However, to sum up two decades of a breakthrough as extraordinary as that of SpaceX to a single character would be unfair. The businessman, native of Pretoria in South Africa, is far from being alone in the adventure. The success of SpaceX, he shares it with many heads, 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 has 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 begin this story, that of May 6, 2002 seemed the most logical. That day, while the space world only speaks of space shuttles – notably Columbia, still in full activity – Elon Musk founded SpaceX. He had just reaped the rewards of his resale of PayPal.
With this venture, the businessman’s hopes are even higher. He aims for the stars, in the first sense of the term. But Elon Musk has no experience in space, and he 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 in big companies in the sector say that he was going to make a big fortune a small fortune with SpaceX”, comments Olivier Sanguy. Faced with so many mixed reviews, not to say negative, Elon Musk (true to himself) will preserve to give the result that we know 20 years later.
But then how did a man without the slightest spatial skills manage to create the most powerful company in his field? According to Olivier Sanguy, the answer is to be found in Houston, at NASA headquarters. For him, it is the American federal agency which is largely responsible for the success of SpaceX.
“To fully understand, you have to go back to the context of the time. NASA works with companies by making “state contracts”. She gives plans, a budget and finds a company to build the shuttle, the rocket… But in the early 2000s, things changed radically with COTS”.
“COTS”: SpaceX enters the big leagues
The “COTS”, for “Commercial Orbital Transportation 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 ripe” for this.
An economical solution for NASA which greatly reduced its costs, while the James Webb (already at the time) was beginning to be a constraining expense, and the Constellation project, which aimed to bring men back to the Moon, was in 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 ensures 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 “ the Boeings, Lockheed Martin and Northon Gruman don’t want COTS, only SpaceX, and other small companies are interested in this offer”.
A serious error which will cost the giants of the sector dearly, and which will be the launching pad for the New Space. SpaceX, taking advantage of the inaction of market leaders, will develop its Dragon ship “a technological jewel, still today” recognizes Olivier Sanguy.
September 28, 2008: successful first flight of the Falcon 1
In addition to the vessel, SpaceX must work on a rocket, first named Falcon 1. The latter managed on September 28, 2008 to take off and land without problem. From there, the machine is launched. “What’s crazy about SpaceX is the speed of learning and reacting. They have such a different way of working. They make a mistake, no big deal, they learn from it and take off again, only 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 the strength of Elon Musk. The self-sacrifice put into the company by this man has won all ranks and while distrust is still great, SpaceX believes in its future, and the latter smiles at him.
With the first flight on September 28, 2008, SpaceX is beginning to show itself in the big leagues. “But even there, a lot of people said to me ‘they were lucky, they won’t fly anymore’… 12 years later, you can see the result. » According to Olivier Sanguy, if the growth of SpaceX is obviously linked to the qualities of Elon Musk, the CEO of the firm is not the only one on the list of congratulations.
“The person that we forget far too much in history is Gwyne Shotwell, now chief operating officer and true right-hand man to Musk at SpaceX. » This former engineer from the automotive world joined SpaceX in 2002 and she will know everything within 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’s obvious.
January 10, 2015: the revelation of the genius of SpaceX
In the early 2010s, Elon Musk began to make a name for himself. Through its media releases, America is beginning to take an interest in this entrepreneur of tomorrow, and while the economic crisis has just hit the country of Uncle Sam, 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 has been taken with both feet by Elon Musk and his teams.
In parallel with these contracts for NASA, SpaceX has been working for years on something big, something new. The firm 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 that there we don’t put an airbrake or landing gear, we put retro rockets. The real feat, it is there! »
“December 22, 2015 was a real shock. That day, many people realized that SpaceX was going to change history. » Because 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 succeeded twice in recovering its first stage, but it was at sea. On December 22, 2015, it was the first time that it landed on dry land. A first for SpaceX, but also for space in general. “We hadn’t seen that since the space shuttle”.
May 30, 2020: SpaceX sends people into space
At the end of the 2010s, everyone realized the importance of space. Dozens of satellites are launched, and SpaceX, always on the right 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 which above all allows the company to be self-financing. “SpaceX has made a big bet with Starlink, if we look at 2021 nearly one out of two launches is dedicated to Starlink, that’s huge! It has to work”. The bet is crazy, once again, but the fallout could be monumental, and SpaceX knows it better than anyone.
With the war in Ukraine, the service of the American company has also been very useful, which has made it possible to connect entire cities, completely cut off from the world, such as Liviv or Kharkiv, via kyiv.
But SpaceX’s big coup in recent years probably took place on May 30, 2020. This flight had been planned for months, the appointment with history had been made. On May 30, 2020, SpaceX sends astronauts to the ISS.
The company of Elon Musk (and Gwyne Shotwell) is the very first private firm to achieve such a feat. Nearly a year later, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos will bicker in the heart of summer to cross the limits of space. Between 2002 and 2020, SpaceX has done this more than 1,000 times. Another world.
The last date of this article is not really a date. But how to talk about SpaceX, pretend to go back to the history of this company without talking about it: the Starship. This monumental vessel, at the heart of all projects, has so far caused much ink to flow and nourished great hopes.
“With the Starship, SpaceX wants to materialize 20 years of serious work, in the service of a goal, a dream”. Because everyone has it in mind without talking about it, but it is the red planet that Elon Musk dreams of. He who has never hidden his ambition to go there one day, has never seemed so close.
After spectacular test flights, with explosions and hype as SpaceX knows how to do so well, the company has regained its seriousness. Grounded by the FAA, the Starship is far from unanimous. “They say he’s never going to do anything with this ship, that he’s going to set Boca Chica on fire and that’s it.”
Again and again SpaceX is criticized, belittled. Many people, although very aware of space news, struggle to see the potential of this company. “It’s a NASA creature, that’s undeniable. SpaceX wouldn’t exist without it. » Tempers Olivier Sanguy who tries to explain this lack of confidence.
But despite the detractors (fewer and fewer) SpaceX is moving forward, and has been for more than 20 years. The company is now one of the most powerful firms in the world, the most powerful in its world, without a shadow of a doubt.