SpaceX set a brisk pace in 2021.
Elon Musk's pioneering space company launched 31 rockets to orbit -- five more than its previous record -- and scored its 100th rocket landing back on Earth, a new milestone in reusable rockets. It set a third record for "most launched rocket ever," reusing one Falcon 9 second stage a record 11 times. Since that rocket survived its landing, you can assume SpaceX will soon try to see if this dial goes to 12.
Over the course of those 31 missions:
- SpaceX completed two dedicated rideshare missions for small satellite customers ("Transporter 1" and "Transporter 2").
- Carried astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) twice ("Crew-2" and "Crew-3").
- Resupplied those astronauts on ISS three times ("CRS-22," "CRS-23", and "CRS-24").
- Put 17 separate batches of Starlink internet satellites in orbit. (There are about 1,800 of them up there now, by the way).
- Fired a missile at an asteroid ("DART").
In addition to all this, SpaceX set a new first in space tourism -- and put rivals Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic on notice -- when it launched four brand new astronauts in the world's first all-civilian space mission, "Inspiration4," on a three-day orbit of Earth in September. Then to top it all off, SpaceX successfully launched and landed its SN15 prototype "Starship" in a suborbital flight in May.
What will SpaceX do for an encore in 2022?
What's coming next in 2022
That SN15 test flight was the culmination of a series of expensive test flights (and fiery explosions) that SpaceX ran all year long. Its success now sets the stage for an orbital test flight of the next prototype, dubbed "SN20," atop a Super Heavy booster rocket in March 2022.
Granted, SN20 could turn into a fireball upon launch, upon impact at its planned landings at sea, or any point in between. That would make for an explosive introduction to 2022. But as SpaceX continues to iterate, refine its design, and "try, try again," the company will eventually get this right -- even if it takes an SN21, SN22, or even SN30 to do it.
CEO Elon Musk says he's "confident" that one Starship or another will reach orbit in 2022. Once it does, the company will shift back into flight test mode, flying Starship repeatedly to orbit and back to make certain the vessel is reliable. By 2023, the company expects it to be ready to launch "real payloads."
At that point, SpaceX will possess the world's largest and most powerful rocket ship by a large margin -- more than twice as powerful as NASA's 1960s-era Saturn V moon rocket, with nearly twice the thrust of NASA's planned "Space Launch System." With Starship operational, SpaceX will be in a position to execute on its $2.9 billion NASA contract to land astronauts on the moon in 2025.
Arguably even more important to SpaceX, though, is how Starship will accelerate deployment of SpaceX's Starlink satellite constellation (and position Starlink for an IPO).
Starship will be able to lift more than 150 tons of cargo into Low Earth Orbit in a single launch. That payload of 150 tons works out to the mass of 577 Starlink satellites vs. the 60 Starlinks per launch that SpaceX can currently put into orbit with its Falcon 9 rockets -- a near-tenfold improvement in payload per launch.
Thus, with just two Starship launches, SpaceX will be able to put more satellites in orbit than it did with 17 Falcon 9 launches last year. With 17 Starship launches, SpaceX can finish building the entire planned Starlink constellation of 12,000 satellites.
In short, Starship will undoubtedly be SpaceX's most important development in 2022. It's crucial to advancing progress on Starlink, and to bringing this SpaceX subsidiary closer to its promised IPO. (Until that IPO happens, Rocket Lab (RKLB -0.39%) has completed nearly two dozen commercial launches to space, and remains the closest publicly traded analog to SpaceX among pure-play space stocks).
But Starship won't be the only headline that SpaceX makes this year. In total, Inverse.com predicts that SpaceX may launch as many as 48 separate missions in 2022. These will include:
- Four separate "Transporter" smallsat express missions.
- Two "Crew" missions sending NASA astronauts to ISS.
- Two "CRS" missions to resupply them.
- Two other astronaut missions (Axiom-1 and Axiom-2), sending astronauts from private space company Axiom Space to ISS to begin figuring out how to set up commercial space stations.
- About a dozen Starlink launches.
Finally, NASA has tapped SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launch vehicle to send a spaceship to examine "16 Psyche" in July.
Billed as a science mission that will discover "new clues about how terrestrial planets like Earth form," according to Space.com, there may be an ulterior motive to this mission. Famed as the "$10 quadrillion asteroid," 16 Psyche is a hunk of space rock believed to contain so much iron and nickel that, if returned to Earth, mined and melted down, it would yield metals equivalent in value to more than 120,000 years' worth of Earth's global GDP.
If that doesn't get investors interested in investing in space stocks, I don't know what will.