SpaceX has upended the rocket industry, making founder Elon Musk the world's most disruptive space pioneer. The visionary entrepreneur is bent on building giant low-cost reusable rockets and spaceships that can be used to colonize humans on Mars. In the process, he is helping to catalyze a private space exploration industry in the United States while outmaneuvering mammoth aerospace companies like Boeing.
SpaceX is the No. 1 company on the 2018 CNBC Disruptor 50 list, announced Tuesday.
SpaceX has vaulted to become one of the most valuable private companies in the world, with a valuation estimated at $28 billion. As its long-term prospects soar, it is steadily raising funds from global investors to fuel its lofty ambitions. The company's achievements have many awestruck: In February it launched the world's most-powerful rocket since NASA's Saturn V. It stood more than 21 stories high.
But Musk is far from done. Musk believes SpaceX will be completing "short trips" for its Mars rocket system in 2019, while also beginning to roll out its constellation of 4,425 satellites. It is the next stage of Musk's master plan to put 1 million people on the Red Planet to ensure the survival of the human race in the event of a world war or some other catastrophe on Earth.
"We are building the first Mars or interplanetary ship right now," Musk revealed at the South by Southwest conference in March, noting its code name is BFR. The short-term goal he announced was to launch cargo vehicles to Mars by 2022 that would bring basic needs to build an infrastructure for future missions.
SpaceX began 2018 the way it ended 2017: Batting a thousand. Called by some as "the dawn of the entrepreneurial space age," last year saw SpaceX complete 18 rocket launches successfully, including when it became the first in history to launch and land two rockets within 48 hours. The space company also made NASA history, becoming the first to launch a supply mission to the International Space Station on a reused rocket.
Up next: A crewed flight of the new Dragon capsule mounted atop a Falcon 9 rocket. It will be a test to see if humans can be transported safely to the International Space Station. The company just launched the final, most powerful version of Falcon 9 called Block 5, which SpaceX must fly seven times before NASA certifies it for human flight.
"SpaceX continues to change the landscape of the space industry," Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told CNBC. "Their launches are becoming much more routine, and I think that's what we're striving for in this industry."
The company changed the industry paradigm for launching rockets from a focus on reliability and cost to one that benefits from nearly on-demand launches. SpaceX is combining an increasing launch cadence with a decreasing turnaround time — launching, landing and relaunching rockets in a matter of months. For Falcon 9, Musk said he wants to pare that turnaround time to 24 hours by next year.
"It's all about getting hardware to orbit, because the hardware is what generates the revenue. Availability is essential, and people miss that point," prominent space investor Dylan Taylor told CNBC.
Musk has declared he wants "a new space race," telling reporters after the successful launch of Falcon Heavy in February that he thinks the historic flight will "encourage other companies and countries" to be ambitious in the same way as SpaceX.
The competition — archrival United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin — has certainly been put on notice. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg told CNBC in February that he thinks SpaceX is "adding energy to the space market," which is "good for the country." Muilenburg's deputy Leanne Caret noted the same "excitement about space," which she says she hasn't "seen in the last few decades."
"That's really keeping the conversation going in a positive direction," Caret told CNBC in September.
But in the months ahead, the race to space will get more heated. The next challenger to SpaceX is likely Blue Origin, even though it has yet to launch a comparable rocket to SpaceX's fleet. Founded by Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin is moving quickly toward commercial operations for several of its major projects. Testing on the company's BE-4 engine, the thunderous staple for Blue Origin's propulsion business, is nearing completion. BE-4 is built for Blue Origin's coming New Glenn rocket, a tremendous vehicle expected to compete with Falcon Heavy on cost and power. According to reports, Bezos has spent billions of dollars to design, build and launch this massive reusable rocket to compete with SpaceX and launch systems beginning in 2020.
SpaceX has proved to be an undaunted challenger when competing against legacy companies like Boeing. The two are neck-and-neck in the race to fulfill contracts for NASA's Commercial Crew program to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station — the former with its Starliner capsules and the latter its Dragon capsules.
In developing the world's biggest rockets, SpaceX is a leap ahead of Boeing. The world's largest aerospace company is the primary contractor for NASA's new Space Launch System rocket. The first iteration of SLS will be able to lift slightly more weight than SpaceX's Falcon Heavy. But that launch will not happen for at least two years — after tens of billions in taxpayer spending and over a decade in development. Moreover, before NASA believes the more powerful version of SLS will launch, SpaceX expects its massive BFR to be sending cargo to Mars.
"I don't think anyone can" compete with even Falcon Heavy, let alone BFR, former Pentagon Under Secretary of Defense for acquisition tech and logistics John Young told CNBC in February. "Musk said it's 'game over,' and I believe that's true."
Boeing's executives, along with Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson, have repeatedly stated the intention of beating Musk to Mars, with Hewson pointing to her company's heritage building exploratory spacecraft for NASA.
"In terms of being the first to Mars, we have been on every Mars mission from the very first one," Hewson told CNBC in March.
President and COO Gwynne Shotwell is helping lead Musk's vision to reach Mars, with the company ramping up production on the BFR system. SpaceX is in the late stages of negotiating a long-term lease to build a facility on the Los Angeles waterfront, where BFR is expected to be built before being shipped to the company's test facility in Texas.
Millions tune in around the world to watch SpaceX's launch livestreams, but here in the United States industry experts talk often about SpaceX's all-American supply chain. From the Pentagon to financial analysts, many are heralding SpaceX as responsible for bringing the rocket industry back to the United States. For decades, rockets built by United Launch Alliance flew U.S. Air Force and NASA missions on Russian engines or other systems bought overseas.
"They're an all U.S. launcher. For a long time our military and intelligence capability was not launched using all U.S. capability," Carissa Christensen, CEO of consulting firm Bryce Space and Technology, told CNBC.
The Air Force continues to award SpaceX hundreds of millions of dollars in launch contracts, with Secretary Heather Wilson telling Congress in March that the decreasing cost to launch is "enabling business plans to close in space that never were possible before."
"For a decade and a half, launch costs were ballooning until SpaceX came in and said, 'We can do it cheaper,'" Sam Korus, ARK Invest analyst, told CNBC.
SpaceX senior vice president Tim Hughes told Congress in a July testimony that "the U.S. had effectively ceded" the commercial rocket launch market "to France and to Russia." Hughes showed how, before 2013, the U.S. lacked a foothold in this market. SpaceX helped the United States reclaim not just a portion but a majority in the global launch market in 2017 and represented more than 60 percent of U.S. launches while doing so.
Under the Commercial Crew program, SpaceX and Boeing will return the capability of launching U.S. astronauts to space from U.S. soil, after years of paying heavy premiums to Russia for flights aboard its Soyuz rockets.
"I think in terms of how much of a difference it's going to make once it launches and once we have routine access for American astronauts on American launch vehicles," Stallmer said.
For SpaceX, putting astronauts on its rockets is the next critical milestone in its development.
"The human-rated piece, for SpaceX, puts them in a totally different category," Taylor said, adding that "there's no reason to believe they can't be exceptional at that."
SpaceX dashed from one milestone to the next over the last 12 months. Beyond the 48-hour launch-and-land accomplishment, SpaceX made NASA history, set the new standard for heavy rockets, challenged U.S. regulatory policies, put to action a little-known safety technology, doubled its valuation and surpassed its own reusability expectations.
The company became the first in history to launch a resupply mission to the International Space Station on a reused rocket in December. It was the first time NASA approved such a mission, while being the fourth time SpaceX launched with what it calls a "flight proven" booster. The mission also launched a previously used Dragon capsule, flown on a mission in April 2015 for NASA.
In February, Falcon Heavy became the most powerful commercial rocket in the world after SpaceX successfully completed its first launch of the behemoth. The launch was the most ambitious yet for Musk's company, putting one of Musk's personal Teslas into orbit around the sun in a dramatic and beautiful display of power.
"The way [Falcon Heavy] was executed demonstrates what is totally unique about SpaceX. The way that they changed the zeitgeist," Christensen said.
The rocket put SpaceX at the top of a short list of available heavy lift vehicles. Falcon Heavy is both more powerful and capable of lifting more than twice as much weight compared to the biggest rockets offered by either ULA or Arianespace — at a fraction of the cost.
"Falcon Heavy was just an incredible accomplishment in terms of the capabilities of that vehicle," George Nield, former leader of the Federal Aviation Administration's office of Commercial Space Transportation, told CNBC. "It's incredible to have that up and running now, to think that was done with internal funding — not government development funds — and to also show the ability to excite the general public."
Shotwell offered a direct challenge to U.S. regulators at the first meeting of the new National Space Council in October. In front of a crowd of White House officials, public administrators and commercial executives, Shotwell said the government "must remove bureaucratic practices that run counter to innovation and speed" if the industry is going to make rapid progress. Since her challenge, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross proposed several new policies to make his department "a one-stop shop" for space regulations, with plans to integrate with the existing regulations enforced by the FAA and the FCC.
"Government can and must do better," Ross said. "It shouldn't take longer to get a license than it does to design a rocket or a satellite."
The FAA continues to work closely with SpaceX as the office responsible for licensing all launches by U.S. citizens and companies. Speaking about his time leading the FAA in that capacity, Nield said one of SpaceX's most impressive achievements last year "had to do with the implementation of the autonomous flight safety system" (or AFSS). The new system was developed by the Air Force in cooperation with NASA and the FAA before SpaceX took the technology and created an interface to utilize AFSS for launches of its Falcon 9 rocket.
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Traditionally, rockets had a flight termination system on board that ground controllers could use to blow up the rocket if it went off course, Nield noted.
"Typically, the Air Force has possibility for running the launch ranges and has a big team that does that. It takes them several days to do a new launch after they've completed a previous launch," Nield said.
With AFSS, the Falcon 9 keeps track of "where it is and how fast it's going," Nield said. If the rocket heads off course, then the onboard computer "can automatically destruct the rocket," he said. That means there is no longer a need for "that massive ground infrastructure," according to Nield, giving the job over to a handful of safety inspectors and making the Air Force's "only role ... to help coordinate emergency response and help keep things clear for the launch."
"It was a real turning point in terms of how launches can be conducted efficiently," Nield said. "You can have two launches in quick succession if you don't have to reconfigure all these systems."
Fast turnarounds are key to SpaceX's launch services business if the company is going to reach its launch cadence goals. Eventually, the company wants to be launching at least every other week. Yet SpaceX is already surpassing the reusability rate it expected two years ago.
"Back in 2016, Gwynne Shotwell gave her prediction for the landing success rate. Since then, they've completely blown away their own expectations," Korus said.
SpaceX undercuts rivals in pricing and performance, helping the company gain marketshare. For example, a new Falcon 9 starts at $62 million versus ULA's Atlas 5, which starts at $109 million. For $150 million, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy doubles the performance of ULA's Delta IV Heavy, which goes for about $350 million, according to ULA chief executive Tory Bruno.
Korus compared SpaceX to Uber as a company creating demand for itself by lowering the cost of access.
"When [Uber] lowered the cost, then more people started taking rides," Korus said.
Christensen agreed and said that a launch cadence of every other week for SpaceX would mean the company is "taking away launches from other providers."
"A high launch cadence means they're dominating competitors rather than there's a large amount of new demand," Christensen said.
Thanks to the steady success of its launches, as well as a backlog of more than 100 future mission contracts worth over $12 billion, SpaceX nearly tripled its valuation since it was featured in last year's top 50 Disruptors. After its most recent fundraise brought in about $500 million, SpaceX's valuation rose to about $27.5 billion, according to analysis group Equidate, making it one of the most valuable private companies in the world.
Venture capitalist Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux, a partner in Global Space Ventures , invested twice in SpaceX, first in 2012 and again "in early 2014," she said. According to Equidate, SpaceX shares were $34.68 from December 2012 to the company's next raise in January 2015. Priced at $169 per share today, de Cayeux's investment has already likely grown about 387 percent – but she's invested for the long haul. Musk told de Cayeux that she would "not see a return for 15 years," which did not deter her.
"When I first invested in SpaceX in 2012, their share of awarded global commercial launch market share was zero. But from 2013 to 2018, in five years, it went from less than 10 percent to over 60 percent," de Cayuex said. "That's pretty damn fast!"
On a quarter to quarter basis, SpaceX appears to have more runway and support from investors due to the company's continued success. Even so, Taylor described SpaceX's ability to raise funds as "unusual" due to its place as a manufacturing company.
"In the private markets, if you look at which companies investors like SoftBank have written $100 million checks to, its services or analytics companies," Taylor said.
SpaceX could become a $50 billion juggernaut through the launch of its satellite broadband business, according to Morgan Stanley in October. The most recent round of funds will be used to develop the SpaceX satellite constellation. SpaceX launched the first two test satellites for the network into orbit in February. Known as Starlink — a name SpaceX filed to trademark last year — the constellation is an ambition unmatched by any current satellite network.
"Developing, launching, and operating large satellite constellations would provide a very credible business case for how you could have the funding streams that could be used for other programs," Nield said.
The FCC approved Starlink in March, marking the first time the FCC has licensed a constellation of this variety. The constellation will require dozens of launches aboard Falcon 9 rockets to become operational, which Christensen says is "creating demand for the launch capability" of SpaceX.
"That's a very integrated strategy," Christensen said.
Musk has said revenue from Starlink will pay for the costs of the BFR program. With BFR expected to be fully reusable — a feat unmatched by even the company's workhorse Falcon 9 — Musk believes each BFR flight will cost between $5 million and $6 million.
"We'll be able to do short trips, flights by first half of next year," Musk said in March.
While Falcon Heavy stands at more than 21 stories tall, BFR would dwarf that at 32 stories. In April, Musk shared a photo of the "main body tool" for BFR — essentially a large manufacturing mold to weave the carbon fiber that will comprise the upper stage of the rocket. The tent is believed to be on an 18-acre plot at the Port of Los Angeles, which was recently connected with SpaceX as a "state-of-the-art" factory to produce the behemoth rocket.
Both BFR and Starlink are long-term ambitions with long-term payoffs for SpaceX. In the near term, getting its Dragon capsule certified by NASA to fly humans to space is the most critical trial facing SpaceX.
"Anytime you put a human in a rocket, it's high stakes. That will definitely be a major milestone for them to overcome," Korus said.
Succeeding with humans on Dragon should also not distract SpaceX from its core business of launching satellites. While SpaceX delivers on that in a way that has become routine, Nield warns of how even the smallest mistake could lead to a painful setback.
"It will be important for SpaceX to continue to pay attention to what they're doing, to not lose focus, to continue the priority given to safety and following the checklist and having high-quality work," Nield added. "Just because you've proven you can launch at that pace doesn't mean it's easy."
No matter the future, SpaceX earned its place today at the top of the space industry. What Musk and Shotwell have accomplished already defies what traditional wisdom called impossible only a few years ago.
"SpaceX has been a disruptor of the long-time status quo of the commercial space industry," Matt Desch, CEO of satellite company Iridium, told CNBC last June. "They are redefining the 'cost to get to space,' and all the other launch providers have had to take note and adjust their plans."