Moved Cheese: SpaceX’s 2024 Launch Goals

Moved Cheese: SpaceX’s 2024 Launch Goals

Realistic Goals?

About a year ago, I guessed that SpaceX would not be able to reach its launch goal of 100 for 2023. That guess was based on the company's seven launches in January of that year and thinking that total might represent a high monthly launch average. The guess’s math was simple: seven launches X twelve months = 84 launches (incredibly high, but far short of 100). However, SpaceX successfully launched 96 times, an average of eight launches per month during 2023. While 96 fell short of the company’s 100-launch goal, it’s still more successful orbital launches than any other company had conducted in a year, ever.

So, what to make of SpaceX’s stated goal for 2024 of 144 launches? Realistically, can the company achieve that launch cadence? That’s 48 more SpaceX launches in 2024 than 2023’s 96. That’s about one launch every two-and-a-half days. The answer to the second question is a solid-gold-plated…shmaybe?

January Launches: 2019-2024

SpaceX conducted ten successful launches in January 2024, three more than the seven in January 2023. And, to be clear, that’s still a pretty darn high number of launches for a single company in a single month. To put those numbers in perspective, the chart below shows the successful orbital launches conducted every January from 2019 through 2024.

The growth in the number of launches in January since 2019 is noticeable, with SpaceX’s launch share becoming more significant each year. January launches never exceeded ten until 2023. And January 2024 launches more than doubled January 2022 launches. 

China’s launch services also contribute significantly to the launches in January, but not at SpaceX’s rate. SpaceX’s share becomes more apparent when subtracting Starlink launches from those launches (below).

After 2019, SpaceX’s Starlink-dedicated launches in each January added 60-100% on top of its non-Starlink launches in those months. Without Starlink launches, however, SpaceX still managed to outpace other U.S. competitors in January launches.

Again, ten launches in a month is a highly aggressive start for 2024, but it’s under the monthly average SpaceX requires to reach 144. Multiplying ten launches by twelve months gives 120 launches for 2024, twenty-four short of SpaceX’s goal. SpaceX would need to average 12 launches per month for 12 months to get to 144. Since it’s already short in January, it will need to launch more than twelve launches for a couple of months to make up the difference.

Fewer Spacecraft Deployments, More Mass Deployed

Another difference is shown in the January 2023 and 2024 spacecraft deployment data in the chart below. Despite the Falcon 9 launching more in January 2024, more than double the number of Starlink launches during that month in 2023, SpaceX still deployed two fewer Starlink satellites in 2024. 

SpaceX does have the ability to deploy “more than 200 satellites per month” (in reference to Starlink). And the company says it can manufacture 55 Starlink satellites a week (nearly 8 per day). Those numbers indicate that manufacturing isn’t the bottleneck, but launch might be, as deploying 200 Starlink satellites would require 9 at least dedicated Starlink launches per month.

Simultaneously, the mass of Starlink satellites deployed during January 2024 was three times the mass of those deployed in January 2023. The mass difference makes sense since the latest iteration of Starlink satellite mass is over two-and-a-half that of the previous version. It also suggests that SpaceX will probably deploy a lot more mass into orbit as it keeps launching Starlink.

That’s a lot of numbers, but reviewing them is necessary to determine if SpaceX can reach that 144 launch goal for 2024. It fell just short of its goal in 2023. It launched more in January 2024, primarily because it has to deploy new, higher-mass Starlink satellites at about the same rate as the previous iteration. Even though it launched more than in 2023, the number of launches didn’t attain the monthly average necessary to reach 144.

SpaceX has only launched twice in February so far (as of 11 Feb 24), so it doesn’t appear that the company is on track to make up for January’s two-launch deficiency. Based on the company's cadence so far, the total SpaceX launches in February 2024 will be less than ten. 

Milestone as Marketing

None of this is to say that SpaceX can’t conduct 144 launches for 2024. But, so far, the company’s launch cadence for the past month and a half doesn’t match the numbers necessary to get to 144, making attaining it unlikely. 

However, even if SpaceX falls short of its 2024 goals, it’s an excellent marketing gimmick with little downside. Any number above 100 would be considered good enough, especially since no other company comes close. Fans might be disappointed, but normal people probably don’t care. And if SpaceX gets past 120, that may indicate it’s still deploying Starlink satellites at a similar pace to 2023.  

There’s also the fact that launches worldwide in 2024 have already exceeded the number for the first few months of 2023. Some of that growth can be attributed to the activities of China’s launch companies. But, sadly, no other company or nation can match what SpaceX or China’s launch services have been accomplishing during the past few years.  

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