the company has disrupted the aerospace and launch industries and put market pressure on its competitors. Satellite companies have specifically pressured private space companies and government space agencies to reduce their prices. For example, companies in Europe have been pressuring the European Space Agency to trim down its launch prices. SpaceX has also ended the dominance and monopoly of the United Launch Alliance when it started to compete for U.S. government contracts beginning in 2015.
Providing Global Internet Access Via the Starlink Satellite Internet Constellation
Understanding what SpaceX is also requires appreciating the fact that it is not only an aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company but also a wireless communication services company. The company has a dedicated business division designed and operated to provide satellite internet access service to customers around the world through its Starlink Network composed of a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites.
Note that building and deploying a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites started as a concept in the early 1980s through the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative or the Star Wars Program. Numerous mega-constellation companies emerged in the 1990s such as Celestri and Globalstar to take advantage of this initiative. The economic bubble known as the dot-com bubble in the late 1990s compelled these companies to enter bankruptcy.
Interest in satellite internet constellation reemerged during the 2010s due to the downward trends in the costs of rocket launches and the upward trends in broadband internet demand. Several companies entered the emerging market with the introduction of their specific projects. Examples include the OneWeb Constellation of OneWeb and Airbus, the Project Kuiper of Amazon that eventually became Kuiper Systems, and the Starlink of SpaceX.
Starlink was first announced in January 2015. However, before this, the company of Musk acquired a stake in Surrey Satellite Technology in June 2004 but it sold back its stake to the now-defunct Astrium of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company in 2008. Musk became more focused on its aerospace and space transportation business. He eventually diversified to satellite communication services with the opening of a dedicated satellite development facility in Redmond in Washington.
Providing low-cost broadband services through satellite internet constellation has become part of the goal of SpaceX. It aims to capitalize on the unmet global demand by filling up to 50 percent of the global backhaul communications traffic and up to 10 percent of local internet traffic. The company filed trademark rights for the name “Starlink” in 2017 to represent its satellite broadband network. The young adult novel “The Fault In Our Stars” by John Green has been credited as the inspiration behind this name.
Satellite internet makes sense for SpaceX because it already has ongoing research and development initiatives centered on low-cost launches and demonstrated capabilities to manufacture and deploy rockets, spacecraft, and payloads. The company promises to deliver high-speed and low latency internet that can serve urban and even rural or remote communities through a wireless and easy-to-setup satellite kit.