SpaceX on a Rapid Launch Cadence for 2017

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Dragon spacecraft on board, (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

SpaceX’s successful launch of the Intelsat 35e communications satellite on Wednesday was the company’s third launch in 12 days and its 10th successful launch of 2017, the most the company has ever launched during any calendar year.

Just past the mid-point of the year, SpaceX has launched more times than any other company or nation in 2017. The company’s flights account for just under short of one-quarter of the 44 launch attempts this year.

As many as 10 more flights are on the manifest for the rest of the year, which would bring the company’s total to 20. In 2016, the United States and China were tied for the lead in launches with 22 apiece.

The table below shows SpaceX’s completed and planned launches for 2017, based on the current schedule posted at Spaceflight Now and recent public comments by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.

SPACE 2017 LAUNCHES
DATELAUNCH VEHICLE
PAYLOAD
LAUNCH SITERESULT
 01/14/16 Falcon 9 Iridium 1-10 VandenbergSuccess
 02/19/17 Falcon 9 CRS 10 KSCSuccess
 03/16//17 Falcon 9EchoStar 23 KSCSuccess
03/30/17 Falcon 9SES 10 KSCSuccess
 05/01/17 Falcon 9NROL-76KSCSuccess
05/15/17  Falcon 9 Inmarsat 5 F4KSCSuccess
  06/03/17 Falcon 9 CRS-11 KSCSuccess
 06/23/17 Falcon 9
BulgariaSat 1
 KSCSuccess
06/25/17  Falcon 9Iridium Next 11-20 VandenbergSuccess
 07/05/17  Falcon 9Intelsat 35e KSCSuccess
 08/10/17 Falcon 9 CRS-12 CCAFS
08/24/17  Falcon 9Formosat 5 Vandenberg
  08/28/17 Falcon 9 OTV-5 (X-37B) KSC
TBDFalcon 9Iridium Next 21-30 Vandenberg
 TBDFalcon 9SES 11/EchoStar 105CCAFS
TBDFalcon 9Koreasat 5AKSC
OctoberFalcon 9Iridum Next 31-40Vandenberg
TBDFalcon HeavyDemo FlightKSC
11/01/17Falcon 9CRS-13CCAFS
DecemberFalcon 9Iridium Next 41-50Vandenberg

The above schedule is, of course, subject to change. Missions could be delayed or even added in the months months ahead.

And you’re only as good as your last launch; your next one could fail catastrophically. SpaceX’s ambitious launch schedules for 2015 and 2016 were brought to screeching halts after Falcon 9s exploded with the loss of their payloads.

SpaceX has some downtime in its schedule as the Eastern Range is closed for maintenance over the next month. The company’s next launch is not scheduled until Aug. 10.

Falcon Heavy’s maiden launch is the most anticipated SpaceX launch of the year. The booster will use three Falcon 9 cores with 27 engines as its first stage. Falcon Heavy will be the world’s most powerful booster once it launches,

Spaceflight Now has two Falcon Heavy launches on its schedule for this year. The second mission would launch an U.S. Air Force mission into orbit. However, recent comments by Shotwell indicate the company is likely aiming for a single Falcon Heavy flight in 2017.

A key issue with the new booster is launch pad availability. SpaceX’s main launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, known as Space Launch Complex (SLC) 40, was heavily damaged in the explosion of a booster last September. SpaceX has been using Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center while repairs are underway.

SpaceX officials say SLC 40 should be ready for launches later this summer, allowing the company to ship launches there. Pad 39A would then need additional preparations for the first Falcon Heavy mission.

SpaceX officials have talked about launching the first crew Dragon vehicle on a flight test to the International Space Station by the end of the year. However, Spaceflight Now has that mention on the schedule for March 2018.

The company is scheduled to launch two additional Dragon cargo ships to the space station by the end of the year, making four resupply flights for 2017.

SpaceX is also scheduled to launch the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane in August. All previous flights have been made aboard United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V booster.

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  • ReSpaceAge

    I recall many people here saying that SpaceX is courting disasters if they upped their cadence this year after their failure last fall. I think they have prepared themselves very nicely for their increased launches.
    More launch personnel.
    Increased intelligents of Falcon 9 to make range abort simpler and safer easier.
    Redesigning their strong back to receive less damage after launch, making pad turn arounds days faster.
    If they have another explosion, I don’t think increased cadence is much of a factor.

  • windbourne

    Actually, I remember more of us saying that SX would have issues if they did NOT get their cadence up. And we were right as some customers have left.
    Otoh, by end of next year, they may be able to launch within 6 months or less since they are headed towards 1/week.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    Some have accused me of being a troll for criticizing Elon for pushing this fantasy of millions of people colonizing Mars in a few decades by following Elon’s proposals. Elon can dream all he wishes, and some of his dreams (based on flimsy budgeting and questionable engineering) really cause me to question his….trustworthiness!
    But, I have nothing but PRAISE for Elon when he succeeds at those things he is good at! I have little doubt that he will succeed in sending up more than 15 successful orbital launches this year, including the FH debut, as long as he doesn’t push his team to the point where little mistakes begin to creep back into the production, refurbishment, tests and launches.

  • Douglas Messier

    I don’t know how you can rule out higher launch rates as a contributing cause for some accident that hasn’t even happened yet. Usually something has to go wrong and an investigation undertaken to rule anything in or out.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    “I don’t think increased cadence is much of a factor” is not ruling out, simply a statement of intuition about possible futures.

    I seem to notice that they still aren’t afraid to scrub if it doesn’t look right. That is helpful for not having a cadence related event. Musk’s future is on the line and he has more than once overruled to force scrub himself, even if technically everything would be fine.

  • ReSpaceAge

    I just think they have properly preparing themselves.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I’m one of those people who think that changes in operations increase the chance of failure. As one of those people who publicly stated that, let me publicly state that I’ll be overjoyed to be proven wrong. I’ll gladly eat crow on this subject when proven wrong.

  • windbourne

    Actually, the best thing that can happen is launching weekly or daily. Basically, u get a routine going and less chance of screwups.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Also makes fixed costs basically disappear.

  • Stu

    The Mars colonisation stuff is pure fantasy, but I’m pretty sure Elon knows that. He is very shrewd operator and has a good eye for the acquisition of taxpayer funds.

  • Emmet Ford

    Elon is notoriously bad at scheduling, but good at engineering and budgeting. He succeeded in starting a top flight launch business, a revolutionary car company and a large but Ponzi scheme-ish solar company, all on about 180 million. And all three have endured, to varying degrees. The only one that he’s had to rescue is the company that he did not personally run.

    So when he claims that he can get his monster rocket to Mars for 10 billion, I am inclined to believe him, and I expect him to find the 10 billion.

    He hasn’t claimed he can do a Mars hotel with power, air and food for that same amount. Rather, he has said that others are going to have to step up.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Upcoming Mars announcement will pertain to funding. Should be interesting.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Are there enough payloads available to sustain that kind of schedule?

  • duheagle

    Stay tuned. But I think the answer is going to turn out to be “Yes.”

  • duheagle

    Taxpayer funds are a diminishing percentage of SpaceX’s revenue. If SpaceX was invented as a vehicle to soak the taxpayer, one would think the reverse would be true. SpaceX has already saved the government a lot more than what it’s been paid by the government.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Fantasy? Really? The company was started with the intended mission from the get go, to get people, and a lot of them to Mars. You know nothing Stu! 🙂
    Cheers

  • Larry J

    Should SpaceX proceed with their plans to build a massive constellation of small communications satellites, there will be the need for many, many launches.

  • scott

    Musk has been very effective at leveraging taxpayer support but this investment is appearing to pay dividends in many ways. Huge battery order for Australia being produced by US labor for a US company. US built engines and rockets launching US payloads to the ISS at much less cost than the competition. US built engines and rockets carrying both domestic and foreign satellites to orbit for less money than the competition (much of that work would have gone to ESA, Russia or China if a cheaper US option did not exist). More US built rockets can encourage more US built satellites (if ESA is launching your satellite than the option of building the satellite in Europe increases). To date I believe over half of the Falcon 9 missions have been for private companies, many of them foreign companies

  • Jacob Samorodin

    Are there enough employees?

  • publiusr

    Agreed.

    Something I was thinking about. The newer Dragon capsule:
    http://media2.govtech.com/images/940*465/spacex+dragon+capsule.jpg

    It just looks…meh.

    Now it will be easy to handle.

    But seeing how well dialed in Falcon landings have become–I wonder if it would be possible to have a Falcon with the same shape as the old TWA concept?

    http://www.yesterland.com/images-background/twamoonliner_certificate.jpg

  • duheagle

    If there aren’t, SpaceX will hire more. Gwynne Shotwell recently said SpaceX’s headcount is now over 6,000. At any given time, SpaceX seems to have about 400+ job openings being advertised. I’m thinking that an increasing percentage of the new hires will be for operations jobs.

  • duheagle

    The BFR-BFS combo is sort of in the ballpark, shapewise, anent that old TWA fantasy rocket.

    Dragon 2 looks more like the “fat bullet, stubby fins” ships from Men Into Space. So does the BFS on its own.

  • Ben H.

    Looks like you have a typo in your table. The January launch date is shown as 2016.