June 3, 2010 was an ominous night for SpaceX. The winds howled and the rain battered the first Falcon 9 rocket’s body as it stood on Cape Canaveral’s historic 39A launch pad. In retrospect, the next day was incredibly important for SpaceX, as it signaled what could very well be the start of a new era: commercial spaceflight.
SpaceX was only eight years old then, but the company was no stranger to difficulties and near-death experiences. The company’s first rocket–the Falcon 1–failed three times before it was able to reach orbit. At the time, CEO Elon Musk was on the edge of losing SpaceX, as the financial crisis weighed down the private space firm and his electric car company, Tesla.
So the stakes for Falcon 9’s June 4 launch were very high. If the Falcon 9 performed well, SpaceX could take a step closer to transporting cargo to the International Space Station using its Cargo Dragon spacecraft. But as the rain stopped pouring over the Falcon 9, post-storm checkouts revealed that the antennas on the rocket’s second stage had weak telemetry signal. Rain had seeped into the second stage’s electronics, and the antenna was soaked.
But the SpaceX team refused to give up on the Falcon 9’s maiden flight. Instead of canceling the launch, the SpaceX team decided to adopt a more low-tech solution. Elon Musk, launch director Tim Buzza, and the senior director avionics Bulent Altan drove over to the launch pad. Falcon 9 had already been moved into horizontal position and was being prepared to launch the next day. After confirming that the second stage antennas were indeed wet, Musk, Buzza, Atlan, and a number of engineers put their heads together to prevent the launch from being scrubbed.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 31, 2020
Their solution was to dry out the component. Thus, blow dryer in hand, Atlan started drying the Falcon 9’s second stage antenna. The quick fix seemed to work, and when he finished the task, Atlan closed the rocket’s electronics compartment and applied silicon sealant on it. As history would show the next day, their simple solution ultimately worked. The Falcon 9 lifted off with nine Merlin engines on June 4, 2010, completing its maiden flight flawlessly. The second stage antennas were still a bit weak, but it was enough to make the mission a success.
And with that, the Falcon 9 era began.
A lot has happened since the Falcon 9’s maiden flight. The Falcon 9 has gone through numerous iterations, from a V1.1 variant in 2013 that came with larger fuel tanks and a 60 percent improvement in thrust. Falcon 9 Full Thrust eventually followed in 2015, and it featured upgraded Merlin engines and a larger second stage. The Falcon 9 also started to perform things that were unheard of in the space industry, from a landing on the ground to the near-impossible feat of landing the first stage on an autonomous drone ship in the ocean.
But that’s not all. The Falcon 9 also proved so versatile that it could be reconfigured into the Falcon Heavy, which featured three Falcon 9 boosters side-by-side. Falcon Heavy had a successful maiden flight in February 2018, bringing Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster, as well as a number of novel items, with it to space. Not long after, the Falcon 9 Block 5 debuted, which is the latest variant of the rocket. Block 5 is optimized for reuse, and so far, it is the only rocket in the world today that has flown five times.
Today, SpaceX is a powerhouse in spaceflight, private or otherwise. While other commercial spaceflight companies are still working on Falcon 9 Block 5’s competition, SpaceX has moved its focus onto Starship. Just recently, SpaceX proved that it could handle sending humans to the ISS with Crew Dragon. Now SpaceX’s goal is to reach the moon with Starship, leaving its competitors trailing behind even further.