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

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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