SpaceX closes out record-breaking 2023, prepares for more records in 2024

by Alejandro Alcantarilla Romera

SpaceX has closed out its most successful and record-breaking year yet. Its Falcon program broke several records for booster and fairing reuse, launch cadence, and tonnage to orbit. Alongside the Falcon program, the Dragon program sent more cargo and more people to orbit and it saw capsules pushing Dragon’s reusability records.

The company also debuted its Starship rocket, the world’s largest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever built in history. SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation continued to grow at an increased pace, a new satellite generation was also launched, and the customer base grew large enough to make the project profitable. 

The company has plans to push further on its goals for each of these programs which should make 2024 another remarkable year for SpaceX.

Falcon and Dragon programs

SpaceX’s launch cadence with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy greatly increased in 2023 moving from 61 launches of the Falcon rocket family in 2022 to 96 launches in 2023. This accounted for 43 percent of all launches worldwide having launched more than any other country or entity in the world.

Only China — a whole country — is the one closest to this number with a total of 67 launches in 2023. These were still spread out across many rocket families, rocket configurations, launch locations, companies, and agencies within the country. 

Launcher origin Launches Successes Failures Partial Failures
US SpaceX 96 96 0 0
Others 18 13 4 1
China 67 66 1 0
Russia 19 19 0 0
India 7 7 0 0
Japan 3 2 1 0
North Korea 3 1 2 0
Europe 3 3 0 0
South Korea 2 2 0 0
Iran 2 1 1 0
Israel 1 1 0 0
Total 221 211 9 1

Table showing the share of launches per place of origin of launcher and their outcomes

To accomplish this increased launch cadence, SpaceX took on the job of reducing launch pad turnarounds on its east and west coast Falcon launch pads compared to 2022. 

The majority of the company’s launches in 2023 were carried out from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) in Florida and from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) in California. These two pads account for 86 percent of the total number of SpaceX launches this year and both almost doubled the launch cadence this year.

Year SLC-40 SLC-4E LC-39A Total
2010 2 0 0 2
2011 0 0 0 0
2012 2 0 0 2
2013 2 1 0 3
2014 6 0 0 6
2015 7 0 0 7
2016 7 1 0 8
2017 1 5 12 18
2018 12 6 3 21
2019 8 2 3 13
2020 14 1 11 26
2021 16 3 12 31
2022 30 13 18 61
2023 55 28 13 96
Total 162 60 72 294

Table showing the share of Falcon launches per launchpad and per year

One of the company goals for 2023 was to reduce the pad turnaround time at SLC-40 from the previous record of about six days down to just less than four days. This record was first achieved in August 2023 and still stands as the fastest pad turnaround time by SpaceX at three days, 21 hours, and 41 minutes. The company is now working toward reducing this record turnaround time at SLC-40 to just under 72 hours – – or three days — a feat that is currently being eyed to occur before the end of the first quarter of 2024. 

Reducing this workflow not only allows an increased cadence but also reduces the amount of work, and therefore money, that is needed to be able to launch again. This reduces the operating costs of Falcon 9 and makes it more affordable for the company to deploy its Starlink satellites.

SpaceX was also able to accomplish this record-breaking launch cadence while building a new crew access tower at SLC-40. This new tower will allow the load of cargo and crew during Dragon missions and give the company the ability to support these Dragon missions from a second launchpad.

However, Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) is still the only launchpad that can support Dragon flights. Due to recent schedule adjustments, SLC-40’s crew access tower is now unlikely to support a Dragon mission until at least March 2024.

In 2023, LC-39A saw a decrease in launch cadence due in part to the increased launch cadence of Falcon Heavy, which requires modifying the launchpad from Falcon 9 to Falcon Heavy configurations and vice versa in between launches. A variety of issues and weather delays over the multiple launch campaigns from this launch pad also produced further delays.

Six Dragon flights also took place from this location during 2023. These normally take up more preparatory time ahead of launch than regular Falcon 9 missions, especially those that carry crew onboard. With SLC-40’s crew access tower potentially coming online in the next few months, this could give teams in 2024 more flexibility during launch flows and the potential to increase launch cadence from LC-39A. 

Falcon Heavy’s cadence is also expected to go down in 2024 with only up to three missions on the schedule for next year, which will again allow an increase in launch cadence. Falcon Heavy’s next mission is set to launch NOAA’s GOES-U weather satellite into a geosynchronous orbit no earlier than April 2024. Another Falcon Heavy is set to launch in October 2024 carrying NASA’s next flagship mission, Europa Clipper, to study one of Jupiter’s largest moons, Europa.

On the other side of the United States, teams were hoping for SLC-4E in 2023 to be able to match the cadence achieved from SLC-40 in 2022. That is, being able to launch up to 30 times in the same calendar year — a feat the company almost pulled off. To accomplish this, SpaceX made great progress on the turnaround times of this pad too, bringing the record turnaround time for SLC-4E from 11 days to just six and a half days. 

Teams will now further push this in 2024, aiming again to match the cadence that SLC-40 had in 2023 and potentially launch over 50 times from the company’s west coast facilities. In the long run, the company aims to equal the record turnaround times at SLC-4E with those seen at SLC-40.

Also at Vandenberg, SpaceX is set to start work on its recently leased Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6) launchpad in the new year. The company aims to debut Falcon 9 launches from SLC-6 in the mid-2025 timeframe with Falcon Heavy potentially launching in the year after. 

Once SLC-6 is active, SpaceX will be able to increase Falcon 9’s launch cadence even further from the west coast, aiming for up to 100 launches in 2025 just from that side of the United States alone. 

This increase in cadence was also made possible by pushing further on reusability and reducing the time for droneship processing at port, allowing for faster droneship availability for booster recovery.

This year saw boosters reaching for the first time their 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th flights with booster B1058 being the sole achiever of the latter two. This booster was lost shortly after its 19th and last flight due to bad weather on its way back to port.

However, other boosters such as B1060, B1061, and B1062 remain at 17 flights each and could push further on these reusability goals in 2024. It is expected that, once boosters reach their 20th flight, SpaceX will recertify them to fly beyond that, perhaps up to 25 or 30 times. This will allow them to support more missions without the company needing to introduce new boosters into the fleet.

In 2023 only four new Falcon 9 boosters were introduced into the fleet: B1075, B1078, B1080, and B1081. Of these, B1075 was introduced on the west coast to expand the fleet at Vandenberg while the other three debuted on crew missions from the east coast and have already supported 13 flights in total. Another five Falcon Heavy center cores were also flown in 2023 and all were expended due to performance demands for each of their missions. 

While 2023 didn’t see any particular booster breaking the record for the shortest time between launches, the average of this metric across the fleet did in fact go down from what it was in 2022. In 2022 the average turnaround time across the booster fleet used to be around 60 days whereas in 2023 this went down to between 40 to 45 days. 

In 2024 this number will either have to come down or SpaceX will have to increase its booster fleet size to support the increased launch cadence. The company is already planning to add another booster to its west coast fleet in the first week of 2024 with the debut flight of B1082 on the Starlink Group 7-9 mission.

Dragon reusability also saw records being broken with Crew Dragon Endeavour becoming the first Dragon capsule to fly four times on the Crew-6 mission. Another Dragon capsule, C208, also achieved that milestone during the CRS-28 mission. 

The average turnaround time for droneships also went down in 2023. While in 2022 the average landing-to-landing time for a droneship on the east coast was around ten days, in 2023 this number went down to about eight days. 

This translated into droneships spending little time in port and most of their time at sea, with Port Canaveral being seen either empty or with just one droneship at the dock for most of the year. Another common sight in 2023 was to see two boosters at the same time at Port Canaveral during processing as recovery teams still processed a previous booster while a new one came into port. 

Given the droneship processing time needed before a mission and the travel times to and from the booster landing zones, it appears that SpaceX may be hitting a limit in the number of missions these east coast droneships can support. With some further optimization, the east coast droneships could potentially support somewhere between 90 to 100 missions in 2024.

However, this could be further helped if the company were to choose to fly certain missions using a return to launch site (RTLS) booster landing instead of a droneship landing. Thanks to data gathered during Starlink missions, SpaceX was able to perform RTLS booster landings during heavily demanding missions in 2023. Examples of these are the flights of Crew and Cargo Dragon missions such as Axiom-2, Crew-7, or CRS-29. 

SpaceX could choose to fly some of its Starlink missions using this booster landing profile instead of using droneships, intercalating these missions with others that already use droneships to enable a faster launch cadence. Indications of such a move have already come in the form of permits with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) where SpaceX indicates that certain Starlink missions not only have a droneship landing option but also an RTLS landing option for the booster.

While SpaceX’s droneship on the west coast did increase its operational cadence in 2023, it does not appear that the company is hitting a limit in the processing times and it could probably increase the cadence of droneship recoveries in 2024 by just optimizing the current workflow. 

The increase of launch cadence in 2023 wouldn’t have been possible if SpaceX hadn’t had payloads to fly. While most of the company’s schedule was dominated by Starlink, SpaceX still flew the most customer missions in its history and outnumbered any other Western launch company at that metric. 

Month Government Commercial Transporter Starlink Total
January 2 1 1 3 7
February 0 2 0 4 6
March 2 2 0 4 8
April 1 2 1 2 6
May 0 4 0 5 9
June 1 1 1 4 7
July 1 1 0 6 8
August 1 1 0 6 8
September 1 0 0 9 10
October 1 0 0 8 9
November 1 1 1 6 9
December 3 0 0 6 9
TOTAL 14 15 4 63 96

Table showing the number of types of missions in 2023 per month

Notable missions this year included the launch of the final OneWeb and Iridium NEXT satellites into low-Earth orbit or the Falcon Heavy launch of Echostar 24 — the heaviest communications satellite ever launched. 2023 also saw the launch of the first fully expendable Falcon Heavy mission with the launch of the Viasat-3 Americas satellite directly into geostationary orbit.

SpaceX also flew the Axiom-2 mission, featuring for the first time international astronauts flying into space thanks to commercially contracted missions rather than through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Other notable government missions included the launch of ESA’s Euclid telescope to study the dark energy and dark matter in the universe and the launch of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft to study the (16) Psyche asteroid, believed to be a metal-rich asteroid. 

Falcon rockets also launched military payloads for the US government such as the X-37B spaceplane, the USSF-67 mission, the GPS-III SV06 spacecraft, and the Space Development Agency’s Tranche 0 satellite constellation. Foreign military payloads also made their way into Falcon 9’s fairing halves in 2023 with the launch of the first satellite as part of South Korea’s 425 Project and the launch of the SARah-2 and SARah-3 satellites for the German Armed Forces. 

In 2024 the company is expected to launch more customer missions than in 2023 with about 40 to 50 of them in the schedule for next year. These will include the first launch of Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft on Falcon 9 and several launches supporting NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. A potential of up to five crew missions is also on tap for 2024 which will see the debut of the crew access tower at SLC-40. 

Foreign government missions will also be more common in 2024 as a result of the ongoing issues in the European spaceflight sector as Ariane 6’s debut slips to mid-2024 and Vega rockets suffer failures. This will include the European Space Agency’s Hera and EarthCARE spacecraft, four Galileo global positioning satellites, and Spain’s next military communications satellite, Spainsat-NG 1. 

Next year SpaceX also plans to debut another set of missions as part of its Smallsat Rideshare Program named Bandwagon. These Bandwagon missions, unlike Transporter missions, would go to mid-inclination orbits and launch only twice a year instead of four times a year.

Starlink Program

SpaceX’s manifest in 2023 was dominated by Starlink and saw the launch of 1,984 satellites on 63 missions. The company debuted a new version of the Starlink satellite, Starlink v2 Mini, that has replaced the Starlink v1.5 satellite that it had been launching since September 2021. 

These Starlink v2 Mini satellites are a downsized version of the Starlink v2 satellite that SpaceX planned to launch on Starship. Despite the word “mini” in their name, these are about twice the size of the Starlink v1.5 satellites and carry a variety of upgrades and changes in capabilities.

For example, the Starlink v2 Mini satellites provide four times more capacity than Starlink v1.5 satellites and they also use Argon for its Hall Effect thrusters, a cheaper and more commonly available fuel than the Krypton used on Starlink v1.5 satellites. 

These satellites also use a new frequency band, E-band, to increase their data transfer capacity during their communication with ground stations. They also sport inter-satellite laser links just like Starlink v1.5 satellites and that provide a data transfer between satellites of up to 100 gigabits per second. These lasers saw an upgrade in 2023 with a new version being flown for the first time on the Starlink Group 7-3 mission.

These Starlink v2 Mini satellites are being flown under the Group 6 and Group 7 missions with Group 6 missions targeting the 43-degree inclination shell of Starlink’s second generation constellation (Starlink Gen 2) and Group 7 missions targeting the 53-degree inclination shell. SpaceX still has approval from the FCC to launch Starlink satellites into the 33-degree inclination shell of Starlink Gen 2 but, so far, the company hasn’t launched any satellite into that shell.

Next year will see another increase in the number of Starlink satellites launched thanks to the increase in launch cadence by Falcon 9. If Starlink launches were to represent the same percentage of missions next year as this year, that would mean a potential of up to 95 Starlink missions in 2024 which would translate into over 2,000 satellites launched into orbit in 2024.

SpaceX had planned to debut in 2023 the new Starlink satellites with the capability to directly communicate with cell phones but this has been postponed to 2024. These satellites sport a deployable antenna that communicates directly with phones on the ground while laser transmitters and receivers on these satellites connect each one to the regular Starlink network. This allows phone users to connect to the Starlink constellation without needing a dedicated antenna.

A view of a stack of Starlink satellites including a Starlink Direct To Cell satellite at the top. The deployable antenna and its hinge can clearly be seen in this image. (Credit: SpaceX)

According to a recent correspondence between SpaceX and the FCC, the company plans to deploy up to 840 of these Direct-To-Cell satellites over the next six months. The first launch of such satellites is scheduled to occur in the first week of January on the Starlink Group 7-9 mission. It is expected that SpaceX will launch mixed batches of Starlink v2 Mini and Starlink Direct-To-Cell satellites under the Group 7 missions over the next few months. 

These initial launches will allow cellphone users to use Starlink for text messaging at first and for voice and data connectivity in 2025 as more satellites are launched into orbit.

Starship Program

One of the major milestones in 2023 for SpaceX was the debut of Starship, the company’s monster rocket dedicated to its Mars ambitions but also for the deployment of larger and more capable Starlinks and the return of American astronauts back to the Moon. 

Starship’s first flight saw Booster 7 and Ship 24 rise above the company’s launch complex in South Texas, becoming the largest and most powerful rocket ever launched. The flight ended about four minutes after liftoff with Booster 7 having suffered multiple engine failures on the way uphill and a severe engine bay fire that rendered the rocket uncontrollable.

Both stages were terminated but this flight termination system also proved to not be up to spec and the rocket eventually broke apart due to aerodynamic forces. The launch pad also suffered serious damage due to the force of the 33 Raptor engines on Booster 7.

Over a span of seven months, the company worked through all of these issues and completed all hardware testing and paperwork ahead of a second launch of Starship. This second launch, carried out with Booster 9 and Ship 25, went much more successfully than the first.

All of Super Heavy’s 33 engines ignited successfully through staging and Starship reached space for the first time. Ship 25 also ignited all of its engines and continued its burn until it reached a speed of approximately 24,000 kilometers per hour. Both vehicles were terminated again, for causes that SpaceX has yet to explain, but performed much better than on the first flight.

The second flight of Starship also saw the first time such a large rocket performed a “hot-staging” maneuver where the second stage fires up its engines while the booster is still thrusting. The launch pad fared much better after this second flight of Starship which was followed less than six weeks later by the 33-engine static fire of Booster 10, the booster set to fly on Starship’s third flight.

During 2023, SpaceX produced at Starbase five Ships and three Super Heavy boosters, increasing the footprint of its production site and Starfactory building. A new High Bay was built as well and work has already started for a second launch tower at Starbase. 

In 2023, Starship-related activity at SpaceX’s Florida facilities was completely paused as the company pushed to fly the rocket from Boca Chica as soon as possible. With a more successful launch of Starship now in the cards, activity may come back at Starship’s launch pad at LC-39A in the next year. 

SpaceX’s long-term plans for Starship in Florida include several launchpads at different locations across the space coast including the existing launchpad at LC-39A, multiple launchpads at the future Launch Complex 49 (LC-49), and one or more launchpads at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) once United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy stops flying from there. 

Artistic impression of what LC-39A and LC-49 could look like in the future (Credit: Photo by NASA, Starship full stack photo by SpaceX, rendered by Jay DeShelter/NSF)

The company had hoped to start work this year on the launchpads set to be located at LC-49, however, NSF understands that regulatory issues have put these plans on pause for at least another year as NASA and SpaceX work through this paperwork. Next year may see SpaceX take over SLC-37 as the company hopes to also place another Starship launchpad in this location in the near future. 

This drive to increase the number of launchpads both at Starbase and in Florida is a consequence of the need to support launches of the Starship Human Landing System as part of NASA’s Artemis program. According to NASA, the current plan involves launching a Starship tanker every six days to refill a Starship depot located in low-Earth orbit. 

Such a fast cadence will need a higher production and a higher cadence which will be supported with multiple launch locations and a larger production facility at Starbase. SpaceX’s plans for the next Starship launchpads is for these to be capable of turnaround times of under a week, which would match the current turnaround times of Falcon launchpads and allow a faster pace of Starship launches in later years.

(Lead image: Starlink Group 6-36 launching above the landed side boosters from USSF-52. Credit: Ben Cooper/SpaceX)

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