For the second time in less than two weeks, SpaceX has indefinitely delayed a Falcon 9 launch after discovering apparent issues with the rocket less than a day before liftoff.
Japanese startup ispace’s misfortune also marks the eighth time in less than two months that SpaceX has delayed or aborted a Falcon 9 launch for unspecified technical reasons less than 24 hours before liftoff. The streak of delays is unusual after 12 months of record-breaking execution, over the course of which SpaceX has successfully completed 60 orbital launches with just a handful of last-minute technical delays.
The number of last-day delays and Falcon 9 launch aborts has abruptly skyrocketed in recent months, possibly indicating that a single problem or change is at least partially responsible for the trend. The streak began in early October and has continued through the end of November, resulting in eight delays in two months, with impacts ranging from minutes to days or even weeks. In all but one instance, SpaceX’s only explanation was a need for more time for “data review” or “checkouts” of the rocket, its payload, or both.
SpaceX consistently announces launch delays on Twitter, making it possible to collate when the company has stated it was “standing down” from a launch attempt or “now targeting” a later launch date for technical reasons. In the 18+ months between March 2021 and October 2022, SpaceX announced only three technical delays after publicly scheduling a launch (one last-second abort and two minor “additional checkouts” delays). Adding to the oddity, SpaceX reported at least 15 similar delays between January 2020 and March 2021.
A decrease in the frequency of technical issues is a generally expected outcome of a competent organization gaining experience with the operation of a complex, new system (like a launch vehicle). By all appearances, that’s the pattern SpaceX was following: a drastic drop in the number of technical launch aborts even as the pace of Falcon 9 launches soared to new heights. But within the last two months, the frequency of technical delays has skyrocketed from close to zero to higher than any point in recent SpaceX history.
Without context, it’s impossible to say if there is an invisible thread connecting the recent string of delays. There are many possible explanations, including workforce fatigue, management changes, policy changes, and factory issues. It’s even possible that the seemingly sudden onset was caused by an intentional change of risk posture: for example, increasing sensitivity to off-nominal signals that had been observed before but were discounted enough to avoid launch delays.
As part of its effort to continually improve existing systems and processes, SpaceX could have changed things too much or removed one too many steps. While unlikely, it’s also possible that the recent uptick in delays is merely a coincidence. Regardless, if the trend continues, it will be difficult for SpaceX to increase its launch cadence any further – particularly toward CEO Elon Musk’s stated goal of 100 launches in 2023. Delays also increase launch costs and disrupt customer plans, incentivizing a return to smoother operations as quickly as possible.
Most concerning is a recent pair of unrelated launches that have become indefinitely delayed. Starlink 2-4, first scheduled to launch on November 18th, has yet to receive a new launch date after SpaceX apparently discovered problems after a Falcon 9 static fire test on November 17th. Less than two weeks later, SpaceX has indefinitely delayed a second Falcon 9 launch – Japanese startup ispace’s first Moon landing attempt – “after further inspections of the launch vehicle and data review.”
Ultimately, launch delays are a fundamental part of spaceflight, and it’s better to keep a rocket on the ground when there is any uncertainty about its readiness for flight. Nonetheless, big changes in the frequency of delays are still noteworthy, especially when SpaceX itself does not typically explain the cause of delays for non-NASA missions.
SpaceX has several more Falcon 9 launches firmly scheduled in December. It remains to be seen how exactly the indefinite delays of Starlink 2-4 and HAKUTO-R will impact those upcoming launches. Starlink 4-37, for example, was scheduled to launch from the same pad as HAKUTO-R as early as December 6th, but that date will slip for every day HAKUTO-R is delayed. A SpaceX ship tasked with recovering HAKUTO-R’s Falcon 9 fairing appears to be heading back to port, indicating a delay of at least two or three days.