The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida January 10, 2015.
Just five years ago, its Falcon 9 rocket—a two-stage launch vehicle capable of hauling nearly 30, 000 pounds to low-Earth orbit—had never made the journey to space. Now it regularly services the International Space Station, enjoys a multiyear backlog of commercial payload missions worth billions and could soon begin carrying humans into outer space for NASA by 2017. A key safety test of its Dragon crew capsule last week went off without a hitch.
Read MoreFULL LIST: 2015 DISRUPTOR 50
Last week's crew capsule test marks the latest in a string of successes for SpaceX over the past half decade. In 2010, many legacy aerospace companies working in the launch space viewed SpaceX (the No. 2 2015 CNBC Disruptor) as an unrealistic upstart that didn't appreciate the harsh technical and cost realities of the spaceflight business.
In the years since, SpaceX has simply redefined those realities. It has brought modern design and cutting-edge manufacturing into everything it does, leveraging technologies like 3-D printing to trim cost and weight from its rocket components. Its supply chain is completely vertically integrated, allowing the company an incredible amount of control over its own costs. And it has put low cost—rather than high profit—at the heart of its business model.
All that has allowed SpaceX to offer reliable launch services at prices 20 percent to 30 percent lower than its competitors and grab significant chunks of the $2 billion civil and commercial launch markets. (It is expected to gain clearance to compete for U.S. military launch contracts in June). It now has roughly 40 missions in its multiyear launch manifest. These successes have helped Musk build a company valued at $12 billion, with more than 3, 000 employees.
Launching a low-cost model
"No one is as cocky as they once were in the way they think about SpaceX, " said Marco Caceres, director of space studies for aerospace and defense analysts Teal Group, referring to SpaceX's competitors. "In fact, they're paying SpaceX the highest compliment by trying to copy SpaceX in terms of their model."
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