Rise of SpaceX: Record-breaking launch rate despite Musk's Twitter turmoil

Billionaire may be pre-occupied with social media and politics, but his rocket company continues to thrive on Florida's space coast

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When Elon Musk became involved with Twitter, concerns were rife over whether he would be able to maintain the attention he devoted to SpaceX.

With Falcon 9 rockets in high demand and Starship’s development continuing, the company needed its chief engineer.

But SpaceX’s launch rate continued to grow last year, with a record-breaking 61 orbital launches from Florida’s Space Coast and some from California averaging one each week.

And work on a pad that would enable Starship launches — the world’s most powerful rocket that would take humans to the Moon and Mars — continues on the Space Coast.

'Unprecedented' launches

Eric Berger, author of Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, said the rate set by SpaceX was “unprecedented”.

“SpaceX acquired the lease to Space Launch Complex-40 in Florida in 2007,” he said.

“Since that time its operations have grown to encompass two launch pads and three launch towers (including the new Starship tower at LC-39A).

“There are hundreds of employees. The company has gone from averaging about two launches a year from 2010 to 2014, to more than 50 launches from Florida in 2022.

“This increase in launch cadence is both remarkable and unprecedented.”

There has not been such a launch rate in Florida since the 1960s, when most were missile test flights.

Gary Dahlke, a volunteer at the Sands Space History Centre in Florida, said companies such as SpaceX were setting new records in this era.

“I can remember working in the Space Shuttle programme and if we had 12 to 15 launches in a year, that was an extraordinary number,” he said.

“And then all of a sudden these new companies come along — SpaceX probably in particular — that have increased the launch rate a phenomenal rate.”

Inside the US 'Space Coast' from where historic UAE missions will lift-off

Inside the US 'Space Coast' from where historic UAE missions will lift-off

SpaceX offers rideshare missions for small satellites that allows governments and companies to send payloads to space at a much lower cost.

The company is also part of Nasa’s Commercial Crew programme, which has allowed American astronauts to launch from US soil after relying on the Russians for nearly a decade.

The reusable rockets have also helped SpaceX’s business model significantly and have paved the way for the private space industry.

“SpaceX has shown that innovation and privately raised capital can be both disruptive and profitable in the space industry,” said Mr Berger.

“Since SpaceX first flew its Falcon 9 rocket in 2010, the amount of private money being invested in US space companies on an annual basis has increased by a factor of 10.

“The success of SpaceX has lifted the entire commercial space industry in the United States.

“As other countries have taken notice, they too have invested in commercial space. China, India, Europe and yes, countries in the Middle East, are using public money to spur innovation by private companies by offering launch contracts, service contracts, competitions, grants and more.”

Starship launches

Mr Berger believes the company would continue to grow its operations in Florida in the coming years.

But progress could be affected by limited range at the Kennedy Space Centre and Cape Canaveral — the two launch sites in Florida — as they also have to serve other customers such as Nasa, United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin.

SpaceX’s next bold move is launching its Starship rocket. Facilities for the rocket are based in Texas, with an orbital test flight yet to take place.

But a pad dedicated for the powerful rocket is also under construction in Florida to allow SpaceX to set a high launch rate.

“To truly scale its operations to allow for daily Starship missions, SpaceX will need to fly a regular cadence of missions from South Texas as well as offshore platforms,” said Mr Berger.

Mr Musk has already sold seats on the Starship, including to American billionaire Jared Isaacman who has purchased the first crewed orbital flight on a Starship. He then commissioned another three flights.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa will fly on a crewed flight to the Moon and will take eight artists with him as part of his DearMoon programme.

Boeing, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin and others

While SpaceX is leading the way in the commercial space industry, other companies are hoping to establish regular launches at the Space Coast.

The United Launch Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rockets could be regularly launching Boeing Starliner crew capsules once they become operational.

Boeing is also part of Nasa’s Commercial Crew programme, with the US space agency hoping to launch astronauts on both SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner.

A Starliner test crew flight is scheduled to take place later this year.

Blue Origin has also set up enormous facilities in Florida, where it hopes to launch its next-generation New Glenn rockets, allowing the company to send cargo and crew to orbit.

Updated: January 09, 2023, 1:28 PM