Earlier this week, SpaceX launched for the 75th time this year, continuing a flight cadence that should see the company come close to 100 missions by the end of December.
SpaceX plans to kick its launch rate into a higher gear in 2024. This will be largely driven by launches of upgraded Starlink satellites with the ability to connect directly with consumer cell phones, a service SpaceX calls “Starlink Direct to Cell,” a company official told Ars this week.
The goal next year is 12 launches per month, for a total of 144 Falcon rocket flights. Like this year, most of those missions will be primarily devoted to launching Starlink broadband satellites. So far in 2023, more than 60 percent of SpaceX’s launches have delivered the company’s own Starlink satellites into orbit.
“With our 2 million users, (we) need that constellation refreshed,” the SpaceX official told Ars on background. “We’re also going to look at direct to cell communications with Starlink, and that’s a key feature that gets added next year with those 144 flights.”
Here are some numbers. Last year, SpaceX launched 61 missions. In 2021, the number was 31. In the last 12 months, SpaceX has launched 88 Falcon rockets, plus one test flight of the company’s much larger Starship rocket.
SpaceX’s success in recovering and reusing Falcon 9 boosters and payload fairings has been vital to making this possible. SpaceX has gone past the original goal of launching each Falcon 9 booster 10 times before a major overhaul, first to 15 flights, and then recently certifying boosters for up to 20 missions. Technicians can swap out parts like engines, fins, landing legs, and valves that malfunction in flight or show signs of wear.
With so many launches planned next year, 20 flights is probably not a stopping point. “We might go a little higher,” the SpaceX official said.
Engineers have shortened the time needed to reconfigure SpaceX’s busiest launch pad in Florida to less than four days. SpaceX has also improved the turnaround time at its launch pad in California.
Supply chain management isn’t as eye-popping as landing rockets on a floating platform in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but it’s still important. SpaceX is ordering more components from suppliers in bulk and is asking its subcontractors to perform more quality inspections in the factory rather than SpaceX doing them after the parts are delivered.