Ambitious SpaceX launch schedule would outpace peak Space Shuttle program

At peak, Space Shuttle program hit 9 launches in one year

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said this week that the commercial space company is aiming for a launch every two to three weeks. If SpaceX meets that ambitions goal the company could outpace any other company, or even NASA's previous launch rate during the space shuttle program.

News 6 examined NASA’s space shuttle mission archive, a documentation of every launch from 1981 to the program’s end in 2011 to look back at the last time the Space Coast saw frequent launches.

If SpaceX launches at least once a month -- the company was close to that prior to the Falcon 9 explosion in September and the 2015 CRS-7 explosion-- it will double the rate NASA achieved during the space shuttle program.

Even at the program’s peak in 1985, Atlantis, Challenger and Discovery space shuttles launched a combined nine times in 11 months. Atlantis was the last launch of 1985 in November.

Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight on Jan. 29, 1986, killing all seven crew members.

The rest of the space shuttle fleet was grounded for two years during the course of the investigation.

NASA wouldn’t reach that pace again. From 1992 to 1997 a space shuttle launched on average seven times a year.

Grounded from a failure of its own, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket returned to flight in January, after the Sept. 1 explosion, launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

But Falcon 9 hasn’t launched from Cape Canaveral since the explosion. A Dragon cargo resupply mission to the Space Station and a commercial satellite launch are tentatively scheduled no earlier than Feb. 14., according to the company.

SpaceX has a backlog of 70 customer contracts for their launch vehicles, the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy.

“We should be launching every two to three weeks,” Shotwell told Reuters on Monday.

Shotwell did not say where the launches would take place.

SpaceX has two launch pads in Florida, 39A at Kennedy Space Center and Space Launch Complex 40, currently under repair, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, one pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base and another launch site in south Texas.

According to SpaceX’s launch manifest, all future missions will happen in Florida or California.

The quick-speed launch preparation is in line with the rate Elon Musk estimated the future Interplanetary Transport System could one day need. During the 2016 reveal of the launch and spacecraft system, which Musk said will transport humans to Mars, video showed rockets launching and spacecraft landing at Cape Canaveral, with the next spacecraft ready to be matted to a booster.

The two-stage Falcon 9 flew nine missions in 2016 and six missions in 2015 and 2014 each. The company has 13 planned missions this year, including several test flights for the Falcon Heavy.

SpaceX competitor and NASA contractor United Launch Alliance has 11 launches planned for 2017.

The Space Coast could see as many as 32 launches by five different rockets in 2017, ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy and Orbital ATK’s Minotaur IV, according the Air Force's 45th Space Wing.