Monday, March 20, 2023

Has SpaceX Made Launches Boring?

It's an interesting question I hadn't thought over before, but for years the launch providers have talked about aiming for the model of the pace, reliability and efficiency of airline operations.  No, they're not there, although they may be closer than any group in history.  Increasingly, though, I have to concede the answer is probably “yes.”  I also need to rush to add that it's a good thing.  In spaceflight: Boring Is Good.  Especially when it's never interrupted by pure terror, horror, or just plain disappointment.

Last Friday, for example, I had their launch channel on in the background, set to start when their coverage for the Friday afternoon launch from Vandenberg went live.  With no chance of going outdoors to watch it, I just watched the live stream until they landed the booster on their drone ship Of Course I Still Love You and ended the live coverage.  But I forgot to reset the streaming channel for Friday night's launch from Cape Canaveral.  Although I've known for days, at least, that there was going to be an evening launch, the thought of changing my routine to watch a launch went away.  About 2 minutes after launch, so about 7:40 PM, the rumble of the Falcon 9 reached us.  We instantly knew what that sound was - and that it was too late to see anything outside.  So we watched them land the booster on the drone ship over here (JRTI).

Total time between those launches (a continent apart) was four hours and twelve minutes, which broke SpaceX's corporate record for the shortest duration between two launches.

However, the overall record for the lowest time between two launches of the same rocket still belongs to the Russian-built Soyuz vehicle. In June 2013, Roscosmos launched a Soyuz booster from Kazakhstan, and Arianespace launched a Soyuz from French Guiana within two hours. Those launches were conducted by two separate space agencies on separate continents, however.

Those St. Patrick's Day launches were SpaceX's 18th and 19th launches of the year, on the 76th day of the year.  Just dividing 76 days by 19 launches gives 4 days per launch.  At this pace, they're somewhat behind the stated goal of 100 launches this year; with 289 days left in the year, they'll launch 91 at the current pace.  Getting the pace up to 3-1/2 days per launch will get them to their goal.  

To put this into perspective, a decade ago, the United States launched an average of 15 to 20 orbital rockets a year. In 2022, the United States recorded its most launches in any calendar year, ever, with 78 orbital flights. This year, barring a catastrophic accident with the Falcon 9 booster, that number will easily get into triple digits. The all-time record for orbital launches in a single year is held by the Soviet Union, with 101, in 1982.

OBTW; that number of 78 US launches last year includes SpaceX's 61 launches, or 78.2% of all US launches were SpaceX.  When SpaceX first started launching Falcon missions, they completed three in one year, which was doing pretty well.  Their competitors were largely the Russians, the European Space Agency and United Launch Alliance.  Through 2023 'til today, Russia has launched three rockets, two Soyuz and one Proton.  Neither the ESA or ULA have launched one. 

Looked at from a slightly different perspective, their three largest competitors have launched three rockets in three months.  If you include the CRS-27 resupply mission on the night of the 14th, SpaceX has launched three rockets in three days. 

Followers of the Starship program know they talk of eventually launching the same Starship multiple times in one day.  It still takes a couple of weeks to refurbish a Falcon 9 booster, and if that was cut in half, there's still time to refurbish the launch pads that doesn't look to get much shorter than about a week.  

In the meantime, while the interest in watching launches varies with the time of year (visibility is best in the winter), time of day, and familiarity with the vehicle, trajectory and so on, I still find watching them land the booster worth watching.  No other company, or country, on Earth has landed an orbital class booster yet, and there's no indication of a test mission coming that will recover one.

I was looking through my posted pictures for a pretty launch, but in a different sort of way, this sums it up better.  From last October, a Falcon 9 heads for orbit in the background, while an "experienced" booster is being processed in Port Canaveral to be transported up to the north end of KSC to be refurbished to fly again. That booster looks dirtier than Hans Solo's Millennium Falcon.  Jenny Hautmann photo


  1. Man, I thought the tempo of Deltas and Atlases in the late 70s and early 80s was whoo-doggy busy. Was fun watching them from the beaches side, and even from the actual beaches.

    Cannot imagine the sci-fi pace of launches now.

    Heh. Any chance of building a deck above your porch so you and yours can watch from rooftop? There were a couple houses in Satellite Beach back in the day that were equipped with them. Of course an oceanside room in an oceanside condo is probably the choisest way to watch...

  2. I used to go to the river in Titusville for every launch. That became just for the "big" launches. Now, just about every launch is viewed from the back yard. Not boring yet, but not as special.

  3. Never!! Any rocket rising off the pad, be it a model rocket or a Saturn V is an exciting wonder.

  4. YES, it's getting boring. YES, that's a good thing!!
    I wonder what the next decade will bring??

  5. Seriously, though, I still look up and play 'spot the plane' when I hear one. And I can spend hours at a busy airport watching the takeoffs and landings.

    I can do the same thing at any overlook of a busy railyard.

    It's not boring, it's just less intense and, so far, safer, so far.