It’s been a year of dizzying activity so far, further cementing SpaceX’s dominance of the commercial launch industry. Led by SpaceX, the industry is poised to surpass the annual space race launch heights of 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 145 total launches, up from 129 in 1984, the previous record 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 its record, set last year, of 31..
“Even 10 years ago, launches were rare,” Chris Quilty, founder of Quilty Analytics, told CNN Business.
In 2001, the total number of launches worldwide was only 51, he noted.
“So put that in the context of just SpaceX launching 52 times,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Although SpaceX stands apart from its rocket competitors, that doesn’t mean the company is or will be unchallenged.
Two new rockets capable of rivaling SpaceX’s Falcons — the work rockets the company uses to ferry satellites and, more recently, astronauts into orbit — are set to debut within the next year. These are New Glenn, which is being developed by Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin, and Vulcan Centaur, a line of rockets from legacy launch company United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. .
Others are more optimistic than SpaceX, and others take these risks seriously enough to avoid catastrophe.
“Companies that might create space junk would be immediately and directly affected by that space junk,” said BryceTech space research group CEO Carissa Christensen, noting that collision debris would threaten their own satellites — their own investments.
With all of those rockets active — and a few smaller launchers also slated to start from Florida’s Space Coast, which is SpaceX’s primary launch site — SpaceX could also encounter launch pad bottlenecks. Each launch requires a ground support team, including military weather personnel, to ensure a safe liftoff. And there’s only a limited number of launches they can handle at any given time.
“There’s not an infinite number of days or launch pads or launch sites where you can put things into orbit,” Quilty noted.
Christensen added, however, that ground support at the Space Coast has proven flexible, as evidenced by SpaceX’s ability to return a group of astronauts from the International Space Station off Florida last Friday and then to launch a Starlink mission from a launch pad a few miles away a few hours later.
Capt. Jonathan Eno, deputy director of operations for the US Space Force, which is tasked with monitoring weather and other possible interference before a launch, said ground support crews in Florida have worked for years to prepare for the dramatic increase in the number of launches from the spaceport. The year he was named to his post, 2019, the Space Coast — which includes NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral — supported just 18 launches. This year it is on track to support more than 60, including the first launch of NASA’s new lunar rocket, called the Space Launch System. His team is now ready to support multiple launches in the same day, even minutes apart.
“SpaceX is in the news a lot. They’re the ones launching the preponderance of launch vehicles right now,” he told CNN Business. “Obviously we are preparing for a different reality.”