It’s been a year of incredible activity thus far, cementing SpaceX’s dominance of the commercial launch industry. Led by SpaceX, the industry is on track to surpass the annual launch peaks of the space race in the mid-20th century, when most launches were carried out by governments rather than the private sector. 2021 has already set a new record with a total of 145 launches, compared to 129 in 1984, the previous record-setting year, according to data from research firm Quilty Analytics.
If SpaceX maintains its current pace, it could launch more than 52 rockets this year alone, far surpassing last year’s record of 31..
“Even 10 years ago, launches were rare,” Chris Quilty, founder of Quilty Analytics, told CNN Business.
He noted that in 2001, the total number of launches worldwide was only 51.
“So put that in the context of SpaceX’s launch alone 52 times,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
While SpaceX stands out from its rocket competitors, that doesn’t mean the company will or will remain unchallenged.
Two new rockets capable of competing with SpaceX’s Falcons — the backbone rockets the company uses to ferry satellites, and most recently astronauts to orbit — are scheduled to launch in the next year or so. They are New Glenn, which is being developed by Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin, and Vulcan Centaur, a rocket group from old launch company United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Others are more optimistic that SpaceX and others are taking these risks seriously enough to avoid catastrophe.
“Companies that might create space junk will be directly and directly affected by that space junk,” said BryceTech Space Research Group CEO Carissa Christensen, noting that collision debris would threaten their satellites — their own investments.
With all of these missiles active — and a few smaller launch vehicles slated to begin launches from the Florida coast, which is SpaceX’s primary launch site — SpaceX could also face launch pad bottlenecks. Each launch requires a ground support team, including military weather personnel, to ensure a safe takeoff. And there are plenty of launches they can handle at any given time.
“There aren’t an infinite number of days, launch pads, or launch sites where you can take things into orbit,” Quilty noted.
Christensen added, however, that space coast ground support has proven resilient, as evidenced by SpaceX’s ability to return a group of astronauts from the International Space Station off the coast of Florida last Friday and then launch the Starlink mission from a launch pad a few miles after few hours.
Capt. Jonathan Eno, assistant director of operations for the US Space Force, tasked with monitoring weather and other potential interventions before launch, said ground support crews in Florida had worked for years to prepare for the massive increase in the number of launches from the spaceport. In the year it was commissioned in turn, 2019, the Space Coast—which houses NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral—supported just 18 launches. This year, it is on track to support more than 60, Notably including the first launch of NASA’s new moon rocket, called the Space Launch System. His team is now ready to support multiple launches on the same day, even within minutes of each other.
“SpaceX makes the news a lot,” he told CNN Business. “They’re the ones doing so many launch vehicles right now.” “Obviously we are just preparing for a different reality.”
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