Friday, September 2, 2022

SpaceX to Target 100 Launches in '23

A rumor surfaced over the last couple of days, later confirmed by Elon Musk, that SpaceX will aim for 100 launches next year, another doubling of their launch rate from 2021.   

Eric Ralph at Teslarati points out the answer to most peoples' first thought:

In the history of orbital spaceflight, no family of rockets – let alone a single variant like Falcon 9 – has completed more than 61 successful launches in one calendar year. The cadence target Musk is suggesting is unprecedented and would be an extraordinary challenge even for SpaceX, a company that just completed its 50th successful Falcon 9 launch in a little over 12 months.

As anyone who follows their launches this year knows, they're ahead of one launch per week, averaging one launch a little over every 6 days.  Many of those launches are building out the Starlink constellation.  Before that, from '17 to '19, they were launching at a rate of 15-20 launches per year. In 2020, they demonstrated that they could launch every other week, racking up 26 launches for the year.  In '21, they flipped a switch and went plaid:

In the first half of the year, SpaceX launched 20 times, demonstrating an unexpected 50% improvement over 2020’s annual cadence. In the second half of the year, SpaceX had two strange gaps of almost two months each, during which it didn’t once. In the other two months, though, SpaceX launched 11 times, effectively demonstrating another launch cadence improvement of more than 50% over the first half of the year. Finally, SpaceX completed 6 of those 11 launches in a period of 4 weeks near the end of the year – an annual cadence of 78 launches if sustained for a full year.

The acceleration has continued into this year.  

Thus far, 2022 has been an eight-month extension of the last few weeks of 2021. SpaceX even appears to have improved upon itself again, accelerating its launch cadence throughout the year. In the first half of the year, SpaceX managed 27 Falcon 9 launches, nearly beating the 31-launch record it set in 2021 in half the time and demonstrating an annual cadence of up to 54 launches per year if sustained.

Instead of continuing that already impressive pace in the second half of the year, SpaceX launched six times in July and another six times in August, sustaining an annualized cadence of 72 launches per year for two full months. At the moment, that could be considered a fluke. But if SpaceX manages another six launches in September, which is the plan, it can likely be deemed a new normal for Falcon 9 launch cadence.

A cadence of 72 per year is unheard of, but short of the nearly twice/week cadence that 100 launches calls for.  The workload would likely be spread between Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral - as it has for the last two months - and would have to extend to recovery drone ships as well as preparing the launch facilities.  SpaceX was recently advertising for employees at Vandenberg to support a higher launch cadence, specifically saying they didn't care so much about a potential employee's certificates or diplomas, but more about their tenacity and ability to solve problems.  

Still, it implies that the drone ships and three launch pads (two east, one west) would work at faster than their fastest turnaround rates of this year for all of next year.  It seems that will take luck in addition to their already-demonstrated engineering and hard, hard work.   

There a tons of reasons to say, "what about ..." here.  What about Falcon Heavy launches?  I assume they're part of the launch count but there's no demonstration of a high launch cadence for Heavy in particular.  Due to various delays (from the payloads) there's half a dozen Falcon Heavy launches backlogged.  I'm fairly sure (but not 100%)  that Heavy requires Pad 39A and I think it could slow down the pace.  What about manned flights?  Crew Dragon (manned) and Cargo Dragon (unmanned) flights both seem to require 39A and those flights always seem to spend more time in checkout on the pad than most Falcon 9 launches.  In addition to (probably) two Crew Rotation missions for NASA to the ISS, another Axiom private (non-NASA/non-government) manned mission, AX-2, has been penciled in for Quarter 2 of '23, the Polaris Dawn private manned mission may launch in the fourth quarter of this year or may drift into '23 as well.  My guess is three or four manned missions and one or two cargo missions. 

And then there's the wildest of the wildcards: Starship.  It's entirely possible that Starship will make its first test flight before the end of this year.  Beyond that, it's hard to figure how much impact Starship could have on their schedule.  I think we can be sure that a first orbital mission with a payload would be a Starlink mission rather than a paying customer but how that would impact their need for 100 launches is hard to guess from this seat!

The launch of a Starlink 11 mission on 9/03/20 from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.  Richard Angle photograph for Teslarati.  

It's important to note that the likely reason for more 100 launches next year isn't Starlink in particular; once Starship is in service, launches will move toward that, especially with the "Pez dispenser" for the bigger satellites.  The reason for more launches is that they're still getting more contracts from companies that had reservations on other providers - notably Roscosmos in Russia - but that launch service isn't available.


  1. 100 may sound crazy, but SpaceX has shown they can refurbish a damaged booster in less time than it takes most other launch companies to check out and prep for launch of a brand-new production throw-away rocket.

    And the lack of a viable ULA alternative, along with the throttling of Russia and the slowness of Ariane, have thrown a lot of traffic towards SpaceX. Traffic that has traditionally 'belonged' to those other providers.

    The shift by the ESA away from Ariane towards SpaceX is one of the most surprising. Seems even Euro-weenies can see the writing on the wall.

    1. You probably noticed this, but on Wednesday, they did a three engine static fire of booster 7, but one engine didn't perform properly. It was replaced overnight, probably within 12 hours after the test. "Git 'er done" - quickly.

    2. I think you’ve answered your own question of yesterday, “Why would any company work to be the best in space flight?”

      Ans: Because anyone *other* than the government will choose to buy your services first.

    3. And now SLS is scrubbed till possibly October due to a hydrogen leak. Mayhaps the hydrogen leak that popped the insulation that NASA said was okay.

      Did you know that Artemis is only certified for a certain number of moves to and from the pad? I think it's 3 round trips and then everything, EVERYTHING, has to be recertified and pieces-parts replaced?

      So they have now reached the number of moves. What happens next?

    4. I thought it was two round trips but that sounds too small. Actually, three sounds too small, too. Another point worth noting is that if they didn't go by Monday they had to roll back to the VAB anyway because the FTS certification expires after the launch window on Monday. Extended just for them, because they're so special.

      I also heard that there was concern the solids have been stacked too long. Personally, I've never heard of a solid rocket sitting around too long, but this isn't my line of work so I just don't know.

    5. So all those Minutemen and MX missiles were time-limited to months or just a few years? That would have surprised my dad, who while in the USAF worked on the Minuteman project (you could watch the rail cars come in with them at Vandenberg from his office window.)

    6. Could the mix have been changed over the years? If the requirement is for the absolute most thrust, specific impulse, or some other measure, could they get more performance if they gave up shelf life? These aren't Morton Thiokol boosters anymore, or it's only Thiokol by heritage. Thiokol was bought by ATK, then merged with Orbital, and Orbital ATK was bought by Northrup Grumman.

    7. Beans, I actually worked on the MM missiles from '73-'76, and we had birds that were 10+ years old. Ask your dad (IF you can) about "footshots" for the older birds. I did one in '76.

  2. Ah, yes - Roscosmos. Buh-bye, we hardly knew ye.

    Now, China...................