From zero to hero in 18 years: How SpaceX became a nation-state

SpaceX's momentous Crew Dragon launch is a sign of things to come for the space industry, and humanity's future.

From zero to hero in 18 years: How SpaceX became a nation-state

SpaceX founder Elon Musk celebrates after the successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the manned Crew Dragon spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Earlier in the day NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley lifted off an inaugural flight and will be the first people since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 to be launched into space from the United States.

Photo:Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • SpaceX was founded in 2002 and was an industry joke for many years. Eighteen years later, it is the first private company to launch astronauts to the International Space Station.
  • Today, SpaceX's Crew Dragon launched NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS. The journey will take about 19 hours.
  • Dylan Taylor, chairman and CEO of Voyager Space Holdings, looks at SpaceX's journey from startup to a commercial space company with the operating power of a nation-state.


Today is a historic date for human spaceflight. For the first time in human history, a private company has taken astronauts, not just for a poke above the Karman line (the arbitrary line at 62 miles that divides the stratosphere from space) as Virgin Galactic has done, but much deeper into orbit, some 220 miles to the International Space Station. A feat that requires not only much higher altitude but a precise rendezvous with an object moving at over 17,000 miles per hour. In addition, this launch marks a huge milestone for US Spaceflight, as the US has now rectified the embarrassing fact that it has had no way of transporting its astronauts to space without relying on the Russian Federation. A circumstance that has persisted since the Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011. How did SpaceX, which was founded in 2002, achieve nation-level capability in 18 short years? How did it go from not being entrusted with the lowliest of payloads, to flying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley? And do so by delivering launch services at a fraction of the cost of both the US and Russia?

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley

Photo: SpaceX

The humblest of beginnings

SpaceX was an inside joke for many in the space industry establishment even years after its founding. Its first three launches famously and spectacularly failed, leading to not only snickers among the industry elite, but stressing SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, down to literally their last dollar. As Musk has related several times, SpaceX's fourth launch was a "make or break." Had it failed, the company would have filed for bankruptcy. Thankfully, that launch was successful and SpaceX has really never looked back. The industry insiders who doubt SpaceX still exist, but their snickers have turned to more nuanced criticism, including that SpaceX unfairly benefits from government contracting. Which is ironic for an industry that has been built on a defense contracting model. The truth is, SpaceX has made space cool again. One only needs to compare its rocket launch telecasts with those of their competitors. One has Hollywood-level production quality and attracts over 1 million live viewers per launch and the others seem dated, uninspired and draw 25,000 viewers on their best day. This has led to SpaceX being one of the employers of choice in the space industry, despite its legendary long hours and difficult working environment. Attracting top talent has been one of the reasons SpaceX has been able to achieve its miraculous product success.

A big bet

Once SpaceX learned to launch rockets, Musk's product vision became more futuristic. Just like it doesn't make sense to fly a $400M Airbus 380 from Dubai to Los Angeles only to throw the airplane away after landing, Musk challenged the industry to reuse its rocket boosters. This vision was audacious and was faced with massive skepticism in the industry. Despite this, SpaceX stuck its first landing of a single rocket booster on April 8, 2016. Stuck its first dual rocket booster landing on February 6, 2018 and even stuck a triple landing on April 12, 2019. It has now landed 49 out of its last 51 attempts. This has literally changed the game in terms of both launch costs, but also cycle time (the amount of time needed between launches). It is a game changer that will be further stretched when the potentially revolutionary heavy rocket Starship is rolled out sometime in the next year. In addition to the boosters, SpaceX also recovers other parts from the launch including the fairing, which houses the actual payload of the launch.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley inside Crew Dragon.

Photo: SpaceX

Criticism and triumph

Elon Musk has his critics, and certainly he has his lieutenants who do not get enough credit for their impact on SpaceX's achievements, such a SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, but, regardless, it is indisputable that SpaceX has achieved a level of capability that is truly shocking in a relativity short period of time. Should SpaceX be celebrated for its persistence, entrepreneurism, innovation and ultimate value creation? Without question. Is SpaceX finished pushing boundaries and achieving what others thought was impossible? Not even close. If Musk stays healthy and avoids a Howard Hughes moment, as many fear, it is hard to doubt his ability to make his dream of landing humans on Mars a reality within his next 18 years (if not sooner).

The Crew Dragon demonstration of the launch escape system.

Photo: SpaceX

Study: Unattractive people far overestimate their looks

The finding is remarkably similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency.

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  • Recent studies asked participants to rate the attractiveness of themselves and other participants, who were strangers.
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Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

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  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:
https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work

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