SpaceX launched two Falcon 9 rockets this weekend with little fanfare. The first booster took off on Friday night and carried nearly three tons of material to the International Space Station, including two new spacesuits for NASA. The second mission, launched Sunday, powered another batch of 53 Starlink satellites, bringing the orbital total to more than 2,500 operational Internet spacecraft.
Because Falcon 9 launches have become so commonplace, the launches have received relatively little attention in the space community and beyond. Just this year, SpaceX has launched 31 rockets, all successfully. That number matches the number of Falcon 9 boosters orbiting in 2021, which set a record for the launch company at the time.
But this year, SpaceX has taken the pace to another level with a range of payloads, including Starlink satellites, crew and cargo missions for NASA, DoD missions, and commercial satellites. As of Monday, the Falcon 9 rocket has been launched every 6.4 days this year, lifting nearly 300,000 kg into low Earth orbit. This is far more than all the other countries and companies in the world combined. Two more Starlink launches are likely this week.
SpaceX also continued to push the boundaries of reuse. The company made its 13th flight last month, flying in three different first stages. SpaceX officials say they’ve gathered enough data on the reuse of these first-stage cores, so for now, it looks like there are no demonstrators each to stop more missions from flying.
To put that beat into perspective, consider the flight speed of United Launch Alliance, SpaceX’s main US-based competitor. Counting both Delta and Atlas fleets, ULA has launched its last 31 rockets since 19 March 2017. That’s a launch cadence every 64 days.
In other words, SpaceX is now launching at 10 rockets each of its main American rivals. Both companies have 100 percent success rates during this time.
This rivalry will change in nature in the coming years. ULA will likely launch its new heavy-lift Vulcan rocket in the first half of 2023. With a lengthy launch manifest that includes both enterprise customers and Amazon’s Kuiper Project, the pace of the company will pick up significantly. This will likely happen in the mid-2020s 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 expected to begin a series of test flights over South Texas in the next six months. But SpaceX is also accumulating operations in Florida for operational launches of its Starship and Super Heavy booster. To that end, the company has now stacked several parts of an orbital launch tower at the Launch Complex 39-A site at Kennedy Space Center. Photographer Trevor Mahlmann was able to capture a zoomable panorama of the launch tower for Ars during a remote camera setup ahead of NASA’s cargo launch on Friday.
SpaceX did not specify exactly how it will divide its Starship launch activities between Florida and South Texas. But it seems increasingly likely that the company will conduct experimental test flights of the Starship from Texas and move into Florida range only after relying on the vehicle’s performance. This makes sense, given the high-value assets of NASA, the Department of Defense, the National Reconnaissance Office, and other launch companies in Florida.
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