WASHINGTON — Even as the space industry complains of a shortage of launch capacity, SpaceX said it has room to increase an already surging pace of launches.
In sessions at the recent Satellite 2023 conference, launch vehicle providers noted that a combination of growing demand, particularly from satellite constellations, and a bottleneck in launch supply was affecting the market, making it difficult to find launches and driving up prices.
“Almost every company that we talk to is worried about medium to heavy lift,” said Tim Ellis, chief executive of Relativity, during one conference panel March 14. Relativity is gearing up for another attempt for the inaugural launch its Terran 1 small launch vehicle, now scheduled for as soon as March 22. That rocket intended to be a precursor for the larger Terran R.
The timeframe of concern, he argued, is between 2024 and 2027. “You have a lot of people that are trying to hit specific deadlines to getting spacecraft to orbit,” he said, “and you have Amazon Kuiper buying up a lot of capacity at prices that I’m sure were well above the most competitive in the commercial space.” Amazon acquired up to 83 launches from Arianespace, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance last April to deploy its Kuiper constellation.
“There is now, for the first time in 30 years, a global shortage of launch capacity,” said Tory Bruno, chief executive of ULA, during another conference panel March 15. That shortage, he said, stems from the rise of megaconstellations as well as the withdrawal of Russian vehicles from the commercial launch market after the invasion of Ukraine. “Now we’re in a state of shortage that’s going to last about a decade.”
That shortage is also linked to the delayed introduction of new vehicles, like ULA’s Vulcan Centaur. Bruno said that the company was still planning a first launch of Vulcan as soon as May 4 as testing of the vehicle continues. Separate qualification testing of the BE-4 engines that power the first stage, he noted, is “perhaps a little bit more than halfway” complete. “That is likely to be the pacing item” for the launch, he said.
A successful first launch, he said, would be followed by a second certification launch at least a couple of months later. “Then, after that, we’ll ramp up to eventually flying every two weeks.”
Stéphane Israël, chief executive of Arianespace, said the company was still working to perform a first launch of the Ariane 6 before the end of the year. But, he cautioned, “we still have some risk and some obstacles to overcome.”
Several efforts are going in parallel leading up to that first launch, from combined tests of the vehicle and launch infrastructure in French Guiana to qualification of various vehicle components. “We will see how things are going to progress,” he said. “Things are under control. We have passed very important milestones.”
Schedules are less certain for Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. “We’re making fantastic progress and we’re going to fly when we’re ready,” said Ariane Cornell, vice president of commercial orbital, astronaut and international sales at Blue Origin. However, she declined to give a date for that first launch.
The company does have one launch date on its manifest: it won a NASA award Feb. 9 for the launch of the agency’s ESCAPDE Mars smallsat mission on New Glenn, scheduled for late 2024. “It will be an early New Glenn mission and we’re going to be ready,” she said.
“Hitting our stride”
SpaceX, meanwhile, is continuing to launch at a rapid clip. The company performed two launches a little more than four hours apart March 17, launching a set of Starlink satellites on one Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California followed by two SES communications satellites on another Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
SpaceX has conducted 19 launches so far this year and company is sticking with a goal of 100 launches this year, up from 61 in 2022 and 31 in 2021. “It’s definitely a challenge that we are up to,” said Tom Ochinero, senior vice president of commercial business at SpaceX.
He cited the company’s three active launch pads in Florida and California and a “fully mature” reusability effort for that increase in launch rate. “Everything is really dialed in at this point,” he said. “We’re hitting our stride in terms of being able to deliver on that cadence.”
He suggested that the company could continue to increase its launch rate to meet demand. “In terms of scaling from 100 to 200 launches, we have the hardware, we have the infrastructure, we can scale the staffing,” he said. “There isn’t any reason we can’t keep going. It’s just a matter of market needs and how fast Starship develops.”
That includes increasing how often Falcon 9 boosters are reused. “The vehicle is capable of way more than 10 flights,” he said, with some boosters having flown up to 15 missions. “It’s being really smart about making investments on the testing and qualification side. We will incrementally increase the number of launches if market conditions require it.”
SpaceX has its own new launch vehicle in development, Starship. “We’re so close” to its first launch, with a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration one of the last milestones before the company announces a launch date. “That should be happening very shortly.”
Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, said in a March 16 tweet that the company would be ready to launch Starship “in a few weeks” but that the launch date would then depend on when it gets an FAA launch license. “Assuming that takes a few weeks, first launch attempt will be near end of third week of April,” he wrote, after previously predicting first launches in February and March.