With little fanfare this weekend, SpaceX launched two Falcon 9 rockets. The first booster lifted off Friday night, carrying nearly three tons of supplies to the International Space Station, including two new spacesuits for NASA. A second mission launched Sunday lifted another batch of 53 Starlink satellites, bringing a total of more than 2,500 operational Internet spacecraft into orbit.
As Falcon 9 launches have become more common, the launches have attracted relatively little attention in the space community and beyond. Already this year, SpaceX has launched 31 rockets, all successfully. This number matches the number of Falcon 9 boosters orbiting in 2021, a record for the launch company at the time.
But this year, SpaceX has taken its momentum to another level with its Starlink satellites, crew and cargo missions for NASA, and a mix of payloads including defense and commercial satellites. As of Monday, the Falcon 9 rocket had launched every 6.4 days this year, sending nearly 300,000 kg of payload into low Earth orbit. This is significantly more than all other countries and organizations in the world. Two more Starlink launches are possible this week.
SpaceX continues to push the boundaries of reusability. In the past month, the company has flown its 13th flight in three different first stages. SpaceX officials say they’ve collected enough data about the reuse of these first-stage cores that, for now, there appear to be no showstoppers preventing each from flying many more missions.
To put this position into perspective, consider the flight rate of SpaceX’s main US-based competitor, United Launch Alliance. Counting both its Delta and Atlas fleets, ULA launched its last 31 rockets between March 19, 2017 and today. This is a launch every 64 days.
Put another way, SpaceX now launches 10 rockets per day for its main American rivals. Both companies have 100 percent success rates during this period.
This competition will change in nature in the coming years. ULA will launch its new heavy-lift Vulcan rocket as soon as the first half of 2023. With a longer release manifest that includes both enterprise customers and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, the company’s cadence should increase significantly. As ULA ramps up its operations and Vulcan production capabilities, it could arrive in the mid-2020s.
SpaceX is making progress on its next-generation Starship rocket. The super-heavy lift rocket is likely to begin a series of test flights from South Texas in the next six months. But SpaceX is expanding operations in Florida for operational launches of Starship and its Super Heavy Booster. To that end, the company is now stacking several sections of the orbital launch tower at Launch Complex 39-A site at Kennedy Space Center. During a remote camera setup ahead of Friday’s cargo launch for NASA, photographer Trevor Mahlman was able to capture a zoomable panorama of the launch tower for Ars.
SpaceX did not say exactly how it will split Starship launch operations between Florida and South Texas. But the company will conduct Starship test flights from Texas and is likely to move to the Florida range only after it is confident in the vehicle’s performance. That makes sense given the high-value assets of NASA, the Department of Defense, the National Intelligence Service and other publishing companies near Florida.
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