New US military confirmation of a third SpaceX Falcon Heavy contract means that the world’s most powerful operational rocket has five launches firmly scheduled next year.
On October 30th, a US Space Systems Command spokesperson confirmed to SpaceNews that the military’s USSF-67 contract with SpaceX – announced in August 2020 – is for a Falcon Heavy launch directly to geostationary orbit (GEO). According to the same spokesperson, despite more than a year of payload-side delays to similar USSF-44 and USSF-52 Falcon Heavy launches, USSF-67 remains “on track for [a] mid-to-late 2022 launch.”
Following a roundabout confirmation about a month ago that satellite internet provider ViaSat’s first ViaSat-3 satellite is on track to launch no earlier than (NET) Q2 2022, Falcon Heavy now has at least five missions – half of the rocket’s entire manifest – that will likely be ready to launch in 2022. First up, originally scheduled to launch in late 2020, early 2021, mid-2021, and late 2021, unspecified payload issues recently delayed Falcon Heavy’s USSF-44 launch to Q1 2022. Assuming no further delays, which seems an unwise gamble at this point in time, USSF-44 will be SpaceX and Falcon Heavy’s first operational US military launch and first direct geostationary (GEO) launch, a mission profile that requires the rocket’s upper stage to coast for ~6 hours through multiple radiation belts before reigniting ~36,000 km (~22,300 mi) above the Earth.
If USSF-44 slips a few more months, though, then ViaSat-3 could become SpaceX’s first direct GEO launch, as well as the first commercial direct-to-GEO launch ever in Q2 2022. Headed to an easier geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), USSF-52 is also scheduled to launch on Falcon Heavy in Q2 2022, though delays to it and USSF-44 are equally likely.
Fourth in line, Falcon Heavy is scheduled to launch NASA’s Psyche asteroid explorer during a few-week window in August 2022, marking the first of at least three NASA missions set to exploit the most capable and cost-effective deep space commercial launch vehicle in history.
Finally, the US military will apparently be ready for Falcon Heavy to launch USSF-67 directly to GEO sometime in the second half of 2022 – perhaps before Psyche but more likely in the last few months of the year. Just like USSF-44 and likely ViaSat-3, too, SpaceX will have to expend Falcon Heavy’s center core during USSF-67’s launch to give the upper stage enough performance for a direct GEO injection, while the rocket’s two side boosters will land on separate drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean.