A privately held company, SpaceX has kept its finances largely shrouded from public view since its founding nearly 15 years ago. But now The Wall Street Journal has obtained financial documents that provide a revealing look at the company’s successes—and struggles—as it has sought to remake the global launch industry this decade.
The report, which reviewed finances for the company from 2011 through 2015, shows SpaceX made a modest profit until its catastrophic accident in 2015, when a Falcon 9 rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded during its ascent to orbit. Despite revenues of nearly $1 billion in 2015, the company lost $260 million, the newspaper reported. Financial results for 2016, when SpaceX lost another rocket on the pad during a static fire test, were not available but are likely to be similarly grim.
Beyond the financial data, the documents also provide some detail about the plans company founder Elon Musk has for growth in his rocket launch business—and beyond. Musk, who still retains 54 percent of the company’s ownership, has targeted 27 launches for 2017 and projects the company will launch 52 rockets by the year 2019.
Going for growth
This represents impressive growth considering the most rockets SpaceX has ever launched in a single year is eight, and even without the accidents, its best cadence has been about one launch per month. That launch rate doesn’t seem impossible—provided that SpaceX has no more accidents. During the last three years the company has been constantly iterating the design of its Falcon 9 rocket to maximize its performance and been pushing the bounds of reusability with booster landings at sea and on land. After SpaceX settles on a final design for the Falcon 9, some increase in launch reliability and cadence seems plausible.
The documents also suggest Musk believes satellite Internet will prove a windfall for the company. Since Alphabet invested $1 billion in SpaceX in 2015, the rocket company has been working toward the launch of thousands of satellites that would provide Internet around the globe.
The newspaper reported that SpaceX eventually plans to launch 4,000 communications satellites, which would be dozens of times larger than any other constellation, with the first phase of this possibly going online as early as 2018. SpaceX anticipates that the satellite business will become more profitable than the rocket business by 2020, generating tens of billions of dollars by the mid-2020s.
As ever with SpaceX, the company’s ambition is enormous. Whether it can begin to achieve these projections relies on a number of ifs—if SpaceX can return to flight this weekend, if it can launch on time and without further accidents, if it can develop the crew Dragon spacecraft, if it can refurbish and refly used first-stage boosters, and so on. And all of this is to say nothing of its ultimate aim, colonizing Mars. One thing is certain: when it comes to SpaceX, the company will be fun to follow.