By Mike Wall,
Published by Space.com, 3 January 2024
The company wants to launch nearly 150 missions this year.
Surprise, surprise: SpaceX plans to set more spaceflight records this year.
Elon Musk‘s company launched 96 orbital missions in 2023, a big jump from its previous high of 61, which was set a year earlier. And SpaceX is planning another big leap in 2024, one that will take it well above the century mark.
“As we look to next year, we want to increase [our] flight rate to about 12 flights per month, or 144 flights,” Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, said on Oct. 18 during a hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Space and Science.
That works out to one launch every 2.8 days, a cadence that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. But SpaceX has a history of reframing our ideas of what is possible in spaceflight, so that ambitious target seems eminently achievable.
Starlink will lead the way
Roughly two-thirds of SpaceX’s launches in 2023 were devoted to building out Starlink, the company’s satellite-internet megaconstellation. That trend will likely continue in 2024, for the network is nowhere near complete.
Starlink currently consists of about 5,230 operational spacecraft, according to astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell. But SpaceX has permission to deploy a total of 12,000 Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), and the company has applied for approval for another 30,000 on top of that.
So Starlink batches should keep flying from both coasts — Vandenberg Space Force Base in California and Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Kennedy Space Center — throughout 2024.
We’ll also see some more SpaceX astronaut launches this year.
The company launched three crewed missions to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2023 — two for NASA and one for Axiom Space, a Houston-based company that aims to get its own outpost up and running in LEO a few years from now.
SpaceX will send five astronaut missions skyward this year, if all goes according to plan. The Crew-8 and Crew-9 flights for NASA are scheduled to lift off in February and August, respectively. Axiom’s Ax-3 mission will launch on Jan. 17, and Ax-4 is targeted for no earlier than October. And, in April, SpaceX plans to launch Polaris Dawn, a free-flying mission to LEO that will feature the first-ever spacewalk by a private astronaut.
Starship getting ready to go
But 2023 also featured two test flights of the launcher that SpaceX thinks will spur a revolution in spaceflight and exploration — Starship, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built.
The Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy both feature reusable first stages, a serious breakthrough in spaceflight tech. But Starship, which stands about 400 feet (122 meters) tall when fully stacked, is designed to be fully reusable. Indeed, Musk wants Starship’s huge Super Heavy booster to land directly on its launch mount after liftoffs, to enable rapid inspection, refurbishment and reflight.
Starship’s two test flights lifted off from SpaceX’s Starbase facility in South Texas, in April and November of last year, respectively. Both missions aimed to send the vehicle’s upper stage most of the way around Earth, with splashdown targeted for a patch of the Pacific near Hawaii.
The April flight didn’t last long. Starship suffered several serious problems, including the failure of its two stages to separate, and SpaceX intentionally destroyed the tumbling vehicle just four minutes after liftoff.
Starship made progress on its second flight; Super Heavy’s 33 Raptor engines all fired as planned, and the booster separated successfully from the upper stage. But this mission too ended early, with the destruction of the upper stage about eight minutes into flight.
We shouldn’t have to wait long for flight number three. Just last week, SpaceX test-fired the engines of its latest Starship prototype, which it plans to launch pretty much as soon as it gets a license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. (The FAA is currently overseeing an investigation into what happened on the November Starship flight.)
SpaceX is also working to get other Starship vehicles ready, in keeping with the company’s development philosophy, which prioritizes frequent test flights and rapid iteration.
“I think maybe by the end of the year, they actually get it down pat in a functional way. Not on cadence, but just demonstrating the reusability,” Justus Parmar, CEO of the venture capital and advisory firm Fortuna Investments, which focuses heavily on the space industry, said of SpaceX’s Starship efforts. “So, that’s going to be huge.”
Time is of the essence for Starship’s development. NASA chose the giant vehicle to be the first crewed lander for its Artemis program, which aims to establish a permanent, sustainable human presence on and around the moon by the end of the 2020s. The plan calls for Starship to ferry astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time on the Artemis 3 mission, which is currently scheduled to lift off in late 2025 or 2026.
Private spaceflight ramping up
The last two years have been rough for investors in most fields, and space was no exception.
“Growth has been crushed,” Parmar told Space.com. “Everything’s down like 70 to 90%.”
But he sees a turnaround coming. Money will start flowing into the space ecosystem in a serious way again this year, potentially leading to a “banner year” in 2025, Parmar predicts.
“The technology is the furthest it’s ever been, and yet we’ve got valuations that are somewhat the lowest they’ve ever been in a certain capacity. So I think that setup with new capital is really promising,” he said.
Low prices and rapidly advancing technology aren’t the only factors that are poised to move the needle. The continued success of SpaceX, which dominates the private spaceflight industry, is showing investors that there is money to be made in the final frontier. And that’s critical, according to Parmar.
“In every burgeoning or emerging industry, you always need a frontrunner — you need a success story,” he said. “If there are no winners in the industry, nobody’s ever going to support [it].”
Google was such a frontrunner in the early 2000s, when investors needed a success story after the internet bubble burst, Parmar noted. Google ended up reshaping the entire internet economy, and SpaceX may do something similar in the final frontier.
Blue Origin just got a new CEO — Dave Limp, who had been Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services. In addition, Bezos recently announced that he’s moving from Seattle to Miami. He broke the news in an Instragram post, which also noted that “Blue Origin’s operations are increasingly shifting to Cape Canaveral.” The Space Coast lies just a few hundred miles from Bezos’ new home in South Florida
These signs point to Bezos prioritizing Blue Origin more than he has in the past, and being more actively involved in the company’s activities, Parmar said. (Like SpaceX, Blue Origin has bold ambitions; Bezos has said he wants to help humanity extend its footprint out into the solar system.)
“I think everything that they’ve been doing is just going to get sped up,” Parmar said. “He’s going all in on this.”
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