Evolution of SpaceX’s Rockets

SpaceX began in 2002, when its founder, Elon Musk, took the first steps in his grand ambition to send a mission to Mars. More than 15 years later, the company is way beyond the space startup stage.

The Hawthorne, California-based company regularly reuses rockets, sends cargo missions to the International Space Station with the uncrewed Dragon spacecraft and will fly astronauts for NASA in the future. In 2018, SpaceX launched the massive Falcon Heavy and had plans for an even larger rocket to reach Mars: the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR).

Falcon 1

The Falcon 1 was the first rocket manufactured by SpaceX. It had a proposed capacity to carry 670 kilograms (1,480 lbs.) to low Earth orbit, and it flew between 2006 and 2009. After three launch failures, Falcon 1 sent a dummy payload to space on Sept. 29, 2008. Its fifth and final launch, on July 14, 2009, sent RazakSAT, a Malaysian Earth-observation satellite, into orbit. Falcon 1 rockets launched from Omelek Island, part of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. And in case you’re wondering, Musk named the Falcon rockets after the Millennium Falcon ship from “Star Wars.”

Developing Falcon 9

SpaceX quickly received interest from several companies looking for a heavier-lift rocket. The company had considered developing an intermediary rocket called the Falcon 5, but instead skipped ahead and began work on the Falcon 9. This rocket can send a payload to low Earth orbit weighing up to 28,991 lbs. (13,150 kg). It is a two-stage rocket. SpaceX first advertised plans for the Falcon 9 in 2005 and sent the debut Falcon 9 aloft on June 7, 2010, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Early customers of the rocket included Bigelow Aerospace; Avanti Communications; and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates.

Ground landings

SpaceX’s first successful Falcon 9 landing in Landing Zone 1, on Dec. 21, 2015, was hailed as a milestone for rocket reusability. However, the company still tried to improve on that achievement. SpaceX experienced a mix of successful and failed ocean landings in 2014 and 2015. [SpaceX’s Epic Falcon 9 Rocket Landing in Pictures]

In 2015, SpaceX was also trying to land on drone ships in the ocean. While these landings kept ending with failure, Musk would post the videos and pictures on his Twitter feed, acknowledging mistakes made, and the company would work on improving for the next flight.

Dragon dreams

SpaceX kept the first 18 months of the Dragon cargo ship’s development under wraps. Then, in March 2006, the company officially made Dragon public when the company submitted a proposal for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration program. The ultimate goal was to develop a private spacecraft to ferry cargo to the International Space Station.

After Spacex hit several milestones, NASA selected SpaceX’s Dragon in December 2008 to be one of the companies providing commercial resupply services to the space station. SpaceX’s contract value at that time was a minimum of $1.6 billion, with options to extend to $3.1 billion; the company has since received a new contract for cargo launch services. Musk has confirmed that he named Dragon after “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

Early Dragon flights

Dragon made a successful maiden flight on Dec. 8, 2010, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Then, on May 22, 2012, Dragon launched for an important test: an attempt to berth the spacecraft with the International Space Station. Dragon made it to the station safely on May 25 of that year, despite experiencing some problems with a laser system that was supposed to judge the craft’s distance to the orbiting complex. The milestone prompted worldwide acclaim. It was the first time a private spacecraft docked with the space station. SpaceX has since upgraded its uncrewed Dragon cargo ships to be reusable for at least two flights.


Grasshopper was a rocket prototype flown at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas, proving grounds to give the company more experience in landing boosters vertically. While Grasshopper did not get as much media attention as SpaceX’s other programs, it was key to furthering the development of Falcon 9’s reusable first stage. The Grasshopper rocket made eight test flights between 2012 and 2013, with the final flight seeing Grasshopper soar to 2,440 feet (744 meters). The Grasshopper program was then retired so SpaceX could focus more resources on Falcon 9’s development.

SpaceX’s first rocket landing pad

This picture shows Landing Zone 1, a ground landing zone for the Falcon 9’s first stage at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This is where SpaceX made the first of its controlled ground landings, on Dec. 21, 2015. The company built the pad on land leased from the U.S. Air Force on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (Landing Zone 1 is on land that used to host Launch Complex 13.) This landing was extra-sweet because the previous Falcon 9 flight, in June 2015, ended catastrophically with an explosion.

Drone-ship landing

The persistence exhibited by Musk and his employees finally paid off on April 8, 2016, when a Falcon 9 first stage touched down softly on a drone ship called “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Atlantic Ocean. The Dragon spacecraft that this Falcon 9 carried aloft also had a milestone flight, delivering an inflatable module — the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module — to the International Space Station.

SpaceX’s success rate with drone landings improved drastically after the April 2016 flight, although some boosters still missed the mark from time to time. The company’s Falcon 9 flight success rate is also strong; its last failure, in September 2016, saw a rocket explode on the launch pad before taking off. SpaceX has a second drone ship, “Just Read the Instructions,” which is used for Pacific Ocean landings after launches from Vandenberg Air Force Station in California. Both ships are named for fictional starships in the science fiction books of Iain M. Banks.

Starship and Super Heavy

Starship and Super Heavy make up a futuristic system intended for Mars exploration. In its Red Planet configurations, the BFR will be 348 feet (106 m) tall (including the spaceship) and capable of bringing 150 tons (136 metric tons) to low Earth orbit. Each rocket will carry about 100 people, and the rocket will be fully reusable. Musk said he plans to use this rocket in fleets, bringing hundreds or thousands of passengers at a time to Mars. In the 2020s, Musk plans to halt all Falcon lines except for BFR, which would perform all sorts of missions. Destinations would range from Mars to the International Space Station to orbits that would launch satellites near Earth.

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