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Scheduled to lift off from Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Launch Complex 39A (Pad 39A) no earlier than (NET) 7:51 am EDT (11:51 UTC) on Monday, October 5th, Starlink-12 was originally scheduled to launch in mid-September. Bad weather at the Atlantic Ocean landing zone caused a ten-day delay from September 17th to the 27th, followed by a pad weather delay on the 28th.
After a ULA Delta IV Heavy mission with range priority was scrubbed for the seventh time on September 30th, SpaceX tried to launch Starlink-12 again but suffered an abort – later blamed on a pad sensor – seven seconds before liftoff. Finally, a new Falcon 9 launch with an upgraded GPS III satellite aboard was aborted just two seconds before liftoff on October 2nd. Moved from NET October 3rd to the 5th just prior to GPS III SV04’s separate launch delay, Starlink-12 is now up next.
Interrupting what has otherwise been a much-improved level of launch readiness and schedule reliability for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy’s Block 5 upgrade, this recent string of delays – while mostly the result of weather and ULA’s own NROL-44 launch delays – has even become a concern for CEO Elon Musk. Currently focused on building out SpaceX’s new Starship factory and pushing towards the rocket’s first high-altitude and orbital test flights in Boca Chica, Texas, Musk stated that he would be flying to Cape Canaveral “to review hardware in person” on the week of October 5th.
Musk also says that SpaceX is “doing a broad review of launch site, propulsion, structures, avionics, range, & regulatory constraints” to determine if an apparent goal of “48 launches” in 2021 is feasible.
To be fair to SpaceX, most of the plague of delays suffered by the company in the last month has been caused by a mixture of weather and the range’s preferential treatment of ULA’s “national security” NROL-44 launch. Additionally, of an impressive seven ULA NROL-44 launch attempts between August 26th and September 30th, just a single one was caused by weather – the remaining six a result of a wide variety of technical software and hardware bugs. SpaceX’s Starlink-12 and GPS III SV04 missions have only suffered one technical launch abort each on September 30th and October 2nd.
In other words, short of upgrading Falcon rockets to launch and land in worse weather conditions, most of SpaceX’s delays have been largely out of the company’s control, while ULA’s NROL-44 struggles demonstrate just how much worse things could be. According to an unofficial analysis of 44 Falcon Block 5 launches since May 2018, only four technical launch aborts have been triggered by a booster fault. Pad-caused aborts have been roughly as common, meaning that 1 in roughly 6 to 8 SpaceX launches suffers some kind of abort shortly before liftoff, on average.
Altogether, Falcon Block 5 rockets have been relatively dependable for on-time, on-schedule launches even if SpaceX has struggled with more repeated delays than usual in the last few months. To achieve anywhere close to 48 launches annually, however, major improvements will need to be made, likely including upgrades to whatever is responsible for Falcon 9’s weather constraints. As of October 2020, SpaceX has never launched four times in one month (or four times in the same ~30-day period). To launch 48 times in one year, SpaceX will need to average four launches per month. That, of course, in no way accounts for the possibility that 2020-esque summer weather could functionally cut 4-8+ weeks off of Falcon 9’s annual availability.
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