Lift Off: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, center, participates in a Crew Dragon flight simulation Oct. 10 at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne.

Lift Off: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, center, participates in a Crew Dragon flight simulation Oct. 10 at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne. Photo by Aubrey Gemignani/NASA

When he formed Space Exploration Technologies Corp. in 2002, Chief Engineer Elon Musk had an ambitious set of goals for the Hawthorne-based aerospace firm, ranging from creating recyclable rockets to colonizing Mars.

But perhaps the most important target, for both SpaceX and government partner NASA, was to send Americans into outer space on U.S.-manufactured rockets decades and to land astronauts on the moon again by 2024.

SpaceX says its technology is now capable of achieving the initial goal — putting people into space — by the first quarter of 2020.

And at a recent media event at SpaceX’s Hawthorne headquarters featuring NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, the private company and the public agency were optimistic about Americans soon reentering the cosmos on U.S. rockets.

If and when that mission is accomplished, it will mark a significant milestone for SpaceX, which in just 17 years has transformed the way aerospace companies approach launch services.

It would also mean SpaceX was responsible for reviving NASA’s struggling commercial crew program, which hasn’t launched a U.S.-based crew mission since retiring the space shuttle program in 2011.

Linking up

NASA first appeared on SpaceX’s launch manifest in 2010 when the company launched a demonstration flight for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems mission. Shortly after, SpaceX was sending regular resupply payloads to the International Space Station on its Falcon 9 rockets.

“For many years NASA and the federal government were the only game in town when it came to space flight,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst George Ferguson. “I think they see commercial involvement as a driver of bringing innovation and driving down costs, which is good.”

SpaceX’s focus on bringing critical parts of its rockets back to Earth for reuse was a seemingly preposterous notion at the time it was introduced, but it reduced costs considerably, a former executive at the company said.

“Elon is incredibly well thought through in everything he does ... albeit at the time, some of what he does seems crazy. But those things turn out to be brilliant,” said the executive, who asked not to be named.

It didn’t take long for the SpaceX and NASA relationship to morph into co-dependence, with NASA providing critical launch business and SpaceX offering steep discounts on launch costs — sometimes $20 million below the average charged by competitors Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co.

So far, SpaceX has sent 23 NASA missions into space, but none were crewed by astronauts.

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