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Since SpaceX's inception in 2002, it has, in no small part, helped redefine the way we get people and stuff into space. Founded on the principle of making space flight cheaper and more available for all, some of its existing, planned, and retired craft are very interesting indeed.
Here are but a few of them.
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What different types of SpaceX space vehicles are there?
And so, without further ado, here are the main types of space vehicles used by Elon Musk's SpaceX. This list is not exhaustive and is in no particular order.
Current and proposed SpaceX vehicles
These are SpaceX's current fleet of space vehicles -- either in operation or in development.
1. The now-famous Falcon 9 "Full Thrust" launch vehicle
One of SpaceX's best-known space vehicles is their now venerable Falcon 9 "Full Thrust" launch vehicle. An upgraded version of the now obsolete Falcon 9 v1.1, it was first used in December of 2015 to carry ORBCOMM-2 into orbit from Cape Canaveral's SLC-40 launch pad.
Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket specifically designed to transport satellites and SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft into orbit. The rocket is reusable meaning that costs for accessing space can be drastically reduced over the long run.
It is 70 meters tall, has a diameter of 3.7 meters, and a mass of 549,054 kg. Each Falcon 9 rocket's first stage is powered by nine SpaceX's own Merlin engines, and its second stage a single Merlin vacuum rocket.
Once jettisoned, the Falcon 9's first stage is able to autonomously return to a designed launchpad for recovery. SpaceX is currently working on a way to enable recovery of Falcon 9 second stages as well.
"Falcon 9 was designed from the ground up for maximum reliability. Falcon 9’s simple two-stage configuration minimizes the number of separation events -- and with nine first-stage engines, it can safely complete its mission even in the event of an engine shutdown." - SpaceX.
2. The equally well-known Falcon Heavy launch vehicle
Another equally well-known SpaceX space vehicle is their mighty Falcon Heavy (FH). This super heavy-lift space launch vehicle is the most powerful operational rocket in the world. According to SpaceX, by as much as a factor of two.
SpaceX's FH has the ability to "lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 lb)---a mass greater than a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage, and fuel--Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, at one-third the cost. Falcon Heavy draws upon the proven heritage and reliability of Falcon 9" - SpaceX.
Effectively a beefed-up variant of the Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy consists of three first-stage Falcon 9 rockets with a reinforced central core and two side boosters. These three first-stages are able to generate somewhere in the region of 5 million pounds of thrust. It is only surpassed in its lifting capability by NASA's enormous Saturn V rocket.
Like the Falcon 9, all three first-stages are recoverable. The Falcon Heavy was also designed from the ground up to carry humans into space. It is also hoped it will provide a means of sending crewed missions to Mars in the not too distant future.
It was a Falcon Heavy that was used to deliver a Tesla Roadster into space back in 2018.
3. SpaceX's Dragon could be the future of delivery to the Space Station
SpaceX's Dragon capsule is a free-flying spacecraft to deliver both cargo and people to orbiting destinations. It is one of the only spacecraft in existence that can not only deliver, but also return significant payloads back to Earth.
The 4m diameter capsule currently only delivers cargo but is designed to carry human passengers too. It currently has a passenger capacity of 7 within its pressurized section.
This section can be used to also carry environmentally sensitive cargo as well as human beings if need be.
"The first demonstration flight under NASA's Commercial Crew Program launched on March 2, 2019, at 2:49 a.m. ET. The Dragon spacecraft successfully docked with the space station ahead of schedule at 6:02 a.m. ET on March 3, 2019, becoming the first American spacecraft in history to autonomously dock with the International Space Station." - SpaceX.
The Dragon capsule is currently delivered into orbit using one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.
4. Starship will be used to send humans into space, to the Moon, Mars and perhaps beyond
SpaceX's Starship is a collective name for SpaceX's Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket. Currently, in development, it will be a fully reusable transportation system to get humans (and cargo) into Earth's orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
It will consist of two stages -- a powerful first-stage launch vehicle powered by 37 Raptor engines, and the main Starship second-stage vehicle. Like all other SpaceX launch vehicles, this super-heavy rocket will return to the launch pad once its mission is complete.
The second-stage spacecraft will then carry its crew and cargo to its final destination and back if need be. Whether that be in Earth's orbit or another planet.
"Starship will be the world's most powerful launch vehicle ever developed, with the ability to carry in excess of 100 metric tonnes to Earth orbit. Drawing on an extensive history of launch vehicle and engine development programs, SpaceX has been rapidly iterating on the design of Starship with orbital-flight targeted for 2020." - SpaceX.
Retired and canceled SpaceX space vehicles
These are some SpaceX's most notable retired spacecraft.
5. "Grasshopper" was the precursor to SpaceX's Falcon program
Where it all started. The SpaceX Grasshopper test vehicle touches down utilizing the now-iconic grid fins to control its descent for the first time during a 1,000-meter test flight in 2014. Credit: SpaceX pic.twitter.com/Q9ydbjSSFn— Rocket Rundown (@RocketRundown) February 15, 2020
SpaceX's "Grasshopper" was an experimental reusable VTOL rocket prototype used to gather information and perform tests for their more ambitious launches -- Like the development and testing of their Falcon rockets.
After making ever higher and higher hops, the project was officially wrapped up in 2013 so resources could be redirected into SpaceX's Falcon 9 program.
6. Falcon 1 was a testbed for the Falcon 9
Falcon 1 was one of SpaceX's precursors to the current Falcon 9 rockets. It was much smaller than Falcon 9 and was partially reusable, using parachutes.
Falcon 1 was capable of delivering a few hundred kgs of payload into orbit and was first launched in 2006. Since 2009, there have been no further launches of a Falcon 1 rocket as the company switched focus to their Falcon 9 SpaceX rockets.
7. The Falcon 1e was canceled
The SpaceX Falcon 1e was an upgraded version of the Falcon 1 that featured a regeneratively cooled SpaceX Merlin engine. Introduced in 2010, the project was scuttled to focus resources on the Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
8. Falcon 5 didn't get to see the light of day
Falcon 5 was another proposed SpaceX launch vehicle that was eventually canceled to focus on the Falcon 9. It would have been a two-stage-to-orbit, partially reusable launch vehicle powered by 5 Merlin engines.
9. Falcon 9 v1.0 was a stepping stone in the development of the fully-fledged Falcon 9
SpaceX's Falcon 9 v1.0 was one of the first iterations of their current Falcon 9 rocket. It was developed between 2005 and 2010 and saw its first launch in 2010.
Between 2010 and 2013 it made 5 test flights and was later retired as further improvements were made to the Falcon 9's design.
10. Falcon 9 v1.1 featured some important improvements on the v.1.0
The Falcon 9 v1.1 was an important step in the development of the current Falcon 9 launch vehicle used by SpaceX. It was developed between 2010 and 2013 and made its maiden flight in 2013.
Around 60% heavier and with about the same amount of extra thrust over the v1.0, it featured other improvements on its predecessor. It has since been retired.
11. The Falcon 9 Air would have been interesting to see
The Falcon 9 Air, was another variant of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle that has since been canceled. It would have been air-launched from a Stratolaunch.
Though it actually would've been pretty cool, the project was canceled in 2012.