With a rumble that has become routine, Falcon 9 lifted off on September 3rd, 2023 with Starlink 6-12, setting SpaceX’s new record for their number of launches in a given year. This launch marked SpaceX’s 62nd spaceflight of 2023, surpassing 2022’s 61 missions, marking a new record that has and will continue to grow throughout the rest of the year. When SpaceX launched the Telstar 18V mission in 2018, it marked their 62nd Falcon 9 launch. This came 8 years after its maiden flight which raises the question; what allows SpaceX to keep up such a high launch cadence, and where will that take commercial spaceflight in the future?
When Starlink 6-12 was launched on September 3rd, 2023, it marked SpaceX’s 59th Falcon 9 mission of the year, on top of three Falcon Heavy missions. Provided that this launch rate stays consistent for the remainder of the year, SpaceX is on track to launch about 90 missions throughout 2023. This demonstrates a significant increase in launch cadence over the past few years with 61 missions in 2022, 31 missions in 2021, and 26 missions in 2020. According to SpaceX’s founder and CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX is aiming for a notional launch rate of about 12 missions per month, totaling to 140 to 150 missions over the course of 2024.
As of September 3rd, 2023, SpaceX leads the global launch market by a significant margin. In order to fully grasp SpaceX’s launch rate, it is worth comparing them to other global launch leaders, namely the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), Rocket Lab, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), and Roscosmos. SpaceX’s first 62 launches of 2023 are summarized alongside those of the four other launch providers listed in the chart below.
It is also worth noting that Rocket Lab has performed a single suborbital launch of their HASTE vehicle, Roscosmos launched their Luna-25 probe into a trans lunar injection trajectory, and ISRO launched their Chandrayaan-3 lunar exploration mission into an elliptical orbit. SpaceX has not launched a spacecraft into any of these trajectories so far this year.
According to Musk, SpaceX has launched about 80% of all payload mass into orbit this year. This compares to China’s 10%, and the remaining 10% is shared between all other global launch providers. To fully grasp how rapidly SpaceX has grown as a launch provider in recent years, this number drops down to about 30% in 2019, the first year SpaceX began launching operational Starlink satellites. The following year when nearly all global launch providers experienced a decline in activity due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, SpaceX saw the opposite and launched about 50% of the global payload mass into orbit.
While it is clear that SpaceX leads in the majority of the orbital destinations listed (CASC leads Sun-Synchronous by a significant margin), they stand reasonably close to the four other launch providers. The main exception for this is Low Earth Orbit (LEO). SpaceX dominates LEO by a margin of over 30 launches, however it is important to note that many of these missions are sending SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites into orbit. With thousands of Starlink satellites currently in orbit and thousands more on the way, SpaceX has essentially given themselves their own launch contract. While these are internal missions, it gives them an advantage regarding how many missions they are tasked with in a given year. Upon removing these missions from their launch count, SpaceX has launched a total of 5 payloads into LEO this year. This puts them right in the middle of the five launch providers examined. While these statistics show how Starlink is the main reason for SpaceX’s lead over other launch providers, especially in LEO, SpaceX is still demonstrating their ability to have such a high and unmatched launch cadence.
In order to support so many launches in a given year, SpaceX has been perfecting their ability to turn around both their launchpads and launch vehicles in record time. SpaceX currently has 17 Falcon 9 boosters in use, with two more awaiting their maiden flights and an additional three in development and testing phases. SpaceX’s Falcon 9s are named with a B followed by a four digit number. As of the writing of this article, SpaceX currently operates B1058 through B1081, with the exceptions of B1059, B1066, B1068, B1070, and B1074. Booster 1058 actively holds the record for the most spaceflights out of SpaceX’s fleet, having flown to space and returned to earth 16 times. Booster 1058 is the same booster which launched Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on SpaceX and NASA’s Demo-2 mission in 2020, returning orbital human spaceflight capability to the US for the first time since 2011.
SpaceX also operates three Falcon family launch pads across two spaceports; Historic Launch Complex 39A and SLC-40 in Cape Canaveral, FL, and SLC-4E in Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. The current record for a Falcon 9 turnaround time is held by B1062, which in April 2022, completed its 6th flight a mere 21 days after its previous mission. For Falcon 9 missions throughout 2023, the average turnaround time stands at just over 50 days. As of September 3rd, 2023, the majority of SpaceX’s missions have been flown out of SLC-40, having hosted 34 launches. While the average turnaround time for SLC-40 this year stands firmly at seven days, SpaceX has been able to launch two Falcon 9 missions from the same launch pad in a span of just under 100 hours, holding their current record.
With SpaceX on track to launch 90 missions by the end of 2023 and eyeing 150 throughout 2024, Space Launch Delta 45, the United States Space Force’s command over Eastern Range, has had to upgrade their capabilities across multiple fronts in order to support such a rapidly growing commercial launch market. This initiative is known as the “Range of the Future”, and is the USSF’s plan to support airport-like activity over the next decade. By reshaping and rethinking areas such as safety, infrastructure, and scheduling, SLD 40 hopes to ease the transition to a spaceport that can reliably handle multiple launches per day. With three more launch pads recently being allocated to four new commercial launch ventures, the commercial launch market is busier than ever and will only continue to grow. Looking to the future, it is only becoming more and more clear that this rapid increase in launch capability, along with the facilitation of its oversight, will open the doors to a world where the boundary between earth and space is a little bit closer.