A Triumphant Year for SpaceX

The Atlantic
December 26, 2017

The company’s record-​​breaking 2017 and what it means for the sci­ence and busi­ness of rocketry

The year 2017 has turned out to be a good one for rocket sci­ence in the United States.

Amer­i­can com­pa­nies made 29 suc­cess­ful rocket launches into orbit, the high­est fig­ure since 1999, which saw 31 launches, accord­ing to a com­pre­hen­sive data­base main­tained by Gunter Krebs, a space­flight his­to­rian in Ger­many. The final launch of the year, by a SpaceX Fal­con 9 rocket car­ry­ing a cache of com­mer­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lites, took place Fri­day night at Van­den­berg Air Force Base in California.

SpaceX, Elon Musk’s pri­vate space­flight com­pany, is respon­si­ble for most of this year’s launches. After a brief hia­tus fol­low­ing an explo­sion in Sep­tem­ber 2016 that destroyed a Fal­con 9 and its $200 mil­lion com­mer­cial pay­load, SpaceXreturned to the launch­pad in mid-​​January. At the time, the suc­cess of the launch was imper­a­tive; SpaceX had lost another rocket in June 2015, about two min­utes after take­off, and its rocket-​​fueling process was receiv­ing intense scrutiny by a nasa safety advi­sory group. nasa was enter­ing its fifth year of using SpaceX rock­ets for resup­ply mis­sions to the Inter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, and future deals were on the line.

The launch went smoothly. Another suc­cess­ful attempt fol­lowed in Feb­ru­ary, and then two more in March. Observers held their breath as the months pro­gressed, hope­ful for a streak but unwill­ing to call atten­tion to it, lest they jinx the whole thing. But the streak con­tin­ued, and SpaceX launched a vari­ety of payloads—commercial satel­lites, Inter­na­tional Space Sta­tion cargo, even super­secret mis­sions for the U.S. government—at a reg­u­lar cadence through­out the year.

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