Is it possible that SpaceX has succeeded in making orbital launches boring? Increasingly, the answer to this question appears to be yes .
On Friday the California-based company launched two Falcon 9 rockets within the span of just a little more than four hours. At 12:26 pm local time, a Falcon 9 rocket carried 52 of SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit from a launch pad at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. A mere 4 hours and 12 minutes later, another Falcon 9 rocket delivered two large communications satellites into geostationary transfer orbit for the Luxembourg-based satellite company SES from Kennedy Space Center.
This broke SpaceX’s own record for the shortest time 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.
Friday’s launch of the two SES satellites was, overall, SpaceX’s 19th orbital mission for the calendar year. As of today, the company is launching a Falcon rocket every 4.1 days and remains on pace to launch approximately 90 rockets before the end of 2023.
To put this into perspective, a decade ago, the United States launched an average of 15 to 20 orbital rockets a year, total. 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.
A decade ago, SpaceX was still an upstart in the global launch industry. In the year 2013, it launched the Falcon 9 rocket a grand total of three times in a single year for the first time. This was actually a pretty monumental achievement for the company, as it introduced both its second launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base and a substantially upgraded variant, 1.1, of the Falcon 9 rocket. It also flew commercial missions for the first time and began experimenting with ocean-based landings.
In that competitive environment a decade ago, SpaceX still lagged far behind its main competitors, including Roscosmos, Europe-based Arianespace, and US-based United Launch Alliance. This year those numbers have swung massively around. Through today, Russia has launched three rockets, two Soyuz and one Proton, in 2023. Arianespace has yet to launch a single mission, and nor has United Launch Alliance.
No longer a competition
Put another way, SpaceX’s main competitors over the last decade have launched three rockets this year. SpaceX, by comparison, just launched three rockets in three days, including the CRS-27 mission flown for NASA on the evening of March 14. Increasingly, only the combined efforts of China’s government and its nascent commercial launch sector can pose a challenge to SpaceX’s launch dominance. That nation has a total of 11 orbital launches this year.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said he would like the launch industry to achieve airline-like operations with rockets one day. His company is not there yet, as it takes a couple of weeks to land, refurbish, and relaunch a Falcon 9 first stage. Each mission still requires a brand-new second stage. And the fastest turnaround time at its three launch pads, Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and Vandenberg in California, is still about a week for each facility.
But they sure have come a long way in a decade.