Tailing an intense February that saw SpaceX successfully complete inaugural launches of both Falcon Heavy and two Starlink prototype satellites, the next three weeks of March are likely to be relatively quiet. However, by all appearances, SpaceX is preparing for a frenetic end-of-month that could include three Falcon 9 launches from three separate SpaceX launch pads, all in a single week, and as many as six launches total between March 29 and April 30.
If successful, this series of missions would smash all of SpaceX’s past launch cadence records – six launches in little more than a single month, two reused flights in four days, three launches in one week, and two East coast launches in three days, not to mention the debut of Falcon 9 Block 5. To put this level of activity in perspective, SpaceX could complete the equivalent of four months or 33% of all of their 2017 launches in a single month. SpaceX’s aggressive goal of 30 launches in 2018 still means that the company could complete a full 1/5th of their scheduled manifest in less than five weeks, a cadence that – if maintained for a full year – would equate to 60-70 launches in 12 months.
THREE LAUNCHES, THREE PADS, SEVEN DAYS
Beginning on March 29, SpaceX’s next series of launches will kick off with the flight-proven Iridium-5 mission tasked with placing 10 Iridium NEXT communications satellites into LEO from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Three days later (April 2), a flight-proven Cargo Dragon and Falcon 9 booster are scheduled to lift off from LC-40 on the East coast, likely followed by the first stage’s second landing at LZ-1. Finally, SpaceX will return Pad 39A to its first single-stick Falcon 9 launches since February’s inaugural Falcon Heavy flight with Bangabandhu-1, the Bangladesh government’s first-ever geostationary satellite. Bangabandhu-1 will also mark the inaugural launch of SpaceX’ potentially game-changing Falcon 9 upgrade, and that invaluable pathfinder booster will almost certainly find its way to a soft landing aboard the Atlantic drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY).
Following those three launches and around ten days of quiet, SpaceX will launch NASA’s TESS, a scientific probe tasked with searching for planets beyond our solar system, from Florida’s LC-40, April 16. After another ten-day “break,” the company will jump back to the West coast to place another five Iridium NEXT satellites (and two NASA science payloads) into orbit on April 28. On April 30, just two days later, SES-12 is scheduled for an East coast launch to geostationary transfer orbit aboard a reused Falcon 9.
A NEW ERA OF RAPID REUSABILITY REARS ITS HEAD
Put simply, this is an extreme pace for orbital launches, and would be an absolutely staggering achievement for SpaceX even if Hispasat’s week-long delay extends that month-long period to six or so weeks for a half-dozen launches. While almost certainly a coincidence, this rapid succession of launches happens to coincide with the inaugural April 5th launch of SpaceX’s next-generation Falcon 9, an upgrade meant to enable cheap and rapid reuse of the rocket’s first stage. With Block 5, it is entirely conceivable that a Falcon 9 booster could land at LZ-1, be transported back to the launch pad after a brief once-over, and conduct another launch in a matter of days, at a meaningful cost of little more than the second stage and payload fairing (for the time being, at least). Of course, those minimal costs will at first help SpaceX recoup its considerable investments in reusability, but they can be expected to trickle down to the customer within a year or two (~30-60 launches) of Block 5’s introduction.
Ultimately, Falcon 9 Block 5 will give SpaceX an unprecedented amount of capital flexibility. Once the upgrade has phased out older Falcons, the company will have a huge amount of freedom to constantly strike a balance between competitive pricing and profit margins. In other words, no launch provider on Earth will be able to lowball SpaceX on cost without SpaceX’s conscious acquiescence, and every single recoverable launch of a Block 5 will equate to profit margins previously inconceivable for the company. However, rather than lining the pockets of military-industrial complex profiteers, those profits will help SpaceX both pay off R&D debts and intensively invest in more thrilling hardware developments, including Crew Dragon, Starlink, Raptor, BFR/BFS, and beyond. SpaceX does not intend to become rich and lazy in their success — they mean to develop technology that will provide affordable internet on a global scale, return humanity to the moon, and one day establish a permanent and self-sustaining city on Mars.