With little fanfare this weekend, SpaceX launched two Falcon 9 rockets. The first rocket blasted off Friday evening and carried nearly three tons of supplies to the International Space Station, including two new NASA spacesuits. The second mission launched on Sunday boosted another batch of 53 Starlink satellites, bringing the total number in orbit to more than 2,500 spacecraft operating online.
The launches have attracted relatively little attention in the space community and beyond because the Falcon 9 launch has become so common. Already this year, SpaceX has launched 31 missiles, all of them successfully. That number matches the number of Falcon 9 boosters orbiting 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 Starlink satellites, NASA’s crew and cargo missions, Department of Defense missions, and commercial satellites. As of Monday, the Falcon 9 rocket is being launched every 6.4 days this year and has lifted nearly 300,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. This is far more than any other country and company in the world combined. Two more Starlink operations are likely to be launched this week.
SpaceX has also continued to push the limits of reuse. Last month, the company flew three different first stages on its thirteenth flights. SpaceX officials say they’ve collected enough data about the reuse of these first stage cores that, for now, there seem to be no fly-bys for many missions.
To put that cadence into perspective, consider the flight rate of US-based SpaceX’s main competitor, United Launch Alliance. After calculating the Delta and Atlas fleets, the ULA launched the last 31 missiles from March 19, 2017 to the present day. This is a rhythm of one firing every 64 days.
In other words, SpaceX is now firing an average of 10 missiles per major US competitor. Both companies have 100 percent success rates during this time period.
This competition will change in nature in the coming years. ULA will soon launch its new heavy-lift Vulcan rocket, likely during the first half of 2023. With a lengthy launch statement that includes institutional customers and the Amazon Kuiper project, the company’s cadence should increase significantly. This will likely come sometime in the middle of 2020 as ULA expands its operations and Vulcan production capabilities.
SpaceX is also making progress on a next-generation Starship rocket. This heavy-lift missile is likely to begin a series of test flights from South Texas in the next six months. But SpaceX is also staging operations in Florida for operational launches of the Starship and its Super Heavy booster. To that end, the company has now stacked several parts of the orbital launch tower at Launch Complex 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center. While setting up a remote camera before Friday’s launch of cargo for NASA, photographer Trevor Mahleman was able to capture a zoomable panoramic photo of the Ars launch tower.
SpaceX hasn’t definitively said how it will split the Starship’s launch activities between Florida and southern Texas. But it seems increasingly likely that the company will conduct test flights for the Starship out of Texas and only move to the Florida range after it is confident in the car’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.
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