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The Verge 2018 tech report card: SpaceX

The Verge 2018 tech report card: SpaceX

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After a banner 2017, SpaceX decided to one-up itself in 2018 by launching the world’s most powerful rocket, which flung a sports car beyond the orbit of Mars.

Just two months into the year, SpaceX finally made good on its long held promise to launch the coveted Falcon Heavy — an upgraded version of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. Consisting of three Falcon 9 cores strapped together, the Falcon Heavy is capable of putting more weight into low Earth orbit than any other rocket currently in operation. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk first announced the concept for the rocket in 2011, with the goal of launching it in 2013 or 2014. Obviously, it took longer than that, and Musk even admitted that the program grew so complicated he tried to cancel it a few times. But fast forward to 2018 and the rocket was finally ready for its first test flight.

Though, the launch wasn’t so much of a test as it was an online space extravaganza. Musk decided to make his own Tesla Roadster the Falcon Heavy’s test payload, complete with an astronaut mannequin riding in the driver’s seat. And with cameras positioned all over the rocket, viewers got to witness every single aspect of the flight — including the launch, the simultaneous landing of the two outer boosters, and the mannequin’s cruise through Earth orbit. At the time, it was YouTube’s second biggest live-streaming event of all time. (It might also have been art.) Not only did SpaceX demonstrate the prowess of the Falcon Heavy, but the company also captured the imaginations of rocket geeks and non-space followers alike.

Aside from the Falcon Heavy flight, SpaceX performed another crucial — though less sexy — launch this year: the debut of its final Falcon 9 upgrade, called the Block 5. The Falcon 9 is SpaceX’s workhorse rocket, and the company has been constantly iterating on the vehicle’s design since it was first introduced. But soon, SpaceX will begin flying astronauts on the Falcon 9, and NASA wants the company to fly the rocket in the same configuration over and over before people get on board. So SpaceX introduced the Block 5, the last major version of the Falcon 9 the company plans to make.

The Block 5 may signify a turning point in SpaceX’s business model

The Block 5 is also meant to take SpaceX’s plans for rocket reusability to the next level. In its quest to reduce manufacturing costs, SpaceX has been landing its rockets post-launch for the last three years. But until recently, the company was only capable of launching the same vehicle up to two times to space — hardly enough to really capitalize on the whole reusability thing. But thanks to a number of hardware upgrades, each Block 5 is supposedly capable of being reused up to 10 times without the need for much refurbishment between launches. Such a scenario hasn’t played out yet, but SpaceX was able to fly a single Falcon 9 Block 5 up to three times this year — the first time that’s ever happened. The Block 5 may signify a turning point in SpaceX’s business model.

Meanwhile, SpaceX’s signature rocket landings continue to dazzle, though the company’s success streak was broken this year. Nearly all of the company’s 14 rocket landing attempts succeeded in 2018, but during the Falcon Heavy flight, the center booster failed to touch down on a drone ship in the Atlantic, slamming into the ocean instead. And for the first time ever, a Falcon 9 attempting a ground landing in December touched down in the ocean instead. They are the first few landing failures SpaceX has seen in some time, after having nothing but success in 2017.

Still, the rocket landings are more or less a perk. What’s essential to SpaceX’s business is its launches, and every one this year has been a success — helping the company to distance itself from its last rocket explosion in 2016. And just like last year, SpaceX continues to dominate the aerospace industry in terms of launch frequency. The company launched a total of 21 flights in 2018 — the most it’s ever done in a year and a new record for the company. In reality, SpaceX had expected to do even more this year, but is now facing a downturn in the satellite market. Still, the company is responsible for the majority of the rockets launched by the US, and even holds its own compared to countries like Russia and China.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a “year in SpaceX” if there weren’t some mysteries to send internet sleuths into a tizzy. In January, SpaceX launched a classified spy satellite for some unknown government agency — but soon afterward, reports surfaced that the probe fell out of orbit and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere. Given the sensitive nature of the launch, details were scarce, and it was unclear if SpaceX was to blame for the failure. Ultimately, SpaceX defended its rocket and an investigation revealed the true cause of the accident: the payload adapter, which connects the satellite to the rocket, failed to deploy the spacecraft into orbit. That adapter was reportedly made by Northrop Grumman, which would put SpaceX in the clear. Still, the Zuma mess served as enticing fodder for SpaceX’s critics, who argue the company’s vehicles are unreliable.

And while SpaceX is still the most prolific launch provider in the US, its long-term plans are a bit murkier. One of the company’s most ambitious enterprises is Starlink, a program intended to beam internet coverage to Earth using thousands of satellites moving in synchronized patterns in orbit. SpaceX successfully launched the first two test satellites this year and received unprecedented approval from the Federal Communications Commission to launch the entire fleet in the years ahead. But that means SpaceX has a lot of launching to do. It must launch at least half of the fleet — around 6,000 satellites — within the next six years or so to keep its licenses with the FCC. So approximately 1,000 satellites a year. Yikes.

SpaceX says it will start launching the satellites in earnest in 2019, but it’s estimated that the entire Starlink program will cost up to $10 billion to develop. It seems unlikely that SpaceX’s satellite launching business is enough to cover that (especially with a downturn in the satellite market). And then there’s SpaceX’s other huge project to consider: the development of the company’s next big rocket, the Mars Colonial Transporter / the Intercolonial Transport System / the BFR / Starship / Super Heavy. The monster vehicle, intended to take large groups of people onto the Moon or Mars, is supposedly the future of the company. That, too, is expected to cost between $5 and $10 billion, according to Musk (who also keeps changing the vehicle’s design along with the name).

it’s been one of the most dynamic years yet for SpaceX

All in all, that is a lot of development money, which might explain why SpaceX has gotten creative with funding. Not only did it secure its first-ever high-yield loan of $250 million this year, but it also raised another $500 million in funding for Starlink. And on top of that, SpaceX announced the first passenger for the future Starship — a Japanese billionaire who supposedly put down a substantial deposit to ride on the vehicle.

So yeah, it’s been one of the most dynamic years yet for SpaceX. And if one can believe it, 2019 is poised to be even more eventful for the company. Next year, SpaceX may finally launch astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, at long last fulfilling the company’s goal of sending humans into space. When that happens, it’ll be a major turning point in SpaceX’s ambitions, and potentially one-upping the achievements of 2018.

Final Grade: A

A 2018 Grade

The Verge 2018 report card: SpaceX

Gold Stars

  • Launched a car to space on the world’s most powerful rocket
  • Most prolific launch provider in the US
  • Took reusability to next level with Block 5 debut

Needs Improvement

  • Failed to land two rocket cores this year
  • Still needs lots of money for future projects

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