SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to launch spy satellites from California next month

VAFB Space Launch Complex 4, November 2020. (SpaceX)

The US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) says that SpaceX’s first West Coast launch of 2022 is scheduled no earlier than (NET) 8:37 am PST (16:37 UTC), February 2nd.

Surprisingly, the announcement is identical to a launch target that the US Space Systems Command (SSC) put forth as far back as September 7th, 2021, meaning that the NRO’s NROL-87 mission hasn’t slipped a single day in more than four months. On the same list of upcoming military launches, Falcon Heavy’s USSF-44 mission was targeted for October 9th – now NET March 2022 due to payload issues – and Atlas V’s STP-3 launch – planned for November 22nd – actually launched on December 7th. It’s not common for a modern US military spacecraft to make it more than a few months without significant delays – let alone no delay at all.

NROL-87 will also continue an unprecedented string of SpaceX launches that began in the last month or two of 2021. Aside from being SpaceX’s first West Coast launch this year, NROL-87 is the sixth Falcon 9 launch scheduled in the first five weeks of 2022. Even more significantly, NROL-87 could be SpaceX’s 11th Falcon 9 launch in two months or its 14th launch in three months.

In other words, SpaceX is on track to demonstrate the ability to launch anywhere from 56 to 66 times annually by actually sustaining that cadence for two or even three months in a row. In July 2020, SpaceX completed a new environmental assessment of its two East Coast launch pads with the FAA, revealing plans and permission for as many as 64 Falcon launches per year in 2022 and up to 70 from 2023 onward. However, it’s one thing to claim or plan for 60-70 launches per year but another thing entirely to actually demonstrate the ability to achieve those numbers over multiple months.

Prior to 2021, the most SpaceX had ever launched in a two-month period was eight times at the end of 2020. In 2021, SpaceX managed to launch 20 times in just the first half of the year – demonstrating an annual cadence of 40 launches per year if repeated in H2 2021. However, Starlink satellite production ran into major hurdles as SpaceX grappled with semiconductor shortages and attempted to move from V1.0 to a new V1.5 design. As a result, SpaceX only launched three times in Q3 and skipped July and October entirely.

However, Starlink production appeared to recover in Q4 and SpaceX managed to launch another eight times in the last two months of 2021. More importantly, SpaceX actually launched five times in December 2021 and six times between November 24th and December 21st – less than four weeks. Heading into 2022, SpaceX has shown no signs of slowing down. On January 4th, a statement from the US Space Force implied that SpaceX was aiming for five Falcon 9 launches in the first month of 2022. Two weeks later, SpaceX has completed three Falcon 9 launches and has two more scheduled on January 27th and 29th. NROL-87 will kick off February on the 2nd and, barring delays, could be SpaceX’s 11th launch since December 2nd.

Only one rocket family in history – Russia’s R7/Soyuz – has launched 60 or more times in one year. (Roscosmos)

Unofficial manifests suggest that SpaceX has as many as 40 commercial launches tentatively scheduled in 2022, one of which has been completed. In H1 2021, SpaceX further demonstrated the ability to build and launch approximately 1800 Starlink satellites (30 launches worth) in a single year. Of course, issues can and will arise and delays are the norm in spaceflight, so there’s a good chance SpaceX will have slow months where customer and Starlink missions both run into delays. Nonetheless, all evidence currently available suggests that SpaceX could smash its annual launch record (31 in 2021) with anywhere from 40 to 60+ launches in 2022.

Eric Ralph: Eric Ralph is Teslarati's senior spaceflight reporter and has been covering the industry in some capacity for almost half a decade, largely spurred in 2016 by a trip to Mexico to watch Elon Musk reveal SpaceX's plans for Mars in person. Aside from spreading interest and excitement about spaceflight far and wide, his primary goal is to cover humanity's ongoing efforts to expand beyond Earth to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere.
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