08 April 2021
There are a lot of things that SpaceX has done in recent years that are absolutely marvelous. The company has quickly come to dominate the launch services industry with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy partially reusable rockets. In 2020, the company successfully launched a record 26 times, vastly outpacing any other rocket program, including Chinese and Russian ones. Falcon left other American launch programs in the dust long ago.
Equally amazing is SpaceX’s ability to diversify its launch manifest, so that it not only launches lots of civil missions to NASA International Space Station (ISS), but it also launches lots of commercial satellites for companies and military satellites for the Pentagon. I should stress that it has not been easy to make Arianespace nearly a minor player in the commercial launch market and United Launch Services (Lockheed Martin and Boeing) practically a minor player in the US military launch market. But the company managed to do both rather quickly and seemingly without breaking a sweat.
Oh, I would be remiss if I did not highlight SpaceX’s pièce de résistance—its success in launching US astronauts to ISS aboard its Dragon 2 capsules launched by Falcon 9 rockets. This achievement alone would have gotten massive amounts of international recognition last year had it not been sucked away by all this COVID business.
SpaceX’s launch dominance has been made possible by its historic success in development and applying reusable launch vehicle technology which allows it to reuse the first stage of its Falcon rockets repeatedly, thus saving money on building expensive first-stage engines and, of course, time.
Then there is the matter of Elon Musk’s vision to colonize Mars in order to create a “multi-planet” civilization. Yes, I know… it sounds crazy. But not nearly as crazy now as it sounded five years ago. Why? Because of the company’s stupendous (yes, I know, I’m using an ungodly number of adjectives) in everything it has undertaken. It is hard to bet against success. Honestly, I have little doubt that SpaceX will get to Mars before NASA does, although I suspect it will be as part of some sort of partnership with the agency. Note, I do not think SpaceX will be the minor partner.
Having said all of this, it may surprise you to know that I have not even gotten to SpaceX’s crowning achievement (alright, possibly colonizing Mars), and that is its proposed 12,000-satellite constellation known as Starlink. Yes, 12,000 satellites. For some perspective on this endeavor, note that the entire world has launched into space less than 9,000 satellites since the Russians launched Sputnik 1 in 1957.
SpaceX aims to launch 12,000 (or more) Starlink broadband, internet-access satellites (mostly in batches of 60 at a time). Already, since November 2019, the company has launched more than 1,300 satellites. That is in just over a year. At that pace, the 12,000 satellites should be up and running by the end of the decade. Right about the time SpaceX is landing paying customers on the Red Planet. I know… it is the stuff of science fiction, right?
Do not bet on it.