5 important dates that marked history

Everyone knows SpaceX, both astronomy and space conquest enthusiasts and the first of the quidams. We’ve all heard of it, even if only once. This Friday, May 6, the American space company celebrates its 20th anniversary, after being founded by a divisive man with delusional ambitions: Elon Musk.

However, to sum up two decades of a breakthrough as extraordinary as SpaceX’s into a single character would be unfair. The businessman, born in Pretoria, South Africa, is far from alone in the adventure. SpaceX’s success, he shares with many heads, under many stories.

In an interview with Olivier Sanguy, a journalist specializing in space in the 2000s and 2010s, lemon squeezer looked at the downside of 20 years of hard work behind SpaceX’s history. The journey of a company that created the impossible: reaching space, making it accessible and choosing its future.

May 6, 2002: Day 1

When we looked for a date with Olivier to start this story, May 6, 2002 seemed the most logical. On that day, while the space world only talks about the space shuttle – notably the Columbia, still in full swing – Elon Musk founded SpaceX. He had just reaped the rewards of his PayPal resale.

With this venture, the entrepreneur’s hopes are even higher. He points to the stars, in the first sense of the term. But Elon Musk has no experience in space and knows that succeeding in this field is not easy. Especially twenty years ago.

“In 2002, when he arrived, nobody believed him. I heard people who worked at large companies in the industry say that they were going to make a big fortune a small fortune with SpaceX.”, comments Olivier Sanguy. In the face of so many mixed reviews, not to mention negative, Elon Musk (true to himself) will preserve himself to give the result we know 20 years later.

The ISS, a very important element in SpaceX’s success, even today © NASA

But then how did a man with no spatial skills manage to create the most powerful company in his field? According to Olivier Sanguy, the answer is in Houston, at NASA Headquarters. For him, the US federal agency is largely responsible for SpaceX’s success.

“To fully understand, you have to go back to the context of the time. NASA works with companies making “state contracts”. She gives plans, a budget and finds a company to build the space shuttle, the rocket… But in the early 2000s, things changed radically with COTS”.

“COTS”: SpaceX enters the big leagues

The “COTS”, for “Commercial Orbital Transport Service” is a service provision contract for private companies. NASA no longer wants to provide the plans and budget: it wants to buy a ready-made solution, because it thinks the private sector is “industrially mature” for that.

A cost-effective solution for NASA that greatly reduced their costs, while James Webb (already at the time) was starting to be an embarrassing expense, and the Constellation project, which aimed to bring man back to the Moon, was on all heads.

With the COTS project, NASA wants to find a cheap vessel to do the logistics to the ISS. This is a gigantic contract, which guarantees a regular and substantial income, a godsend in the world of space. But at the time, nobody was really interested in it. At least, not the big companies of the moment.” Boeings, Lockheed Martin and Northon Gruman do not want COTS, only SpaceX, and other small companies are interested in this offer.”

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy

A take-off of the Falcon 9 Heavy, the heavy version of the launcher © SpaceX

A serious mistake that will cost the giants of the sector dearly and that will be the launching pad for the New Space. SpaceX, taking advantage of market leaders’ inaction, will develop its Dragon ship “a technological gem, even today” recognizes Olivier Sanguy.

28 September 2008: Falcon 1’s first successful flight

In addition to the spacecraft, SpaceX must work on a rocket, first called Falcon 1. The latter managed to take off and land on September 28, 2008 without any problems. From there, the machine is launched. “What’s crazy about SpaceX is the speed of learning and reaction. They have such a different way of working. They make a mistake, it’s no big deal, they learn from it and take off again just a few months later. The rest of the space world sometimes waits years before flying again, but not SpaceX. »

This responsiveness is one of the keys to SpaceX’s success. This is also Elon Musk’s strength. The self-sacrifice put into the company by this man has gained all levels and, although distrust is still high, SpaceX believes in its future, and SpaceX smiles at him.

With the first flight on September 28, 2008, SpaceX is starting to show itself in the big leagues. “But even there, a lot of people told me ‘they were lucky, they won’t fly anymore’… 12 years later, you can see the result. » According to Olivier Sanguy, if SpaceX’s growth is obviously linked to the qualities of Elon Musk, the company’s CEO is not the only one on the list of congratulations.

gwyne shotwell

Gwyne Shotwell with Boeing’s John Elbon and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke © NASA/Robert Markowitz

“The person we forget too much in the story is Gwyne Shotwell, now director of operations and Musk’s real right-hand man at SpaceX. » This ex-engineer from the automotive world joined SpaceX in 2002 and will know everything inside the company.

“Today, Shotwell is the person who runs SpaceX behind the scenes. It is much less publicized, but it has an impact that is impossible to measure. SpaceX would never have become the company we know without it, that goes without saying.

January 10, 2015: SpaceX’s Genius Revealed

In early 2010, Elon Musk started to stand out. Through its media releases, America is starting to take an interest in this entrepreneur of tomorrow, and as the economic crisis has just hit Uncle Sam’s country, SpaceX is quickly raising its head.

On June 4, 2010, the first flight of a Falcon 9 to the ISS took place. This is the first delivery of the COTS project, signed two years earlier, after years of development. On September 16, 2014, NASA chose SpaceX and Boeing to carry out the manned shuttle missions to the ISS. Here again, a giant step was taken with both feet by Elon Musk and his teams.

Alongside these contracts for NASA, SpaceX has been working for years on something big, something new. The company has the idea of ​​recovering the first stages of its rockets to make them take off again and thus drastically reduce the costs of launches.

“It’s not as revolutionary as it sounds. It’s the same idea as the space shuttle, except we don’t put air brakes or landing gear there, we put retro rockets. The real feat is there! »

Return of a Falcon 9 first stage

SpaceX is the first company to manufacture reusable rockets © SpaceX

“December 22, 2015 was a real shock. That day, many people realized that SpaceX would change history. » Because on that day, and after a flight failure less than six months ago, SpaceX manages to recover its first stage intact, having landed on American soil.

In the past, SpaceX had already managed to recover its first stage twice, but it was at sea. On December 22, 2015, it was the first time it landed on land. A first for SpaceX, but also for space in general. “We haven’t seen this since the space shuttle.”

May 30, 2020: SpaceX sends people into space

In the late 2010s, everyone realized the importance of space. Dozens of satellites are launched and SpaceX, always on track before anyone else, launches its Starlink program. The latter has the simple ambition of connecting the whole Earth to the Internet, without the slightest cable or almost.

A revolutionary idea, again, but above all it allows the company to finance itself. “SpaceX made a big bet with Starlink, if we look at 2021 almost one in two launches is dedicated to Starlink, that’s huge! It has to work”. The gamble is crazy, once again, but the consequences could be monumental, and SpaceX knows that better than anyone.

With the war in Ukraine, the service of the American company was also very useful, which made it possible to connect entire cities, completely isolated from the world, such as Liviv or Kharkiv, via kyiv.

Starlink Satellite

Starlink satellites must connect Earth to the Internet from space © Presse-citron / SpaceX / Unsplash / ActionVance

But SpaceX’s biggest hit in recent years likely came on May 30, 2020. This flight had been planned for months, the rendezvous with history had been made. On May 30, 2020, SpaceX sends astronauts to the ISS.

Elon Musk’s (and Gwyne Shotwell) company is the first private company to achieve such a feat. Almost a year later, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos will fight in the heart of summer to cross the boundaries of space. Between 2002 and 2020, SpaceX did this over 1,000 times. Another world.

Tomorrow: Starship

The last date of this article is not really a date. But like talking about SpaceX, pretend to go back to the history of this company without talking about it: Starship. This monumental vase, which is at the heart of all projects, has so far made a lot of ink flow and raised high hopes.

“With Starship, SpaceX wants to materialize 20 years of serious work, in the service of a goal, a dream.” Because everyone has that in mind without talking about it, but it’s the red planet that Elon Musk dreams of. The one who never hid his ambition to go there one day never seemed so close.

Mk1 spacecraft prototype

The huge starship must, among other things, be used to go to the Moon © Space X

After spectacular test flights, with explosions and fashion as SpaceX knows how to do so well, the company has regained its seriousness. Founded by the FAA, Starship is far from unanimous. “They say he’s never going to do anything with this ship, he’s going to burn down Boca Chica and that’s it.”

Time and again, SpaceX is criticized, belittled. Many people, while very aware of the new space, struggle to see the potential of this company. “It’s a NASA creature, that’s undeniable. SpaceX wouldn’t exist without it. » It tempers Olivier Sanguy who tries to explain this lack of confidence.

But despite the (less and less) detractors, SpaceX is forging ahead, and has been for over 20 years. The company is now one of the most powerful companies in the world, the most powerful in its world, without a doubt.

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