SpaceX’s launch of a rocket carrying a batch of satellites into low-earth orbit caps a record year for the closely held company led by Elon Musk.
The mission from California’s central coast was Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s 18th this year. That’s more than any competitor and far exceeds the eight it launched in 2016 before a September explosion grounded the company for the rest of the year while an investigation took place.
“SpaceX has had a phenomenal year, and they’ve motivated and inspired a lot of people as to what is possible,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group for the private space sector.
The coming year is expected to be even bigger. With three launch pads now at their disposal after repairing the one damaged in the September 2016 blast, Musk and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell have said they expect to fly roughly 30 missions in 2018. That tally will include several missions for commercial satellite operators, military customers and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration using the Falcon 9 rocket—which powered all of this year’s launches—but also a planned expansion to include a larger rocket and crewed missions.
Next year “will be the biggest year in the space industry since 1969,” Stallmer said, referring to NASA’s Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
The maiden flight of Falcon Heavy, SpaceX’s bigger and more powerful rocket that will let it compete for heavier US military payloads, is slated for January.
SpaceX is also expected next year to demonstrate the Crew Dragon spacecraft it plans to use to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, first with an unmanned mission as soon as April and then with a crewed test flight in August. SpaceX and Boeing Co. both have contracts with NASA to deliver American astronauts to the orbiting lab as part of the “Commercial Crew” programme.
SpaceX’s 2017 total fell just shy of the 20 to 24 missions it had been targeting for this year. Still, its rate exceeded that of any rivals competing for the same missions. Arianespace, based in France, has completed 11 launches in 2017.
United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp., launched eight government missions on its Atlas and Delta rockets.
Musk, 46, founded Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX in 2002.
It recently added another $100 million to its latest fundraising round, which values the company at more than $21 billion, according to Equidate. Billionaire Musk is also chief executive officer of electric-car maker Tesla Inc.