Rocketing into the future with SpaceX

Space may not be the playground of governments and the super rich for much longer, as commercial launch companies like SpaceX continue to bring down the cost of access thanks to innovative new technologies used at all stages of the development process.

From the initial design using tools like SOLIDWORKS to the thunderous rocket launches and (eventual) landings, SpaceX is moving the launch industry forward by using current rocket technology and cutting-edge design tools.

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Pushing the bounds of design in the present…

SpaceX is an American aerospace company founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the seemingly unstoppable entrepreneur and founder of both PayPal and Tesla Motors.

Unlike many other launch providers, SpaceX is literally shooting a little higher. Instead of simply trying to solely generate revenue from launches, the company has a plan to use the latest technologies to make the colonisation of Mars a reality. This isn't science fiction, even though a step into the SpaceX offices may feel like walking through a portal into the future.

Take engine manufacturing, for example. As part of the SuperDraco rocket engine creation process, engineers use 3D printing to create the combustion chamber of the motor.

"Through 3D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods," CEO Elon Musk explained.

"SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before."

That's not all; the company also takes advantage of Iron Man-esque software where designers can use their hands to move a 3D model around in real time, seeing it from all angles and making any necessary corrections. When it's ready for manufacturing, it can be sent straight to a printer to be milled from titanium.

Elon Musk explained that it's essentially a way of removing the unnatural method of computer interaction that people are used to. 

"I believe we're on the verge of a major breakthrough in design and manufacturing," he said. "[We will be] able to take the concept of something from your mind, and translate that into a 3D object really intuitively on the computer."

…and into the future

So where does a company like SpaceX go from here? Design tools are undoubtedly going to play an important role in the development of future spacecraft, especially as the company moves from launching satellites and cargo to pushing human crews into orbit. The precision and speed of revision available when using modern design applications, coupled with fast 3D printing, will make it far easier to develop new components.

Later in December, SpaceX is set to attempt to return the first stage of the orbital Falcon 9 rocket to the launch pad, a feat that, if successful, would mean the company can then reuse the stage for another launch. This would effectively bring down the cost of a launch by multiple factors as the company wouldn't be throwing used rockets into the sea after each launch.

What's more, the SuperDraco mentioned above will be put to use in a launch abort test, where the engines will push a capsule away from a launch vehicle as it rockets through the air as a test of safety.

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Just SpaceX?

SpaceX isn't the only company pushing the rocket industry forward. Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is using similarly innovative design tools and practices to create reusable rockets for tourism. On a larger scale, United Launch Alliance, one of SpaceX's main competitors, is also planning the development of a reusable launch vehicle called the Vulcan.

While it may sometimes seem like the luster and financial appeal of the space industry has all but dried up, companies are pushing the bounds of what's possible by using innovative technologies and cutting-edge manufacturing practices. 

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