SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has long talked about launching payloads into orbit as often as once per week. Now, that dream may be slowly becoming a reality.
SpaceX executives have indicated that the company, which has only managed two launches so far this year, could ramp up to two launches per month starting with its very next launch. At a conference earlier this month, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell announced the ambitious goal of launching 18 rockets by the end of this year including the first-ever launch of the larger Falcon Heavy rocket.
That’s a full three-fold increase over the number of rockets SpaceX blasted into orbit last year, and an average of nearly two launches per month from April through December. To hit its lofty target, SpaceX will need to drastically increase its launch tempo following a scheduled April 8 mission to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA.
Barring any major setbacks, the remainder of 2016 could see one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets headed to orbit every few weeks–assuming SpaceX can keep up with the ambitious schedule it has set for itself, something it has struggled with in the past.
SpaceX’s upcoming mission will be its first for NASA since a similar ISS resupply mission experienced a mechanical failure causing the rocket to explode mid-flight last June. The company returned to flight in December after grounding its rockets for six months, and since then has launched just three missions—one each in December, January, and early March.
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To finish the year with 18 launches, SpaceX needs something like 1.78 launches per month—a goal that Shotwell claims is within reach. In keeping with that ambitious timeline, SpaceX is reportedly already slating its next commercial launch for mid-April, potentially just days after NASA’s ISS mission lifts off, according to an industry-wide launch schedule maintained by Spaceflight Now.
That schedule indicates that SpaceX also has at least one mission scheduled for both May and June. All three of those upcoming missions were bumped from the second half of last year when SpaceX’s rockets were grounded.
Successfully increasing its tempo to multiple launches per month would go a long way toward building SpaceX’s reputation for reliability, which was shaken somewhat by last year’s rocket failure—not so much by the exploding rocket itself as by the delays it caused. Some degree of failure is expected in the commercial space industry, but delays could be extremely costly for companies that have spent tens or hundreds of millions on a satellite.
In other words, the industry will forgive the occasional exploding rocket. But a long and costly launch delay could send customers looking for more reliable options.
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Since returning to flight, SpaceX engineers have experienced some problems with the latest iteration of its Falcon 9, which runs on super-cooled kerosene and liquid oxygen chilled almost to their freezing points. This colder, denser fuel lets the Falcon 9 carry more fuel and provides additional power, but it’s also more fickle on the launchpad.
During its most recent mission in early March, SpaceX had to delay the mission twice because of technical issues related to the super-cooled propellants. Shotwell has called those issues “minor” and insists that the company has solved the technical issues behind them.
If SpaceX really wants to ramp up its launch tempo and boost customer confidence, it’s going to have to get past these troublesome hangups and start launching regularly and reliably—especially as SpaceX leadership continues to move the bar higher. According to Shotwell, a pace of 16 more launches over the next nine months should shift to 24 launches in 2017. From there, SpaceX plans to continue accelerating its cadence, at a rate of 30% to 50% annually.
At that rate, assuming SpaceX can both manufacture the necessary rockets and avoid any show-stopping mission failures, the company would essentially be launching every week by 2020 (assuming the lower growth rate of 30% year-over-year). It’s unclear at the moment if demand for space launch services—or SpaceX’s own infrastructure—could support such a rapid launch tempo. But if SpaceX is going to get there, the next nine months will prove crucial in demonstrating the company’s ability to regularly and reliably send is clients’ cargo into orbit.