BLAST OFF!

05.22.12

11 Cool Facts About SpaceX: Dragon, Microsoft, Investments & More

With the successful launch of its Dragon capsule Tuesday, SpaceX may have inaugurated a new age in space travel. From how it beamed up Scotty to its planned mission to Mars, 11 fascinating details about the futuristic transportation company.

The next leg of the race to space may have kicked into gear Tuesday as the Falcon 9 rocket built by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The almost 180-foot rocket carried with it the unmanned Dragon capsule, bound for the International Space Station. The launch was the result of a government initiative to take a large share of the initiative for space exploration from NASA and hand it off to private companies. While such ventures have not put human beings into orbit yet, that may only be a matter of time, after Dragon’s successful launch. The Daily Beast rounds up 11 fascinating facts about the company that may someday be sending you into space.

1. Its founder is an Internet mogul.

The guy who wants to take you into orbit was one of a handful of guys who made it easier to pay for stuff online. Elon Musk, 40, a South African by birth, was a co-founder of PayPal. After cashing out on that venture, Musk got into futuristic transportation, sinking funds into electric cars and SpaceX.

2. It beat the competition into orbit.

SpaceX shot ahead of the competition in 2010 when it became the first private venture to launch a craft that circled the globe, sending up a Dragon capsule that went twice around the world before parachuting back into the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean. The there-and-back-again mission was a crucial steppingstone for the company on its path to sending a manned craft into the ether.

3. It beamed up Scotty.

Trekkies, rejoice. The cremated remains of actor James Doohan, who played Montgomery “Scotty” Scott in the original Star Trek series, are among those of 300 space enthusiasts lofted into the stratosphere aboard Falcon 9 when the rocket lifted off Tuesday. A Texas-based company called Celestis arranged for the out-of-this-world memorial. The company can also arrange to have grandma’s remains shot to the moon, and charges around $3,000.

4. It’s working on a mission to Mars.

Is there life on Mars? SpaceX wants to find out. The company has said it’s working with the national space agency to develop a mission to Mars that would utilize its Dragon capsule and would cost an estimated $400 million, researchers told Space.com in 2011. The potential mission would carry scientific equipment to the Red Planet and could be ready to go as early as 2018.

5. It comes in under budget.

SpaceX may offer a way to get to space on the cheap. According to a report released by NASA, the company pulled off something contractors almost never do: it cut costs but not corners. The bill for the Falcon 9 rocket came in at about a third of what NASA would have laid out on the project, the report said. The company is proud of its efficiency, and it has paid dividends. NASA forked over $381 million to the company and told it to keep on doing what it’s doing.

6. You can see Dragon from your backyard.

The excitement over SpaceX’s most recent successful launch may not have reached Sputnik levels, but people are nevertheless interested in knowing what’s overhead. The unmanned Dragon capsule the company launched into the air this week may be visible—even to earthlings—in the night sky. NASA’s SkyWatch website has added the times the capsule will soar over heavily populated areas.

7. It has fun naming its craft.

Sure, breaking through the atmosphere is serious business. But that doesn’t mean SpaceX can’t have fun naming its craft. In true space-dork fashion, the Falcon 9 rocket was named in homage to Han Solo’s blockade-running craft from Star Wars, the Millennium Falcon. The 9 represents its nine engines. And as for the Dragon capsule, that’s a nod to the general trippiness of spending hundreds of millions to reignite the space race. When SpaceX founder Musk started telling people he was building a spaceship, they wanted some of whatever he was smoking. So he named his craft Dragon, as in, you know, Puff the Magic Dragon.

8. SpaceX has helped reinvigorate NASA.

The company’s partnership with NASA falls under the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program, which was started to foster partnerships between NASA and the private sector. NASA allocated about $800 million to be spent on the program between 2006 and 2012, and the project has involved several stages of development geared toward building craft that could take cargo into space.

9. It’s helping inspire more astronaut dreams.

Fostering the next generation of astronauts means making sure today’s students are excited about science and math. SpaceX may have helped do that this week when it included experiments contributed by 15 American students in Dragon’s payload. Students began creating the experiments in June 2010, and 779 teams made up of students from grades 5 to 12 submitted proposals.

10. It set commercial launch-deal records.

Back in 2010, SpaceX grabbed the attention of the space community when it scored a $492 million deal to take communication-satellite equipment up-diddly-up-up for a company called Iridium. The contract, which obligates SpaceX to launch the communications gear into space between 2015 and 2017, was the largest ever commercial deal inked for a space launch.

11. It teamed up with Microsoft co-founder.

SpaceX got some extra tech-world cred when Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen jumped on board in 2011, creating a joint project with the company called Stratolaunch Systems. It seems Allen and Musk want to put people into orbit using an air-powered rocket that would be fired from the back of what, if built, would be the largest aircraft ever. Allen has told reporters that he thinks the project will show quick returns and will be launching craft into orbit using the air-launched rocket by 2020.