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SpaceX Launched 98 Times in 2023, Will Go for 144 in 2024

Motley Fool - Sat Jan 6, 5:06AM CST

Oh! So close!

SpaceX missed it by that much!

Twelve months ago (if you recall), SpaceX entered 2023 with a list of ambitious goals, the most quotable of which was its promise to launch 100 rockets in a single year and beat its 2022 launch record by a whopping 60%. Now that 2023 is in the history books, we know SpaceX missed that target. But even so, the 98 launches SpaceX did accomplish in the year -- including 91 launches of Falcon 9 rockets, five Falcon Heavy launches, and two (explosive) test flights of its new Starship-Super Heavy combination rocket -- came really close to delivering on SpaceX's promise.

So will Elon Musk try again to hit the magic "100" number in 2024?

Yes, and he doesn't plan to stop there. He's aiming higher -- for 144 rocket launches in 2024.

Three people racing in business attire while one of them rides a rocket.

Image source: Getty Images.

What to expect in 2024

Testifying before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Space and Science in October, SpaceX VP for Build and Flight Reliability Bill Gerstenmaier (formerly NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations) said that SpaceX aims to launch once every 2.8 days in 2024 -- 12 times per month in 2024, or 144 launches in total.

Most of these launches will feature Falcon 9 rockets carrying Starlink satellites to orbit. Sixty-five percent of the company's launches in 2023 involved such missions. While it's true that SpaceX already has the largest constellation of satellites in orbit -- roughly 5,000 Starlinks -- the company has permission from the government to put 12,000 satellites up there, and it's seeking permission to launch a total of 42,000. What's more, SpaceX is now launching larger versions of Starlink, which limits each launch to carrying at most 23 Starlink satellites to orbit. (Earlier, smaller Starlink payloads meant that each launch could carry 60 of the smaller satellites at a time.)

As a result, even with so many satellites already in orbit, SpaceX will actually need to launch more missions -- not fewer -- and accelerate its launch cadence to grow its constellation going forward.

At the same time, SpaceX will launch plenty of missions not named "Starlink" this year. These will include:

  • The third launch of Axiom private astronauts on a Falcon 9 to work aboard the International Space Station (gathering experience for Axiom to build its own private space station) later this month.
  • A February Falcon 9 launch carrying Intuitive Machines' (NASDAQ: LUNR) IM-1 lunar lander to search for water on the moon.
  • The first of three planned Polaris missions -- private flights chartered by Shift4(NYSE: FOUR) CEO Jared Isaacman -- launching in April, which may include the first spacewalk by private astronauts. (Interestingly, this mission was supposed to happen in 2023, but was delayed by complications developing a new spacesuit.)
  • And the Europa Clipper Falcon Heavy, launching in October, to search for life in the oceans of Jupiter's moon of the same name.

And then there's Starship.

Starship 2024

Musk's dream of building a fully reusable Starship spaceship that can launch into orbit atop a Super Heavy booster, and then land both booster and spaceship back on Earth, continues to progress. Twice last year, SpaceX conducted test flights that resulted in dramatic explosions of both Super Heavy and Starship.

Will the third time be the charm? We hope to find that out sometime in Q1, when SpaceX makes its third flight test with Starship and Super Heavy. If the flight goes as planned, it will move SpaceX one step closer to cutting the cost of space launch by a factor of 40x. (Before SpaceX arrived on the scene, Boeing(NYSE: BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) were charging as much as $400 million for a rocket launch. But SpaceX has boasted that Starship will cost about $10 million per launch.)

What it means for investors

Granted, Musk has something of a reputation for overpromising and underdelivering on his promises, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Setting wildly fantastic goals, such as launching 100 times in a year, and then missing said target by only two flights has turned out to be a pretty successful strategy for advancing the goal of cheap access to space.

It's also turned SpaceX into the dominant provider of launch services in the world.

Consider that in missing its goal of 100 flights in 2023, SpaceX still utterly dwarfed the performance of his biggest rivals last year. In 2023, for example, Russia's Roscosmos hoped to launch as many as two dozen times, but managed fewer than one dozen launches. The entire nation of China, with multiple space companies, launched 67 times in 2023. That's roughly two-thirds as many launches as SpaceX accomplished (and only three launches more than in 2022).

Meanwhile, in the private sphere, Boeing and Lockheed's United Launch Alliance launched only three times in 2023. Europe's Arianespace similarly lifted off only thrice. As it turned out, America's Rocket Lab(NASDAQ: RKLB) came closest to SpaceX in the number of launches performed by a public company, managing to do so 10 times in the year.

As SpaceX continues to beat out rival space companies by a factor of 10x and expands its lead in 2024, it's looking more and more certain like no one can catch the undisputed leader in space launch.

Now, if only we could figure out how to invest in SpaceX. (Hint: We've figured out a way for individual investors to invest in SpaceX.)

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Rich Smith has positions in Rocket Lab USA. The Motley Fool recommends Lockheed Martin, Rocket Lab USA, and Shift4 Payments. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Paid Post: Content produced by Motley Fool. The Globe and Mail was not involved, and material was not reviewed prior to publication.

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