The record for launches in one year still belongs to the legendary Soviet R-7 launcher… but the Falcon 9 is waiting in ambush.
Two days before the official New Year’s date, the Falcon 9 launcher made its last flight of the year. This premature display of fireworks led to the orbit of EROS C3, an Israeli satellite. But its importance is also symbolic; allowed SpaceX to equal a historic record and very significant for the future of the company.
For starters, the departure of this 400-kilogram featherweight represented SpaceX’s 170th consecutive successful launch. An impressive number that testifies to the exceptional reliability of the Falcon 9. The company’s flagship continues to establish itself as a safe bet and to chain shots together with baffling regularity – performances exceedingly rare in this very dangerous branch of the ‘industry’.
—SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 30, 2022
It was also the 160th release in which the company was able to recover its boosters. Again, it’s just phenomenal. Remember that before SpaceX’s historic proof of concept in 2015, this technology was still science fiction. It is now an essential standard; that approach is now seen as the future of the space industry, and all the competition is adjusting its plans to follow Musk’s troops.
The R-7 hasn’t been dethroned yet… yet
But there are an even greater number. Because with the launch of EROS C3, SpaceX also signed its 61st Falcon 9 launch in the space of a year. Thus, she equaled a record that goes back more than 40 years.
At that time, the Soviet Union was the undisputed champion in this category. Its R-7 Semyorka rocket, instantly recognizable by its sharp thrusters, was instrumental in the Cold War; with 61 hits in 64 launches, it enabled the Khrushchev government to send a series of satellites into orbit to fight its American enemy.
Since the fall of the USSR and the breakup of the Soviet bloc, the R7 has remained simply untouched. The Falcon 9 is the first aircraft to challenge this dominance. And that’s probably just the beginning.
Because SpaceX is not satisfied with having equaled that record, far from it. True to his reputation, Musk openly displays his ambition to go faster and aim ever higher. Last September, the billionaire said he wanted to pass the 100 launch mark in 2023. Enough to put the R-7 in the rear view once and for all.
Watch out for traffic jams on the launch pad
As always with Musk, this is an overly ambitious goal. Because even for an industrial titan like SpaceX, increasing the rate by more than 50% cannot be improvised; it is a transition that will require absolutely colossal efforts.
First of all, this means that we will have to increase the pace of production of new launchers and engines. You will also need to expedite the return to service after recovery. These two points will require a lot of work from the engineering teams. And that’s just the technical part.
It will also be necessary to overcome very significant logistical obstacles. This will start with the availability of release structures. Because it’s one thing to produce rockets, you still have to have a place to launch them from. However, there are not many launch pads that can accommodate heavy launchers of this caliber. To reach its goal of 100 successful launches in a year, SpaceX will have to optimize the management of these facilities to reduce the time between two launches as much as possible.
This concerns, in particular, the LC-39A launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. Alone, it was used for 18 of the 61 Falcon 9 launches in 2022. To follow SpaceX’s roadmap, it will have to be able to perform 20, even 25 or even 30 launches in 2023. launch of LC-40 in Cape Canaveral (9 launches in 2022) and SLC-4E in the west coast of the United States (25 launches per year).
SpaceX on the royal road
Knowing Musk’s entrepreneurial temperament, he will no doubt do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. The only real question concerns the deployment of the famous Starship, this revolutionary new vehicle that should take all aerospace space to a new dimension. Its orbit baptism is believed to have been imminent for several months. Everything indicates, therefore, that its inaugural flight will take place in 2023.
At first, it should not take up much space in SpaceX’s operational logistics. The Falcon 9 will remain the company’s main argument in the short term; whether it exceeds 100 launches or not, it seems unlikely that the R-7 will maintain its year-end record. Decidedly, 2023 promises to be a great vintage for space lovers!