In a statement issued to Bloomberg, the US Space Force says that SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket could still conduct its first operational launch for the military before the end of the year.
That’s a large downgrade from late 2021 and early 2022, when – lacking any new information from the US military – it appeared that SpaceX could launch up to three Falcon Heavy rockets for military customers over the course of the year. Around eight months later, the world’s most powerful and capable operational rocket – backed by a strong manifest of 11 firm launch contracts – hasn’t flown once since June 2019. At that time, the rocket’s next launch was already expected no earlier than late 2020 – a roughly 18-month gap.
Instead, thanks to largely unspecified problems that have relentlessly delayed the completion of the satellites Falcon Heavy is supposed to launch, the rocket’s fourth flight is now unlikely to occur less than ~40 months after its third. Thankfully, a new Space Force decision should at least dull the pain caused by the endless shuffling of Falcon Heavy’s near-term launch manifest.
Alongside a slight schedule update stating that SpaceX’s first operational Falcon Heavy launch for the US military could still happen sometime from “October to December” 2022, the Space Force statement issued to Bloomberg mainly revealed the military branch’s June decision to permit SpaceX’s use of reused Falcon Heavy boosters on upcoming launches. While Bloomberg did not publish the statement in full or explain what the decision truly entails, the implication is that the Space Force will now let SpaceX assign flight-proven Falcon boosters – with US military oversight – to its military missions.
The US military will likely retain the ability to veto or modify SpaceX’s booster assignments and reuse sequencing, but the Space Force told Bloomberg that it’s confident that the “recovery, refurbishment, and launch of SpaceX boosters utilizes well-established processes.” In fact, the US military has already approved the use of flight-proven Falcon 9 boosters, several launches of which have since occurred, and even allowed SpaceX to fly two reused Falcon Heavy side booster’s on the rocket’s first (test) launch for the military.
It’s no surprise that that acceptance would eventually grow to include Falcon Heavy, which is similar to Falcon 9 in many ways. That it took the USSF until June 2022, three full years after STP-2 demonstrated the successful reuse of two Falcon Heavy boosters at once, to fully approve it is arguably far more surprising.
SpaceX will likely be able to plan for future Falcon Heavy launches more easily knowing that the US military should – in theory – be okay with the company reusing boosters on upcoming launches. That would be especially true if the military is comfortable with SpaceX reusing Falcon Heavy boosters that have supported non-military launches. After numerous delays, only one non-military mission – ViaSat’s first ViaSat-3 geostationary communications satellite – still claims to have a shot at a 2022 launch, but that target has slipped from spring, late-summer, and September 2022 to Q4 2022 since late 2021.
At one point, the US military’s USSF-44, USSF-52, and USSF-67 missions were all scheduled to launch on Falcon Heavy in 2022. Now, one reliable source states that USSF-44 and USSF-52 are indefinitely delayed, while another indicates that USSF-44 has slipped to December 2022 and USSF-52 to April 2023. Meanwhile, EchoStar’s Jupiter-3 commsat recently slipped to Q1 2023 and NASA’s Psyche asteroid explorer ran into software issues that delayed its Falcon Heavy launch from August/September 2022 to July or September 2023.
That leaves ViaSat-3 and USSF-67, both of which could launch in Q4 2022. But given just how delay-ridden ViaSat-3 has been and how temperamental all military Falcon Heavy payloads have been, the most likely outcome may already be zero Falcon Heavy launches in 2022.