5 important dates that made history

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

However, summing up two decades of advancement as extraordinary as SpaceX’s to 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 minds, under many stories.

During an interview with Olivier Sanguy, a journalist specializing in space in the 2000s and 2010s, lemon squeezer looked at the underside of 20 years of hard work behind the SpaceX story. The journey of a company that created the impossible: reach space, make it accessible and choose your 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 space shuttles – notably the Columbia, still in full swing – Elon Musk founded SpaceX. He had just reaped the rewards of his PayPal resale.

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

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

The ISS, a key element in SpaceX’s success, still exists today © NASA

But then how did a man without the slightest spatial ability 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 the success of SpaceX.

“To fully understand it, you have to go back to the context of the time. NASA works with companies making “state contracts”. She gives plans, makes 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

“COTS”, for “Commercial Orbital Transport Service” is a service contract for private companies. NASA no longer wants to provide the plans and the budget: it wants to buy a turnkey solution, because it judges that the private sector is “industrially mature” for this.

An economical solution for NASA that greatly reduced its costs, while James Webb (already at the time) was beginning to be an embarrassing expense, and the Constellation project, which aimed to bring man back to the Moon, was in everyone’s heads.

With the COTS project, NASA wants to find a cheap vessel to carry out the logistics to the ISS. This is a gigantic contract, which guarantees regular and substantial income, a godsend in the space world. 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 don’t want COTS, only SpaceX, and other small companies are interested in this offer”.

Launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 Heavy

A liftoff from 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 serve as a launching pad for the New Space. SpaceX, taking advantage of the inertia of market leaders, will develop its Dragon spacecraft “a technological gem, even today” recognizes Olivier Sanguy.

28 September 2008: Falcon 1’s first successful flight

In addition to the ship, SpaceX must work on a rocket, first named Falcon 1. The latter managed to take off and land without any problems on September 28, 2008. 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, 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. 🇧🇷

That 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 won all ranks and while distrust is still high, SpaceX believes in its future, and it smiles at him.

With the first flight on September 28, 2008, SpaceX begins to make a name for 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 congratulations list.

gwyne shotwell

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

“The person we forget too much in history is Gwyne Shotwell, now director of operations and Musk’s true right-hand man at SpaceX. 🇧🇷 The former engineer from the automotive world joined SpaceX in 2002 and will get to know everything inside the company.

“Today, Shotwell is the person running 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 it without it, that much goes without saying.

January 10, 2015: SpaceX’s Genius Revealed

In the early 2010s, Elon Musk started to make a name for himself. Through its media outlets, America is starting to take an interest in this entrepreneur of tomorrow, and while the economic crisis has just hit Uncle Sam country, SpaceX is quickly rearing its head.

On June 4, 2010, the first Falcon 9 flight 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 has been taken with both feet by Elon Musk and his teams.

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

“It’s not as revolutionary as it sounds. It’s the same idea as the space shuttle, except we don’t put airbrakes or landing gear, 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 leg intact, having landed on American soil.

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

May 30, 2020: SpaceX sends people into space

By the end of the 2010s, everyone realized the importance of space. Dozens of satellites launch and SpaceX, always on track before anyone else, launches its Starlink program. The latter has the simple ambition of connecting the entire 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 out of every two launches is dedicated to Starlink, that’s huge! It has to work”. The gamble is crazy, 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 Kiev.

starlink satellite

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

But SpaceX’s big coup of recent years probably took place on May 30, 2020. This flight was planned for months, the date with history was made. On May 30, 2020, SpaceX sends astronauts to the ISS.

Elon Musk’s company (and Gwyne Shotwell) is the first private company to achieve this feat. Nearly a year later, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos will duke it out mid-summer to cross the boundaries of space. Between 2002 and 2020, SpaceX has done this over 1,000 times. Another world.

Tomorrow: Starship

The last date of this article is not really a date. But how to talk about SpaceX, pretend to go back in the history of that company without mentioning it: Starship. This monumental vase, at the center of every project, has so far drawn a lot of ink and raised high hopes.

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

Starship Mk1 prototype

The huge ship is supposed to, 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. Grounded by the FAA, Starship is far from unanimous. “They say he’s never going to do anything with this ship, that he’s going to burn Boca Chica and that’s it.”

Time and time again, SpaceX is criticized, belittled. Many people, while very attentive to space news, struggle to see the potential of this company. “It’s a NASA creature, that’s undeniable. SpaceX would not exist without it. 🇧🇷 Tempera Olivier Sanguy who tries to explain this lack of confidence.

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

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