After doubling the launch record in 2022, can SpaceX take another step in 2023?

Zoom in / One of SpaceX’s 61 launches in 2022 was the mission to supply NASA’s CRS-25 to the International Space Station.

Trevor Mahlman

On the penultimate day of 2022, SpaceX completed its final launch of the year, propelling an Israeli optical satellite into low Earth orbit. It was the company’s seventh launch in December and capped a year in which the Falcon family of rockets has launched 61 times, all successfully.

All but one of these missions flew on a Falcon 9 rocket, and more than 90 percent of those flights were on a previously used booster. The other launch took place on a Falcon Heavy. With these 61 flights, SpaceX beat a record set by the Soviet R-7 rocket, which flew in 1980. (a) Combined 61 missions via Soyuz, Molniya, and Vostok variants.

The Soviets accomplished this in the midst of the Cold War, of course, with a sizable budget devoted to space observation and a massive government space program involving tens of thousands of workers. SpaceX has done the same work as a private company, flying Starlink satellites and a mix of missions for satellite companies and government space agencies. SpaceX has also landed every first stage attempted return on an unmanned ship or landing site in 2022, for a total of 60 rockets, including two side boosters from the Falcon Heavy mission on November 1.

Early Tuesday morning, SpaceX will open launch account for 2023 with the Transporter-6 mission. As the name suggests, this will be the flight-sharing company’s sixth mission, carrying 114 small satellites into low Earth orbit for various companies. These include satellites, microsatellites, picosaats, and orbital transfer vehicles that will transport spacecraft for deployment to various orbits. These rideshare missions, which SpaceX began in January 2021, have limited the financial prospects of some small launch vehicle companies by gobbling up the small satellite customer base.

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SpaceX is targeting 9:56 a.m. ET (14:56 UTC) on Tuesday to launch the Transporter-6 mission from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. This will be the second time that SpaceX has attempted to launch one of its first stages from the Falcon 9 15 times, as this rocket has previously launched the GPS III-3 satellite for the US Space Force, three other commercial missions, and 10 batches of Starlink satellites. . It now looks like the company will launch one of its rockets up to 20 times by the end of this year.

In 2022, SpaceX was able to significantly increase launch cadence by ramping up Starlink satellite production as well as maturing its operations to reuse Falcon 9 first stages and payload fairings. Previously, during the five-year period from 2017 to 2021, SpaceX averaged 22 launches per year, with an annual record of 31 in 2021. Last year the company nearly doubled its previous record.

Thus, the question for the new year is whether SpaceX can take another leap in tempo. SpaceX founder Elon Musk He said earlier in 2022 that the company aims to launch 100 rockets in 2023. That seems like an upper limit of what’s possible; However, since the company was able to launch seven missiles in December, it is probably unreachable in terms of crude production.

Of course, nothing is clear about the launch process, and another important factor is the readiness of the payload. Of its missions in 2022, 27 were for governments or commercial customers, while 34 were the payloads of the company’s Starlink internet satellite. Assuming about 30 flights for government and commercial customers, getting close to 100 launches in 2023 would require SpaceX to nearly double production of its Starlink satellites. This, too, is a big ask for the disruptive California launch company.

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But after seeing its stellar performance in 2022, perhaps big orders can’t be ruled out.

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