SpaceX begins 2024 with several record-breaking feats

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SpaceX has kicked off 2024 breaking records and setting new standards for its operations. The Falcon family of rockets achieved 31 launches in the first quarter of the year putting the company on track to complete 125 launches by the end of 2024. SpaceX also debuted a new crew access tower for Dragon and launched two more crew flights to the International Space Station.

SpaceX’s Starship rocket also completed its third flight, reaching space once again, and successfully completing its ascent burn for the first time. In the first quarter of 2024, the company’s Starlink constellation also saw another growth of customers and satellites launched into space. 

Over the next few months, the company is aiming to increase its activity even further with more Falcon and Starship launches and debuting new types of missions and trajectories as well.

Falcon and Dragon Programs

While SpaceX’s launch cadence was increased substantially in 2023, the company has a stated goal of launching 148 times in 2024. This translates into a 50 percent increase in launch cadence needed to achieve this goal which would average more than 12 launches per month. 

In the first quarter of 2024, SpaceX completed 31 Falcon 9 missions which would put the company on track to complete 125 launches by the end of the year. While this is about 20 launches short of the stated goal, in recent years the company has been continually increasing its cadence, translating into this cadence being higher during the second half of every year.

To put SpaceX’s current cadence into perspective, the company has achieved the same number of launches in the first three months of 2024 as it did in all of 2021. During those months, SpaceX teams were able to break turnaround time records on all three Falcon-capable launchpads. 

Previous record New record
Space Launch Complex 40 3d 21h 41min 3d 17h 24min
Launch Complex 39A 8d 19h 20min 6d 18h 43min
Space Launch Complex 4E 6d 13h 44min 40s 5d  5h 22min 20s

Table comparing previous record turnaround times and new record turnaround times on each launchpad as of March 31, 2024

The use of Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) also increased in the first months of 2024. In the last couple of years, the complex has been used less often compared to SpaceX’s other two launch pads and was mostly utilized as the main launching point for Dragon spacecraft and Falcon Heavy missions. With the activation of a new crew access tower at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) in February, SpaceX opted to launch the CRS-30 Dragon mission from that launchpad. 

In March 2024, LC-39A supported four missions to take up the load of launches that would have otherwise gone from SLC-40. This marked the most launches performed from LC-39A in any calendar month to date. 

While Space Launch Complex 4E has also seen record turnaround times, the cadence from SpaceX’s west coast launch facilities has substantially dragged behind what the company had hoped to achieve. This lower-than-desired launch cadence comes as a result of the unusually bad weather conditions during several launch attempts made in the first months of the year. 

A similar situation occurred during early 2023 when multiple launches from Vandenberg were repeatedly delayed due to weather conditions. These delays could probably account for the four launches that SpaceX was short of its target last year and a similar situation could happen this year as well.

While SpaceX’s goal of achieving 148 launches in 2024 may be a tough challenge, the company did achieve twelve Falcon 9 launches in a single month in March 2024. This is the number of launches that the company would have to have every month during 2024 if it wants to come close to its year-end goal. 

With 31 launches complete in the first quarter of 2024, SpaceX will need to ramp up its cadence to an average of 13 launches per month. This will require it to demonstrate during certain months that it can do 14 launches in order to compensate for potential shortfalls in cadence during other times of the year. 

To support SpaceX’s record-breaking cadence, the company’s recovery assets also had to break a variety of turnaround records. These recovery assets consist mainly of three droneships and three fairing recovery vessels, two of each on the east coast, and the third of each located on the west coast. 

On the west coast, SpaceX’s droneship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) broke the record for the shortest time between supporting two missions for any droneship earlier in the year. However, this record was broken in late March by SpaceX’s droneship A Shortfall Of Gravitas (ASOG). 

This record was more complicated to achieve as the distance between the landing zone and Port Canaveral is larger than the distance between the landing zone for Starlink Group 7 missions from Vandenberg and Port of Long Beach where OCISLY returns boosters to. 

This record turnaround time for ASOG was achieved thanks to a powerful tug named Signet Warhorse III. This tug was able to pull ASOG at an average speed of 7 knots, reaching peak speeds of 11 knots during the trip back to port. This allowed the two vessels to complete the travel from the landing zone back to Port Canaveral in just 50 hours.

If SpaceX can keep its recovery assets at this pace and starts achieving a faster cadence from its west coast launch pad, it may not be that unrealistic for the company to achieve 13 or 14 launches in a month at some point in the next few months. 

Another crucial part of the drive to increase cadence is the fleet of Falcon 9 boosters that support SpaceX’s missions. During the first quarter of the year, two new boosters — B1082 and B1083 — were introduced into the fleet. B1082 is now part of the regular rotation of boosters on the west coast while B1083 debuted on the Crew-8 mission from the east coast. 

Three boosters, B1060, B1061, and B1062 have now reached 19 flights, the record number of flights for any Falcon 9 boosters. SpaceX is currently in the process of extending the number of certified reuses beyond 20. However, it is expected some of the oldest boosters will be expended and therefore retired in favor of letting newer boosters fly beyond that mark. 

SpaceX’s Falcon booster fleet currently consists of 16 active boosters and two Falcon Heavy side boosters which are awaiting their launch later this year. During the first three months of 2024, all 16 active boosters flew at least once, 12 of these flew at least twice, and two of them flew three times. 

SpaceX also runs its fleet of fairing halves but the company rarely releases any detailed info on the serial numbers of its fairings or the flights they supported previously. The company does mention from time to time a few major milestones or events of note regarding fairing recovery and reuse such as SpaceX’s recent comment on the fastest turnaround of a pair of fairing halves to date.

The faster launch cadence allows SpaceX to support more missions for customers and also for Starlink. In 2023 the company launched 63 Starlink missions and 33 customer missions, representing approximately two-thirds and one-third of all missions launched on Falcon, respectively. During the first three months of 2024, this same ratio is still present with 20 Starlink missions and 11 customer missions flown. 

These customer missions involved the first launch of a Cygnus spacecraft on Falcon 9. For this type of mission, SpaceX developed a special hatch on the fairing of the rocket that allows ground crews to introduce late-load cargo on Cygnus. 

Additionally, SpaceX launched the Intuitive Machines Nova-C lunar lander that eventually became the first commercially developed lander to land on the Moon. For that mission, SpaceX installed a set of ground systems at Launch Complex 39A to be able to load liquid methane and liquid oxygen on Nova-C during the Falcon 9’s countdown sequence.

Other customer missions include NASA’s PACE spacecraft which was the first NASA mission in more than 60 years that launched from Florida and was inserted into a polar orbit. 

Two crew flights to the International Space Station, Axiom-3 and Crew-8, also took place in the first quarter of the year followed shortly by the return of the Crew-7 mission from the orbiting laboratory. Crew-8 is being supported by Crew Dragon Endeavour flying on its fifth flight becoming the first Dragon capsule to reach this milestone. 

In 2023, SpaceX began the construction of a new crew access tower at SLC-40 and, in the early months of 2024, this work was completed. This included installing the emergency egress system at the pad which consists of a set of slide chutes on the side of the tower. The emergency egress system would be used by astronauts and ground crews in the unlikely event of an emergency on the pad prior to the activation of the launch escape system on Crew Dragon. 

This access tower was used for the first time operationally on the CRS-30 mission, the first Dragon 2 mission from SLC-40, and the first Dragon flight from this pad overall since 2020. The first crew flight from this location is currently not officially determined, but SpaceX and NASA are discussing the possibility of flying Dragon’s next crew rotation mission, Crew-9, from SLC-40. 

Coming up over the next few months are some notable customer missions which include the first pair of Europe’s Galileo global positioning satellites launching on Falcon 9. These satellites were originally planned to launch on Soyuz from French Guiana but as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Space Agency (ESA) decided to halt flights of Soyuz from the spaceport. After this, the agency moved the satellites to fly on one of the first flights of the Ariane 6 rocket but this too was delayed due to issues found late in the development of this vehicle.  The European Union recently approved flights of Galileo from the United States and the first flight of these on Falcon 9 is now scheduled for late April from Florida.

But these Galileo satellites are not the only European payloads flying on Falcon 9 rockets in the next few months. ESA’s EarthCARE spacecraft is set for launch in May and it too was originally scheduled to launch on a Soyuz rocket but later moved to Falcon 9. SpaceX is also slated to fly the first Falcon Heavy of the year in early summer launching NASA’s GOES-U weather satellite into geostationary orbit. 

SpaceX will also debut a new type of flight under its smallsat rideshare program called “Bandwagon.” These missions target mid-inclination orbits instead of Sun-synchronous orbits like Transporter missions do.

Starlink Program

Two-thirds of SpaceX launches in the first quarter of 2024 were Starlink flights. During this time, SpaceX launched 472 Starlink v2 Mini satellites into low-Earth orbit, bringing the total number of satellites launched well beyond the 6,000 mark. SpaceX has also brought over 600 satellites up to their operational orbits, having now well above 5,000 of them in their final orbital positions. 

Starlink Gen 1 Starlink Gen 2
Missions V1.0  Group 2 Group 3 Group 4 Group 5 Group 6 Group 7
Orbit 550 km at 53º 570 km at 70º 560 km at 97.6º 540 km at 53.2º 530 km at 43º 525 km at 53º
Satellites launched 1,665 408 243 1637 699 1,019 389
Satellites reentered 224 3 10 73 7 21 1
Satellites in operational orbit 1,288 397 229 1,525 683 816 235

(Status of Starlink constellation from Jonathan McDowell data as of April 4, 2024)

SpaceX also launched early in the year the first Starlink Direct to Cell satellites which will allow the company to deliver internet service to unmodified cell phones on remote areas of the globe. While those satellites were mere prototypes and used for early testing of the system, SpaceX plans to start bulk deployment in April with the Starlink Group 8 missions. 

In 2024 the company secured a deal with the government of Bahamas to allow Falcon 9 boosters to land on droneships stationed within Bahamian waters off the coast of Exuma. This will permit SpaceX to launch Starlink Group 7 and Starlink Group 8 missions from Florida without needing a large dogleg to the rocket’s trajectory, increasing the available performance to include more satellites on Falcon 9’s fairing.

Map of the Falcon 9 trajectory and landing location for upcoming Group 7 missions from Florida

In the first months of 2024, SpaceX also did a mission from each coast of the United States fitting an extra Starlink satellite on each compared to the normal amount of satellites launched. The Starlink Group 6-39 mission broke Falcon 9’s record for heaviest payload launched to date at 17.5 tonnes inserted into a 275-by-283 kilometer orbit at 43 degrees orbital inclination.

It is believed the company was able to fit this extra mass thanks to slight improvements in Falcon 9’s performance via optimizations of the rocket’s trajectory, thrust, and orbital insertion parameters. This also likely involved optimizing and improving the payload deployment mechanisms for Starlink v2 Mini satellites. In the long run, SpaceX aims to fit up to 28 satellites onboard Falcon 9 via a similar series of improvements and upgrades.

The company’s Starlink satellite constellation also made substantial customer growth in the last few months, reaching a total of 2.6 million customers up from 2.3 million at the end of 2023. 

SpaceX’s President Gwynne Shotwell recently made comments about the company’s inter-satellite laser link technology that has been in place on Starlink satellites for the last two and a half years. According to Shotwell, these lasers, which now amount to over 10,000 of them in orbit, would be commercialized to other satellite companies as a “plug and play” service which SpaceX calls “plaser” — a shorthand for “plug and laser.”

SpaceX’s Starshield satellites were also the focus of attention in the last month when during the Starlink Group 7-16 mission, the company only launched 20 Starlink satellites despite having previously announced 22 were launching onboard.

US government satellite tracking data later identified the extra two satellites onboard as USA 350 and USA 351 and therefore were classified. It is highly likely that these two spacecraft are Starshield satellites, SpaceX’s satellites for national security missions based on the Starlink satellite bus. 

Starlink also played a crucial role in the coverage of the company’s third flight of the Starship rocket. Both the first and second stages were fitted with four Starlink terminals that were able to transmit live footage of the mission as it happened. This included impressive images of the reentry attempt of Ship 28 during the flight.

Starship Program

Starship’s third flight saw Ship 28 and Booster 10 accomplish a larger number of milestones compared to Booster 9 and Ship 25 during Starship’s second flight. 

Booster 10 completed its ascent burn, survived hot staging, and was able to complete its boostback burn. The vehicle was lost during the landing burn and, as of writing, SpaceX has not disclosed the reason for this. Ship 28 completed its ascent burn and during its coast phase, it attempted to open and close its payload bay and completed a propellant transfer demonstration. 

SpaceX hoped to test Starship’s ability to relight at least one of its Raptor engines in space but the vehicle’s computers decided to abort this test due to higher-than-expected roll rates prior to the time the test was supposed to occur. Ship 28 was lost during reentry, likely due to these attitude control issues.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) confirmed shortly after the flight was complete that a SpaceX-led mishap investigation was underway and, as of writing, this process is still ongoing. In the meantime, the company continues with preparations for the next flight. Two weeks after the third flight of Starship, SpaceX completed two static fire tests of Ship 29 in preparation for the rocket’s fourth flight. 

Since then, the vehicle has been rolled back to the production site where it is being prepared for flight and possibly receiving the necessary hardware changes identified during the Starship Flight 3 mishap investigation.

Booster 11, the Super Heavy booster set to be used on this upcoming flight, has also been rolled out to the pad and conducted a static fire. The company is speeding up testing cadence compared to previous flights as it aims to launch this next pair of vehicles as soon as early May. 

During the first quarter of 2024, SpaceX also started groundwork in the area where the second launch tower and pad will be located at Starbase. Four of the nine tower sections for this tower were transported from Florida to Starbase and are currently at Port of Brownsville alongside another section that arrived right at the end of 2023. Another two sections — the two topmost sections — are being fabricated at the Starbase Sanchez site and being outfitted for assembly.

The remaining two tower sections still reside in Florida within SpaceX’s Roberts Road Facility. The company has also resumed Starship operations at Launch Complex 39A by removing the legs of the orbital launch mount that was originally intended to be installed at this site. It is understood that the launch ring SpaceX built at Hangar M will also be dismantled as the company is no longer using this launch mount and leg design on its upcoming launch pads. 

It is unclear what the new design will be, but there’s a likelihood that the company will return back to the 2019 launch pad design for Starship. This design sported a massive 20-by-20 meter flame diverter and elevated launch pad design very similar to the Saturn IB launch pad at Launch Complex 34. 

(Lead image: Falcon 9 for Intuitive Machines Mission 1 at Launch Complex 39A in the foreground with Falcon 9 for USSF-124 launching from Space Launch Complex 40. Credit: SpaceX)



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