Aug 18, 2020 - Science

What's next for SpaceX's banner year

Illustration of a golden rocket trophy with the SpaceX logo on the front.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

SpaceX is racking up wins this year, solidifying its role in the top tier of space companies operating in the U.S. today — and pressuring the rest of the industry into a new era of spaceflight.

Why it matters: Instead of remaining the young upstart breaking all the rules, SpaceX is now creating the rules for the other companies involved in the industry.

  • But as SpaceX transitions from startup to established leader and space companies that have been around for decades attempt to modernize, it's not yet clear how — and how quickly — the space industry will channel its growth.

What's happening: SpaceX has uprooted the idea of what an aerospace company can and should be, working on thin margins and performing feats — like landing orbital rocket boosters and reflying them — that were previously the realm of science fiction.

So far this year SpaceX has launched 13 missions to orbit.

  • The company's most resounding success was its launch and landing of its first crewed mission for NASA, bringing human spaceflight back to U.S. soil for the first time in nine years.
  • SpaceX also moved out ahead of its competitors working to create fleets of internet-beaming satellites in orbit, with more than 500 Starlink spacecraft launched so far.
  • The company's prototype Starship — which is expected to one day be SpaceX's interplanetary vehicle — successfully flew and landed in a test flight this summer.
  • SpaceX also won a huge contract for military satellite launches in the 2020s.

The big picture: SpaceX is at the same time going through the growing pains of a company moving from one phase of its life in the industry to the other.

  • Instead of being the new company on the block, SpaceX is now serving as the model for many of the startup space companies coming onto the scene today.
  • Because of their position in the industry, "they [SpaceX] always have to be their best. They have to be on," Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told Axios. "They're going to be more and more scrutinized."
  • SpaceX didn't respond to requests for comment for this story.

Yes, but: The inertia of the space industry is immense, and it's not yet clear whether SpaceX has the momentum to propel the rest of the industry into its vision of the future.

  • Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and other companies have been involved in the industry for decades longer than SpaceX and their ties with the government — still the industry's biggest customer — especially run deep.
  • Last week Musk sniped at United Launch Alliance on Twitter after both companies won huge national security contracts, belying the founder's continued frustration with the staying power of the Boeing-Lockheed Martin initiative.

What's next: SpaceX is expected to fly more test flights of its Starship in the coming year, further proving out the spacecraft.

  • SpaceX also has more crewed missions on the books, including a NASA crew flight expected to launch to the International Space Station in October.
  • The company has redefined what a rocket can be, space analyst Phil Smith, of Bryce Space and Technology, told Axios. "Let's not overstate what they [rockets] are, and let's rethink how to haul the mail. And they did so."
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