With little fanfare this weekend, SpaceX launched two Falcon 9 rockets. The first booster blasted off Friday night, carrying nearly three tons of supplies to the International Space Station, including two new spacesuits for NASA. The second mission launched on Sunday boosted another batch of 53 Starlink satellites, bringing the total in orbit to more than 2,500 operational Internet spacecraft.
The launches garnered relatively little attention in the space community and beyond because Falcon 9 launches have become so common. Already this year, SpaceX has launched 31 rockets, all of them successful. This count matches the number of Falcon 9 boosters in orbit in 2021, which at the time set a record for the launch company.
But this year, SpaceX has taken its cadence to another level, with a mix of payloads including its Starlink satellites, crew and cargo missions for NASA, Department of Defense missions, and commercial satellites. As of Monday, the Falcon 9 rocket has launched every 6.4 days this year and has lifted nearly 300,000kg into low-Earth orbit. This is considerably more than any other country and company in the world combined. There are likely to be two more Starlink releases this week.
SpaceX has also continued to push the boundaries of reuse. In the past month, the company has flown three different first stages on its 13 flights. SpaceX officials say they’ve collected enough data on the reuse of these first-stage cores that, for now, there appears to be no hurdle to flying many more missions each.
To put this cadence into perspective, consider the flight rate of SpaceX’s main US competitor, United Launch Alliance. Counting its Delta and Atlas fleets, ULA launched its last 31 rockets from March 19, 2017 to today. That’s a cadence of one release every 64 days.
Put another way, SpaceX is now launching at the rate of 10 rockets to each of its main US competitors. Both companies have 100 percent success rates during this time period.
This competition will change its nature in the coming years. ULA will soon introduce its new heavy-lift Vulcan rocket, likely during the first half of 2023. With a lengthy launch manifest that includes both institutional clients and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, the company’s cadence should pick up significantly. This is likely to come sometime in the mid-2020s, when ULA expands its operations and Vulcan production capabilities.
SpaceX is also making progress on its next-generation Starship rocket. This super-heavy payload rocket is likely to begin a series of test flights from South Texas in the next six months. But SpaceX is also building up operations in Florida for operational launches of Starship and its Super Heavy booster. To that end, the company has now stacked several segments of an orbital launch tower at the site of Launch Complex 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center. During a remote camera setup prior to Friday’s payload launch for NASA, photographer Trevor Mahlmann was able to capture a zoomable panorama of the Ars launch tower.
SpaceX has not definitively stated how it will split Starship launch activities between Florida and South Texas. But it seems increasingly likely that the company will conduct experimental Starship test flights from Texas and only move to the Florida range after it is confident in the vehicle’s performance. This makes sense given the high-value assets of NASA, the Department of Defense, the National Reconnaissance Office, and other nearby launch companies in Florida.
Leave a Comment