What stands to make this year stand out for SpaceX is the convergence of several lines. Starting with this mission the first of these lines is their launches for themselves, not contracted to some another entity. Ars Technica reports that the company will be launching many of these 60 satellite deployment missions for their Starlink internet satellite service; possibly as many as a dozen of those 60-satellite deployment missions this year.
SpaceX has now launched two batches of 60 Starlink Internet satellites—one of which was experimental, and the second of which is expected to be operational as part of a low-Earth-orbit constellation. As early as January 6, the company anticipates launching its second batch of operational satellites, known as the Starlink-2 mission. The Starlink-3 and Starlink-4 missions may also launch in January.As a revenue stream, that's important for SpaceX as a business, but obviously isn't the most important thing to NASA. The agency wants them to launch American astronauts to the ISS from American soil. This year will mark nine years of relying on the Russians for a lift to the ISS, since the shuttles was last launched in 2011. As you know, NASA has contracted both Boeing and SpaceX to provide launch services. NASA apparently prefers for both companies to get their vehicles flying this year, but neither company has a perfect record. SpaceX had a successful robotically controlled mission of their Crew Dragon to the ISS last March, but that capsule exploded a month later during an abort thruster test, leading them to redesign a system that had never failed before. Boeing has had success in their emergency escape system test but failed in their mission to the ISS in December. This is the second line converging for SpaceX this year.
At this kind of launch cadence, SpaceX should be ready to offer an initial, "bumpy" service by the middle of 2020, the company's president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, said in December. The company plans to offer "mature" service in 2021.
The third line that's converging for SpaceX is their Starship. Rumors are flying of a first flight in the next few months. Maybe pencil-in June on your “keep an eye out” calendar?
SpaceX had some success in 2019 with its Starship program as it built the stubby "Starhopper" prototype to test the performance of its new Raptor rocket engine. The vehicle made controlled flights, first of 20 meters and then 150 meters, before SpaceX moved on to build full-scale prototypes of the Starship vehicle.The fourth and final converging line is their core business as a launch services provider, launching satellites for any customer.
This process has not been without some issues, but now SpaceX appears to be closer to a final design. According to Paul Wooster, the principal Mars development engineer at SpaceX, the company has spent a little more than four years working on optimizing the shape, materials, and performance of the Starship vehicle. It would be no small feat to build this fully reusable second stage for both cargo and, eventually, humans. So it has taken time, and a lot of testing, to get to even this point.
SpaceX engineers have been working rapidly to bring a flight-worthy model of Starship to the launch pad near Boca Chica Beach in South Texas. Company founder and chief technical designer Elon Musk spent the day (and night) after Christmas working with his team on pressurized fuel tank domes for the next iteration of the vehicle, now called SN1. Although Musk's timelines are not particularly reliable, he said this vehicle may be ready for test flights in two or three months.
A launch of the full-scale Starship vehicle — which one day may ferry humans to the Moon or Mars — would represent a key step toward SpaceX's ultimate goal of settling Mars. It might also convince policymakers in Washington, DC, that the vehicle could play a role in the Artemis Moon Program plans.
After 2018's 22 total launches, the company had a much quieter 2019 with only 13 orbital launches — 11 by the Falcon 9 rocket and two by the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. Barring anything catastrophic, it seems they should easily exceed their 22 mission record this year. Ars space reporter Eric Berger notes:
With missions planned for commercial satellite customers, NASA, and Starlink, it seems possible that SpaceX could launch 30 or more Falcon 9 rockets in 2020. This would easily make the Falcon 9 rocket the most experienced active US rocket—surpassing the Atlas V vehicle.The limiting factor for Falcon 9 launches appears to be how many upper stages they can produce for the vehicle. The company has already shown customers that recovering the first stage isn't a circus trick, I believe the current count is 47 successful recoveries of a first stage, and they've flown boosters as many as four times. Now think of the Starlink program again. SpaceX can demonstrate that proposals for launch cost reduction are not empty promises by testing the reuse approaches on their own launches. They've already flown a recovered fairing, on a booster that reached four flights during their November Starlink launch. In the coverage of that Starlink launch, it was mentioned that they seem to be moving toward learning how to recover upper stages. That would impact that problem of how fast they can produce upper stages, wouldn't it?
The Starship depicted next to a Saturn V and a Falcon 9. I believe that the portion that Musk is saying may be “ready for test flights in two or three months” is the upper stage of Starship, not the entire vehicle. Credit to Kimi_Talvitie on Instagram.