With just a few global launches left before 2021 and SpaceX’s last December launch behind it, it’s now safe to say that Falcon 9 has officially ended the year as the world’s most-launched rocket of 2020.
On December 19th, Falcon 9 booster B1059 lifted off for the fourth time, carrying a secretive US spy satellite to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and marking SpaceX’s 26th successful launch and 23rd landing of 2020 – an exactly biweekly annual launch cadence. Barring several surprise launches, Falcon 9 will end the year as the world’s most-launched rocket and – by best measures – the world’s most reliable rocket, setting SpaceX up for a potentially unprecedented 2021.
Perhaps thanks to Starlink and any number of unknown hardware, software, and operational refinements, SpaceX has crushed its previous annual launch record – 21 flights, set in 2018 – by almost 25%. In 2020, Starlink missions represented more than half of Falcon 9’s 26 launches, placing almost 840 operational satellites in orbit over the course of 14 flights.
Thanks to Falcon 9’s record-breaking performance, in a single year, Starlink has become world’s largest satellite constellation by at least a factor of three to four, if not five or more.
Following SpaceX’s NROL-108 mission, perhaps two or three more international launches are planned between now and 2021. Altogether, the world’s launch providers are on track to successfully complete around 103 launches, almost a quarter of which can be credited to Falcon 9 alone. No other single rocket came close: Russia’s R-7 (Soyuz 2.1) family managed 14 successful flights, while five fairly distinct variants of China’s Long March 2, 3, and 4 rockets completed 24 launches in 2020.
In general, China is on track to complete 38 orbital launch attempts (33-34 of which were successful) in 2020, either narrowly edging out or tying the US (37 attempts; 34 successes).*
Perhaps most importantly, in large part thanks to a continuous stream of Falcon 9 reusability firsts, SpaceX appears to be on track to crush its impressive 2020 launch record in 2021. Checking off the first fourth, fifth, and sixth reuses of Falcon 9 boosters, as well as the first flight of a payload fairing for the third time, very little doubt remains that SpaceX will be able to achieve (and likely surpass) a 10-flight goal set for each Falcon booster back in 2018.
In the final three months of 2020, SpaceX managed an impressive 10 orbital launches, including milestone missions like Crew Dragon’s operational astronaut launch debut, the first flight of an upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft, and Falcon 9’s first West Coast launch in ~18 months.
Ultimately, by completing almost 40% of its annual launches in a single quarter, SpaceX has proven that an annual cadence of 40+ launches – and CEO Elon Musk’s stated goal of 48 flights – is well within reach next year.