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Missing SpaceX Boosters?

A rocket is required to achieve orbit. Without it, everything else is just talk. SpaceX is dependent on the Falcon 9 Block 5 SpaceX booster, but in 2019 their launch schedule decreased dramatically, in part, because of a lack of booster inventory. Nothing has changed for 2020 and, in fact, the situation may be worse.

The decline and fall of SpaceX’s launch schedule

SpaceX will have 13 (Space Flight Now,) 22+ (Space News,) or 33 (Wikipedia) launches in 2020 depending on what source is used. SpaceX’s President, CEO, and CIC (Cheerleader in Chief) Gwynne Shotwell claimed in September that her company will likely have two Starlink launches per month in 2020. This does not include the test launches required for human spaceflight, nor the paying customers already scheduled. 

The problem is that SpaceX doesn’t have enough boosters to come anywhere near the volume they brag about to the public.

In March of 2019, it was apparent that SpaceX was facing severe financial problems. A dramatic cut in SpaceX employees at their California rocket assembly plant in January of last year resulted in a drastic downsizing of booster production and launches for 2019.

SpaceX Booster Deficit:  It’s a Math Problem

SpaceX introduced the Block 5 Falcon 9 booster in May 2018. Six Block 5 boosters were used in ten launches in 2018 and five launches in 2019. Last year, after the layoffs, SpaceX put up seven new Block 5 boosters, four of which, (B1052, B1053, B1055, and B1057,) were specifically built for use in the Falcon Heavy configuration. The Falcon Heavy boosters have never been used on single booster launches. The three non-Falcon Heavy boosters were responsible for seven of the 13 SpaceX launches in 2019.

We’re almost through the hard math.

This means SpaceX has nine Block 5 boosters available. But they don’t.

Of the nine Block 5 boosters, 3 (B1047, B1050, and B1054) have been lost (sacrificed or destroyed.) Another booster (B1046) will be destroyed in the upcoming crew capsule abort test. One booster (B1051) hasn’t been seen since it left Vandenberg Airforce Base after its flight in June of last year. Two of the remaining boosters (B1048 and B1049) have been flown four times and one (B1056) three times.

This leaves one booster (B1059) with less than three flights use and one new booster (B1058) coming on online in 2020. SpaceX doesn’t have the inventory of boosters needed to accomplish even a moderate launch schedule this year.

SpaceX Exec:  Pay No Attention To Reality

In May of last year, the top executive of SpaceX either had no understanding of the company’s launch capabilities or publicly lied about the projected launch schedule. Shotwell said that SpaceX would have a total of 18 to 21 launches in 2019, not including the Starlink satellite launches. SpaceX had 13 total launches including two Starlink launches.

SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell:  Doesn’t know how many rockets her company can launch

SpaceX had no major disasters or delays that would explain how Shotwell would overestimate the number of launches by over 150% with only seven months left in the year.

Fantasyland Scenarios

Elon Musk and SpaceX’s Shotwell have been known for their boasts of SpaceX’s future. In a conference call to the news media in 2018, Musk was quoted to say that the Block 5 Falcon 9 would be “…capable of at least 100 flights…” and they would be able to launch a Block 5 booster within 24 hours of recovery. He also said that all this would happen as early as 2019.

In July, Teslarati reported that SpaceX Vice President of Commercial Sales Jonathan Hofeller announced that by the end of 2019, they would launch a Block 5 booster for a fifth or sixth time. In the same article, the Musk fansite writer Eric Ralph calculated that SpaceX would launch an additional 12 to 19 times in the second half of 2019. 

Today, only two Block 5 boosters (B1048 and B1049) have been launched more than three times (B1046 is scheduled for its fourth launch on 18 January.) The ten-week turnaround time for the Block 5 boosters has also failed to meet Musk’s predictions of a 24-hour turnaround.

What is Possible For 2020?

In the short term, SpaceX has the booster capacity to launch six times in the first quarter if boosters B1048 and B1049 can be used a fifth time and if a new booster comes online before April. If not, then SpaceX would be hardpressed to launch four missions by the end of March.

Currently, only two missions have assigned boosters (B1046 for Dragon Inflight Abort test and B1058 for Dragon crewed test flight.) Without a booster assigned, it is unlikely that any other announced mission in January or February is feasible.

Musk has also claimed that the Block 5 booster can easily perform ten launches; however, as with his other claims, there is no reason to believe the Block 5 can survive the extreme temperatures and stress of ten launches and landings without a significant overhaul.

For the remainder of the year, SpaceX depends heavily on new boosters to keep flying as the current booster supply is almost exhausted.

Is SpaceX a Dead Program Walking?

Last year’s sudden layoff of 577 SpaceX employees indicated corporate financial trauma. That event was followed by an anemic 2019 launch schedule. Nine of those launches were for commercial customers, but one was a free launch because of a previous failed launch. Two launches were for test purposes and two were for the Starlink system that will not be revenue-producing until the satellite system is established and operational.

For 2020, the first five scheduled flights consist of two test flights and three non-revenue producing Starlink launches. SpaceX does have paying customer launches during 2020, but much of the schedule consists of Starlink or small customer satellites on RideShare launches.

In 2017, Musk confidently proclaimed that SpaceX would have 30 to 40 launches per year. That number was overstated and the company seems to be ‘filling in’ their launch schedule with straw customers that may not have the deep pockets SpaceX needs. They also seem to be offering deep discounts in order to attract customers.

The January 2019 layoff, the dramatic drop in launches in 2019, and the lack of Block 5 booster inventory would seem to indicate that SpaceX is in a desperate situation.