SpaceX has long talked a good game about increasing its launch cadence, but the company now appears to be delivering in a big way. After two launches in four days, the California-based company has now flown seven rockets in 2018—six Falcon 9 missions and one Falcon Heavy.
That breaks down to one launch every 13 days this year. This is a significant number because it brings the company within its longstanding goal of launching a rocket every two weeks. Indeed, at this pace, SpaceX will launch a total of 27 rockets in 2018, which is consistent with expectations set by the company’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell.
At the end of 2017, when the company was in the midst of shattering all of its previous launch records by flying 18 missions, Shotwell said SpaceX would aim for more in the coming year. “We will increase our cadence next year about 50 percent,” Shotwell told Space News. “We’ll fly more next year than this year, knock on wood, and I think we will probably level out at about that rate, 30 to 40 per year.”
About a decade ago, when SpaceX began publishing its launch prices online, it heavily undercut its rivals in the commercial launch market. With the low price of about $60 million per launch, SpaceX built up a lengthy manifest of customers, creating a backlog of nearly 100 missions by some accounts. In response to the upstart, competitors of SpaceX criticized the company for failing to deliver on ambitious promises of dozens of launches per year. Why buy from SpaceX, they said, if a satellite must wait years to get into space?
And for a time, this was true. From 2012 through 2016, SpaceX averaged fewer than five successful launches of its Falcon 9 rocket per year. (Catastrophic failures in 2015 shortly after launch and on the launch pad in 2016 did not help). But last year, with no failures, SpaceX finally began to master the art of supply lines, in-house production, engine-testing workflow, and more to reach 18 launches.
This increase does not appear to have been a fluke. With its early run of success this year, and now three launch pads at its disposal in Florida and California, the company is showing that it can make another sizable leap in cadence, laying to rest the doubts of rivals who said SpaceX could never fly out its manifest.
"SpaceX is proving what commercial space advocates have always believed, that more affordable, reliable, and plentiful access to space will change the level and nature of demand for space transportation," said James Muncy, founder and president of PoliSpace, an independent space policy consultancy.
"It’s not just that SpaceX can launch 30 or more times a year—and they will keep increasing their flight rate in 2019—it’s that demand is increasing, too. That’s great news for all emerging launch providers and for the government if they’re allowed to buy intelligently."