SpaceX Again Aims for High Launch Cadence

Falcon 9 launch (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX’ is hoping the fourth time will be a charm.

For the fourth year in a row, SpaceX is trying to significant increase its launch rate.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp, better known as SpaceX, plans to launch its Falcon 9 rockets every two to three weeks, its fastest rate since starting launches in 2010, once a new launch pad is put into service in Florida next week, the company’s president told Reuters on Monday.

“We should be launching every two to three weeks,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told Reuters in an interview on Monday.

During each of the past three years, the company tried to vastly improve its launch cadence only to hit significant setbacks.

After launching three times in 2013, SpaceX planned about a dozen launches in 2014. It managed only six flights due to delays caused by leaks in helium tanks.

In 2014, the company reeled off five successful launches before the sixth vehicle exploded after liftoff. The cause: a helium that broke loose inside the second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank. The company finished the year with six successful flights in seven attempts in a year during which the Falcon 9 was grounded for six months.

Eight more launches followed in 2016 as SpaceX aimed for 18 flights. However, the ninth rocket caught fire and exploded on the launch pad while being fueled for a pre-flight engine test. The cause: a large breech of a helium tank inside the second-stage LOX tank.

The rocket was grounded for four months, returning to flight in January. That remains SpaceX’s only flight this year, although the company is planning two launches by the end of February.

The first flight, set for Feb. 14, will launch a Dragon resupply ship to the International Space Station. The second, scheduled for Feb. 28, will carry the EchoStar 23 spacecraft.

SpaceX is also planning to launch the SES 10 communications satellite in March. That flight will feature the first use of a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage.

All three flights will take place from the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The launch pad previously hosted Saturn V and space shuttle missions.

SpaceX’s main launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station remains under repair after it was damaged by the Falcon 9 accident last September.

Shotwell did not reveal how many launches SpaceX is aiming for in 2017. However, assuming the company gets both flights off this month and hits a launch cadence of every three weeks thereafter, SpaceX could launch 17 rockets this year.

On the schedule for this year is one, and possibly two, flights of the long delayed Falcon Heavy booster. The rocket includes three Falcon 9 first stage cores with a total of 27 engines. The first launch will be a flight test; the second will carry an Air Force satellite.

SpaceX is also scheduled to fly an automated version of its Crew Dragon spacecraft on a flight test to the International Space Station. However, that program is already running 20 months behind schedule, and there are unconfirmed reports of additional delays that have not been announced.