Skip to Content

Rocket Road

SpaceX wants to become the commercial heir to NASA.
When NASA stops flying the space shuttles later this year, the United States will no longer have a vehicle to carry humans to space—unless commercial industry can fill the gap. Last year, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) became the first company to send a spacecraft into low Earth orbit and have it reënter the atmosphere. The flight is part of a partnership with NASA, which has awarded SpaceX $1.6 billion for at least 12 flights to carry cargo to the International Space Station. But SpaceX’s goal is something far greater: a NASA contract to carry humans to space.


Preparing for its first test flight, the Falcon 9 rocket sits at SpaceX’s launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida (above). Approximately 55 meters tall and four meters wide, the two-stage rocket is powered by nine hydrocarbon Merlin engines. It is made of an aluminum-­lithium alloy and a carbon fiber–­aluminum composite.
Here, a carbon-composite interstage of the rocket is shown undergoing final assembly in California. The four black containers hold parachutes used to return the first stage of the rocket to Earth after separation from the second stage, which carries the vehicle to its targeted orbit.
SpaceX carries out more than 80 percent of its spacecraft design and manufacturing in a 550,000-square-foot facility (above) located on Rocket Road in Hawthorne, California. The company, which was founded in 2002, moved into the building in 2008. Here, engineers work on the avionics and control systems for the Falcon 9 rocket.
The Merlin engine (above) operates on a gas-generator power cycle, using kerosene and liquid oxygen as propellants. Its injector design was first used in an Apollo spacecraft and has a long history of reliable spaceflight. The engine’s combustion chamber and nozzles are regeneratively cooled to increase thrust without increasing mass.
SpaceX’s capsule for carrying cargo and crew to space is named Dragon. It will use as many as 18 thrusters for orbital maneuvering and attitude control. The thrusters are mounted on the spacecraft in groups of four and five. Here, an engineer inspects the thrusters, which were fabricated in a clean room, before they are sent to SpaceX’s testing facility in Texas.
The California facility houses an engineering model of the Dragon (above). The reusable capsule can transport payloads of up to 6,000 kilograms and seven crew members to low Earth orbit. To carry humans, it will include life-support and launch-abort systems.
SpaceX’s second Dragon test capsule (above, under construction) is scheduled to fly later this year.
The Dragon capsule’s heat shield is intended to protect the spacecraft during reëntry into Earth’s atmosphere. At nearly four meters in diameter, it is the largest such shield to be used on a spacecraft. It has a carbon-composite structure, shown here, that supports heat-shield tiles. SpaceX worked closely with NASA to develop the tile technology. Each tile weighs about a kilogram and can withstand temperatures up to 2,000 degrees Celsius.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other
conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other

Forget dating apps: Here’s how the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love

Fed up with apps, people looking for romance are finding inspiration on Twitter, TikTok—and even email newsletters.

computation concept
computation concept

How AI is reinventing what computers are

Three key ways artificial intelligence is changing what it means to compute.

still from Embodied Intelligence video
still from Embodied Intelligence video

These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems

They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.

We reviewed three at-home covid tests. The results were mixed.

Over-the-counter coronavirus tests are finally available in the US. Some are more accurate and easier to use than others.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.