With little fanfare this weekend, SpaceX launched two Falcon 9 rockets. The first booster took off on Friday night and delivered nearly three tons of supplies to the International Space Station, including two new space suits for NASA. The second mission launched on Sunday boosted another batch of 53 Starlink satellites, bringing a total of more than 2,500 operational Internet spacecraft into orbit.
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 successfully. This tally corresponds to the number of Falcon 9 boosters orbited in 2021, which set a record for the launch company at the time.
But this year, SpaceX has taken its momentum 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 300,000 kilograms into low-Earth orbit. This is significantly more than every other country and company in the world combined. Two more Starlink launches are expected this week.
SpaceX has also continued to push the limits of reuse. Last month, the company flew its 13th flights in three different first phases. SpaceX officials say they’ve gathered enough data on how to reuse these first stage cores that, for now, seem like no showstopper to prevent flying many more missions.
To put this synergy in perspective, consider the flight rates of SpaceX’s main US-based competitor, United Launch Alliance. Counting both its Delta and Atlas fleets, ULA launched its last 31 rockets from March 19, 2017 to today. This is the cadence of one launch every 64 days.
In other words, SpaceX is now launching 10 rockets for each of its main US competitors. Both companies have a 100 percent success rate during this period.
This competition will change in nature in the coming years. ULA will soon debut its new heavy lift Vulcan rocket, possibly 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 increase significantly. That will likely come in mid-2020 as ULA expands its operations and Vulcan production capabilities.
SpaceX is also making progress on its next-generation Starship rocket. This super-heavy lift rocket is likely to begin a series of test flights from South Texas over the next six months. But SpaceX is also working on an operational launch of the Starship and its Super Heavy booster in Florida. To that end, the company has now stacked several sections of an orbital launch tower at the Launch Complex 39-A site at Kennedy Space Center. During a remote camera setup ahead of Friday’s cargo launch for NASA, photographer Trevor Mahleman was able to capture a zoomable panorama of Ars’ launch tower.
SpaceX hasn’t said definitively how it will split Starship launch activities between Florida and South Texas. But it looks like the company will conduct experimental test flights of the Starship from Texas and move to the Florida range only after the vehicle is confident in its performance. This makes sense given the high-value assets of NASA, the Department of Defense, the National Reconnaissance Office, and other launch companies nearby in Florida.