With little fanfare this weekend, SpaceX launched two Falcon 9 rockets. The first booster took off Friday night and transported nearly three tons of supplies to the International Space Station, including two new spacecraft, for NASA. The second mission, launched on Sunday, increased a new group of 53 Starlink satellites, bringing the total to more than 2,500 operational Internet spacecraft.
The launches attracted relatively little attention in space society and beyond because Falcon 9 launches have become so common. Already this year, SpaceX has launched 31 rockets, all with success. This is in line with the number of Falcon 9 boosters that went live in 2021, which at that 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 the Starlink satellites, NASA crews and cargo missions, the 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 almost 300,000 kg in low ground. This is significantly more than any 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. In the last month, the company flew three different first stages on its 13th flight. SpaceX officials say they have gathered enough data on the reuse of these first-stage cores that so far there do not appear to be any show stoppers who rule out flying many more missions each.
To put this cadence in perspective, consider the flight speed of SpaceX’s most important US-based competitor, the United Launch Alliance. Counting both its Delta and Atlas fleets, ULA launched its last 31 rockets from March 19, 2017 to today. There is a cadence of one launch every 64 days.
In other words, SpaceX is now launching at a speed of 10 rockets to each of its main US competitors. Both companies have a 100 percent success rate during this time period.
This competition will change character in the years to come. ULA will soon debut its new heavy-lifting Vulcan rocket, probably during the first half of 2023. With a long-running launch manifesto that includes both institutional customers and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, the company’s cadence should increase significantly. This will probably come sometime in the mid-2020s when ULA scales up operations and Vulcan production capabilities.
SpaceX is also making progress with its next-generation Starship rocket. This super-heavy launcher is likely to begin 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 the Launch Complex 39-A site at the Kennedy Space Center. During an external camera setup ahead of Friday’s cargo launch for NASA, photographer Trevor Mahlmann was able to capture a zoomable panorama of the launch tower for Ars.
SpaceX has not definitively stated how it will divide Starship launch activities between Florida and South Texas. But it seems increasingly likely that the company will conduct experimental test flights of Starship from Texas and only move to the Florida area after 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 launch companies in nearby Florida.