CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX is aiming to complete up to 100 launches in 2023 while the company continues to set records in 2022.
In the history of orbital spaceflight, no family of rockets – let alone a single variant like Falcon 9 – has completed more than 61 successful launches in one calendar year. The cadence target Musk is suggesting is unprecedented and would be an extraordinary challenge even for SpaceX, a company that just completed its 50th successful Falcon 9 launch in a little over 12 months. However, it’s less impossible than it sounds.
After a few years of stagnation at a cadence of roughly 15-20 launches per year from 2017 through 2019, and an impressive doubling from 2019 to 2020 as Starlink entered its buildout phase, SpaceX effectively flipped a switch in 2021. 2020 appears to have been a sort of trial run, demonstrating that SpaceX was able to launch one Falcon 9 rocket every two weeks. At 26 launches for the year, it broke SpaceX’s previous record – 21 launches, set in 2018 – by almost 25%. But something changed in 2021.
In the first half of the year, SpaceX launched 20 times, demonstrating an unexpected 50% improvement over 2020’s annual cadence. In the second half of the year, SpaceX had two strange gaps of almost two months each, during which it didn’t once. In the other two months, though, SpaceX launched 11 times, effectively demonstrating another launch cadence improvement of more than 50% over the first half of the year. Finally, SpaceX completed 6 of those 11 launches in a period of 4 weeks near the end of the year – an annual cadence of 78 launches if sustained for a full year.
Thus far, 2022 has been an eight-month extension of the last few weeks of 2021. SpaceX even appears to have improved upon itself again, accelerating its launch cadence throughout the year. In the first half of the year, SpaceX managed 27 Falcon 9 launches, nearly beating the 31-launch record it set in 2021 in half the time and demonstrating an annual cadence of up to 54 launches per year if sustained.
Instead of continuing that already impressive pace in the second half of the year, SpaceX launched six times in July and another six times in August, sustaining an annualized cadence of 72 launches per year for two full months. At the moment, that could be considered a fluke. But if SpaceX manages another six launches in September, which is the plan, it can likely be deemed a new normal for Falcon 9 launch cadence.
From 60 to 100
To achieve 100 Falcon launches in 2023, SpaceX would need to find a way to launch an average of eight times per month, an improvement of 33% over the six-launch months the company appears to be increasingly comfortable with. Likely thanks to intentional planning and overengineering done years in advance of the payoff, SpaceX’s fleet of Falcon launch pads and recovery ships – drone ship landing platforms especially – appear to be capable of achieving that lofty cadence goal.
Assuming all three pads were able to consistently operate at their fastest demonstrated turnaround times with little to no downtime, they could theoretically support around 115 launches per year. SpaceX drone ship availability is another concern, but the current fleet of three ships can theoretically support 100 Falcon 9 landings in one year if each ship is able to recover one booster every 11 days. Of course, achieving such tight margins would require extremely inflexible scheduling and leave almost no margin for error – perhaps just a day or less per launch, on average.
Without significant upgrades, either feat would be extremely impressive on its own. Stacking those challenges, launching 100 times in 2023 would require an extraordinary effort and a good amount of luck. But it’s far from impossible. Gven the abrupt and impressive progress SpaceX has made and continues to make in 2021 and 2022, it’s also a reasonable goal: far from easy but well within reach with some moderate improvements.
Finally, Musk’s calculus may include a number of launches of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket, which would make the task even more achievable for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Time will tell, and SpaceX’s activity in the last four months of 2022 will make it clear whether 2023’s 100-launch target is truly feasible.