Major milestones reached, supported by the expertise of Northwest native
By Taylor Shillam
Photo Courtesy of SpaceX
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, began with a billionaire’s dream of transporting humans to Mars.
Founded in the early 2000s by investor and business guru Elon Musk, the forward-thinking company has been behind a number of revolutionary firsts and major milestones in its first two decades as a company.
According to CNET, Musk’s venture into the realm of space was rooted in the intention to buy a rocket as a publicity stunt to reignite the world’s excitement for space. The vision that began with a plan to purchase a Russian rocket turned into finding a way to build his own, with Musk’s creation of SpaceX.
SpaceX is the only private company that has returned a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit—and its achievements don’t stop there.
The company’s big victories began in 2008, when it became the first privately funded group to put a payload in Earth’s orbit. Its Falcon 1 rocket orbited Earth for the first time on September 28 of that year, paving the way for Falcon 9, it’s nine-engine version of the original Falcon.
The first orbital class rocket capable of preflight, the Falcon 9 is a reusable, two-stage rocket designed and manufactured for the reliable and safe transport of payloads (meaning people, satellites or cargo, typically measured in terms of weight) into Earth’s orbit and beyond.
The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket is unique in its ability to transport its carrying load into orbit, then have its first stage return to Earth. Traditionally, a rocket’s stages are due to the high amount of fuel required to launch a rocket; once the first stage has emptied its fuel, it detaches and returns to Earth, allowing the second stage to continue on without the excess weight.
An orbital rocket that has been used to launch satellites for a number of purposes and resupply the International Space Station, the Falcon 9 has now flown over 80 missions.
Weighing over 1.2 million pounds, the Falcon 9 is nearly 230 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter. According to SpaceX, the rocket’s nine engines are gradually throttled near the end of first-stage flight, to limit acceleration as the rocket’s mass decreases with the burning of fuel. The engines are also used to decelerate the vehicle at landing time.
The rocket has four landing legs, made from state-of-the-art fiber placed symmetrically around the base of the rocket to deploy just before landing.
The Falcon 9’s successful upright landing and recovery in December 2015 was a major win for SpaceX, as that first safe and successful landing paved the way for the creation of the final version of Falcon 9: the Block 5 Falcon 9 rocket, designed to be refurbished for reuse of up to 100 times.
According to Time, reusable, recoverable rocket stages that can touch down on dry land have been a topic of discussion for decades, with the goal to reduce costs and bring speed to turnaround time, but SpaceX was the first to successfully make the concept a reality.
SpaceX’s rockets are streamlined in terms of engine design and production; helping to reduce costs and outsourcing, as a majority of the company’s parts are produced on its own factory floor.
Why the focus on reusability? It’s what allows SpaceX to supply the most expensive parts of the rocket, in turn driving down the cost of space access and potentially breaking barriers to taking space travel further than it’s ever been.
The majority of rockets are designed to burn up on reentry, but SpaceX rockets can withstand reentry, to successfully return to Earth with the ability to fly again.
Most of the cost from launching a rocket comes from building it; and historically, most rockets have only flown one time. SpaceX believes that a fully, rapidly reusable rocket is the required “pivotal breakthrough” to substantially reduce the cost of space access.
According to SpaceX, a commercial airplane costs about the same to build as the Falcon 9 rocket, but will typically fly multiple times per day and conduct tens of thousands of flights over its lifetime. By their logic, if following the commercial model, a rapidly reusable space launch vehicle could significantly reduce the cost of traveling to space.
Making any margin of progress in the realm of rocketry is significant, and SpaceX is in the business of redefining successful space transport.
In May of 2020, the company’s Crew Dragon capsule, perched atop the Falcon 9 rocket, transported NASA astronauts to space. Launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, it was SpaceX’s first ever human-spaceflight launch. The May 30, 2020 mission also marked the first U.S. rocket launch with a crew of astronauts since 2011, when the shuttle era came to an end.
Many of SpaceX’s earlier milestones led up to last year’s successful launch.
In 2008, the Falcon 1 became the first privately developed fuel rocket to reach the Earth’s orbit. In 2012, the Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station. Then in 2015, the Falcon 9 rocket achieved the first-ever orbital class rocket landing, delivering 11 communication satellites to orbit.
It’s easy for successes within the realm of space transport and rocketry to feel like tales from another planet. However, a connection to the works of SpaceX can be found closer to home in North Idaho native Jacob Katz, a senior guidance and navigation control engineer for the company.
Katz has been involved in many of SpaceX’s innovative projects, including the Falcon 9 rocket. He will often see missions through from start to finish, figuring out the possibility of a proposed mission, designing a vehicle’s trajectory, programming its software and controlling its launch.
The 2003 Bonners Ferry High School graduate has helped make possible the launch of several successful missions on behalf of SpaceX. Katz graduated from MIT, having studied aeronautics and astronautics before joining the company.
Katz brought to SpaceX a unique background in both software development and engineering. After a string of unique internship opportunities including one with Jeff Bezos’ Seattle-based company Blue Origin, and successfully launching an international Robotics league with his father as a Ph.D. student, Katz quickly became well-rounded in his field.
The Falcon 9 missions and milestones have garnered a lot of media attention through the years, and Katz’s expertise has supported him in being involved in the navigation, trajectory and completion of several milestone flights.
Young aspiring scientists can find inspiration in Katz’s success, a testament to the heights one can reach with a passion for their craft and a dedication to continue learning.
Katz was raised by teachers and always wanted to learn more about the mechanics of how things work. Recalling an impressive simulation of a space shuttle crew mission in his fifth grade class, he remains thankful for the teachers who invested their time in opening his eyes up to the world.
“It’s so valuable to support the school system,” Katz said, emphasizing his gratitude for the opportunities he was provided by great educators he encountered along the way to SpaceX—his father included.
Katz contributed to the two astronauts successfully landing with the first flight of the Crew Dragon in May, and a second trip completed with four astronauts in November 2020.
With 108 total launches, 71 landings and 50 reflow rockets, SpaceX continues to move forward and innovate, operating with their chief mission in mind: making humanity multi-planetary.
Musk, who has famously co-founded the major companies PayPal, Tesla Motors, and solar energy company Solar City, had no formal training in rocketry but has unsurprisingly found success with his creation of SpaceX, which holds its own among established companies like Boeing.
Musk was the winner of this year’s Axel Springer Award, given by the media and tech company to innovative personalities who generate change and influence culture. The award recognizes achievement and encourages continued progress.
The award-winning founder has a big vision for the company, having shared at the awards broadcast that he believes SpaceX can start sending humans to Mars by 2026, at the latest. Musk has discussed setting his sights on Mars on several occasions, with many eager to find out if his estimated frame is realistic.
At a distance of about 140 million miles away, Mars is one of Earth’s closest neighbors. “It’s a little cold, but we can warm it up,” SpaceX states on their website, describing the distance from Mars to the sun being about 1.5 times the distance between the Earth and sun.
SpaceX plans to create a reusable transportation system capable of an orbit refueling and leveraging Mars’ natural H20 and C02 resources to refuel on the surface of Mars. The company states they are working on the next generation of fully reusable launch vehicles that will be the most powerful ever built, capable of carrying humans to the red planet and other space bound destinations.
Today, the Starship, a combination of their Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket, represents a “fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond,” SpaceX described, noting the vehicle’s ability to carry over 100 metric tons to Earth orbit.
Starship 8 successfully launched and landed on December 8, 2020, showing promise for the model’s future endeavors.
To see SpaceX vehicles in action, visit SpaceX.com or the company’s YouTube channel for videos of each Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy flights. Each launch is broadcast live online, with the launch schedule continuously updated on the Twitter feeds of both SpaceX and Musk.
When innovative minds and revolutionary, forward-thinking technology are combined, there is truly no telling what distances can be reached.
“It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past,” Musk has said to describe his vision. “And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”