SpaceX is now launching 10 rockets for each from its main competitor

SpaceX is now launching 10 rockets for each from its main competitor

On Falcon 9, CRS-25 takes off on Friday evening.  If you zoom in you can see mosquitoes scattered all over the image, illuminated by the rocket exhaust in the background.
Enlarge / On Falcon 9, CRS-25 takes off on Friday evening. If you zoom in you can see mosquitoes scattered all over the image, illuminated by the rocket exhaust in the background.

Trevor Mahlman

With little fanfare, SpaceX launched two Falcon 9 rockets this weekend. The first booster lifted off Friday night, carrying nearly three tons of supplies to the International Space Station, including two new spacesuits for NASA. The second mission, launched Sunday, augmented another batch of 53 Starlink satellites, bringing the total in orbit to more than 2,500 operational internet spacecraft.

The launches drew relatively little attention in the space community and beyond because Falcon 9 launches have become so commonplace. Already this year, SpaceX has successfully launched 31 rockets. That tally equates to the number of Falcon 9 boosters orbited in 2021, which set a record for the launch vehicle at the time.

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, carrying almost 300,000 kg into low Earth orbit. That is significantly more than in every other country and company in the world combined. Two more Starlink launches are likely this week.

SpaceX has also continued to push the boundaries of reuse. Last month, the company flew three different first stages on its 13th flight. SpaceX officials say they’ve gathered enough data on reusing these first-stage cores that there don’t seem to be any showstoppers for now, ruling out flying many more missions at a time.

To put this cadence in perspective, consider the flight rate of SpaceX’s main US competitor, United Launch Alliance. Counting the Delta and Atlas fleets, ULA launched its last 31 missiles from March 19, 2017 to date. That is a cadence of one start every 64 days.

Put another way, SpaceX is now launching at a rate of 10 rockets to each of its major American competitors. Both companies have a 100 percent success rate during this period.

This competition will change in the coming years. ULA will unveil its new heavy-lift rocket Vulcan soon, likely in the first half of 2023. With a long launch program that includes both institutional clients and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, the company’s cadence should increase significantly. This will likely occur sometime in the mid-2020s as ULA expands its operational and Vulcan manufacturing capabilities.

SpaceX is also making progress on its next-generation Starship rocket. This super-heavy launch vehicle is expected to launch a series of test flights from South Texas over the next six months. But SpaceX is also winding 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 Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39-A site. During a remote camera setup ahead of Friday’s cargo launch for NASA, photographer Trevor Mahlmann was able to capture a zoomable panorama of the Ars launch tower.

SpaceX has not finalized how it will split Starship launch activities between Florida and South Texas. But it seems increasingly likely that the company will conduct experimental test flights from Texas-based Starship and only move to the Florida range once it has confidence in the vehicle’s performance. This makes sense given the valuable assets of NASA, the Department of Defense, the National Reconnaissance Office, and other launchers nearby in Florida.

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