9 Things You Didn't Know About SpaceX

In the mere 14 years since Elon Musk founded SpaceX, the brainiac serial entrepreneur/Bond villain has managed to build a staggeringly successful private space program, all while juggling the Tesla empire and cooking up other crazy moonshot projects like the Hyperloop. The company, which now employs nearly 5,000 people, has earned exclusive contracts with NASA, made tentative plans to get us to Mars, schlepped cargo to the International Space Station, and achieved some truly groundbreaking launches and landings. But besides the big headlines, there's a lot you probably haven't heard about the California-based aerospace giant.

elon musk with dragon spacecraft
Wikimedia/NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

1. Elon Musk taught himself rocket science

As if the South African-born billionaire running several enormously successful companies didn’t already make us feel like complete slackers, here’s another little detail: he basically taught himself rocket science. According to SpaceX’s former VP of business development Jim Cantrell, Musk cooked up many of the company’s most groundbreaking ideas just by reading a couple textbooks.

2. SpaceX nearly ruined Tesla

In 2008, Musk faced some stark financial realities, and for a while it looked like only one of his two companies would actually survive. Tesla was hemorrhaging money, and there still wasn’t a car to show for it, but Musk had already poured so much of his personal fortune into SpaceX that bailing out his other company himself was impossible. However, in the 11th hour he was able to round up enough financing from friends to keep Tesla from going belly-up.

SpaceX Dragon in orbit

3. The company won't go public until it successfully gets to Mars

In 2012 there were rampant rumors that SpaceX was approaching an IPO, but Musk was swift to shoot them down. He’s come out publicly saying the company will hold off on any potential IPO until after the Mars Colonial Transporter -- the interplanetary spacecraft that would be capable of shuttling hundreds of people at a time to Mars -- is flying regularly. The reason? He doesn’t want the money-grubbing hands of a private equity firm hampering long-term plans by pushing for short-term payoffs.

Interior of SpaceX Dragon

4. The plans to reach Mars could finally be revealed this year

Despite its long list of impressive accomplishments to date, many people associate SpaceX exclusively with Elon Musk’s ambitious Mars colonization plan. And sure, he’s spoken publicly about his desire to spend the final years of his life on the Red Planet, but there are scant details as to how or when the company will send a single crew there, let alone hundreds of people. That may change soon, though: it’s rumored that Musk intends to unveil the company's grand plans at the International Astronautical Conference in September.

SpaceX Falcon 9

5. The rockets and spacecrafts all have cheeky names

Sure, NASA assigned some truly inspiring names to its biggest missions, shuttles, and rockets, but thanks to Musk’s love of SciFi (and Star Wars specifically), SpaceX wins the naming game. The two barges that serve as rocket landing targets were named for ships in Scottish author Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. Both the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets (above) owe their namesake to the Millennium Falcon. 

As for the company’s Dragon spacecraft, its name wasn’t so much a Sci-Fi homage but a reference to the Peter, Paul & Mary hit "Puff, the Magic Dragon." It was meant as a thumb in the eyes to critics who consider Musk’s grand plans impossible. Further evidence that they don't take themselves too seriously? Musk recently revealed that the codenames for the giant rocket and spaceship that will make up the Mars Colonial Transporter -- BFR and BFS, respectively -- actually stand for "Big Fucking Rocket" and "Big Fucking Spaceship."

photo of spacex employees

6. Musk wants to build the SpaceX factory its own roller coaster

It’s no secret that Silicon Valley giants try and out-do one another when it comes to job perks, and Elon Musk is eager to jump in on the action. In a recent biography, he mentioned that he was considering construction of an actual roller coaster inside both the SpaceX and Tesla factories, just for employees.

SpaceX Dragon in orbit

7. It's working to create a global WiFi network

One of the company’s many ambitious plans involves launching 4,000 micro-satellites into orbit in an effort to create a satellite internet network, which could ultimately bring high-speed WiFi to every corner of the globe. As of last year, it's secured over $1 billion in funding for the project from partners like Google and Fidelity, and have filed for an experimental license with the FCC to give it a go.

SpaceX Dragon rocket launch
Chris Thompson/SpaceX

8. NASA and SpaceX have a contract

Since NASA put an end to the Shuttle program in 2011, US astronauts have been forced to hitch rides with the Russians up to the International Space Station -- which, considering the political climate between our two countries at the moment, isn’t ideal. In order to end the outsourcing, NASA signed a contract with SpaceX (along with a couple other aerospace countries) to develop the next generation of US spaceflight capabilities so we can launch our Mark and Scott Kellys domestically once again. With that sort of endorsement, you better believe NASA trusts they’re capable of a whole lot more.

spacex rocket launch

9. A Monty Python skit played a small part in one of its early test flights 

During the first successful test flight of the Dragon spacecraft in 2010, Musk and company stocked the vehicle with a “secret” payload: an enormous wheel of cheese, in honor of a classic, cheese-related Flying Circus sketch.

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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist and praying this new global internet network is faster than his creeping Comcast connection.