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SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 fleet takes shape as rocket booster production ramps

Per a source involved in SpaceX’s cross-country rocket transport infrastructure, the company continues to beat the expectations of its closest followers, pointing towards an inflection point in the production and testing of new Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket boosters and upper stages.

Building off of a number of Falcon 9 booster, upper stage, and fairing spottings over the past six weeks, it can reasonably be concluded that SpaceX has completed, shipped, tested (i.e. static fires in Texas), and delivered (to launch sites) as many Falcon 9 rockets in six weeks as were shipped, tested, and launched in the preceding five months – perhaps even 30% more.

This extreme production ramp can be attributed almost entirely to the maturation of Falcon 9 Block 5’s design and manufacturing apparatus, owing to the fact that the rocket’s most recent (and theoretically final) upgrade necessitated significant changes to almost every major aspect of the Falcon family. Meanwhile, a considerable amount of time and effort had to be directed towards the optimization and production of the first Falcon Heavy, to some extent an entirely bespoke rocket built off of much older Falcon 9 cores and a center core design unlikely to be repeated.

With Falcon Heavy completed and launched in February and the last non-Block 5 booster built, launched, and relaunched in the last three months, Falcon 9 Block 5 has for the first time been allowed to become SpaceX’s near-singular focus for manufacturing and testing, both in the Hawthorne factory, the McGregor, TX testing facility, and SpaceX’s three launch pads.

This change in focus likely means that SpaceX was finally able to rid itself of what were effectively multiple SKUs (serial versions) of its workhorse rocket, presumably allowing their supplier and manufacturing apparatus to be significantly streamlined. With low-volume production and limited manufacturing space, multiple SKUs were likely a massive challenge for the Hawthorne factory and the McGregor testing facility, where the stand used to test Falcon 9 boosters likely required significant modifications to support Block 5 static fires. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s three launch pads in Florida and California all needed their own series of upgrades to transfer from Block 4 to Block 5.

 

Regardless, SpaceX has clearly gotten its manufacturing feet back under it and has ever-growing confidence in the nascent Block 5 iteration of Falcon 9. COO and President Gwynne Shotwell noted in a May 2018 CNBC interview that she believed the Hawthorne factory was nominally capable of producing one Merlin engine a day and two Block 5 boosters per month, and this recent burst of activity appears to heartily confirm her estimates. What remains to be seen is if what appears to be a six-week sprint (at least relative to the last year or so of rocket building) will instead prove to be the norm for the second half of 2018 and 2019.

If SpaceX can continue to sustain this extraordinarily rapid-fire pace of rocket production for just the next six months, the company could round out 2018 with a strong start to what Shotwell described would be a “sizable fleet” of Falcon boosters. Block 5 boosters B1047, B1048, and B1049 are now finished with static fire testing in McGregor after shipping from Hawthorne and either at launch sites or on their way, while B1050 most likely just arrived at McGregor for its own static fire. The first successfully launched and recovered Block 5 booster (B1046) was said by CEO Elon Musk to be undergoing a thorough teardown analysis – a process that almost certainly has been completed given the burst of Block 5 shipments and testing – and should be free to support additional launches later this year.

If SpaceX continues to produce nearly two boosters per month, the company could round out 2018 with a fleet of nearly 16 Falcon 9 boosters, each of which has been designed to support anywhere from a handful to a hundred reuses.

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SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 fleet takes shape as rocket booster production ramps
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