- Elon Musk said in May that SpaceX would launch more orbital missions in 2018 than any nation on Earth.
- Musk’s rocket company didn’t achieve that goal, as China successfully launched at least 35 rockets.
- But SpaceX broke the world record for most commercial rocket launches in a year, with 20.
- The company still has one more launch remaining on its 2018 manifest.
- Here’s a look at every SpaceX mission of 2018, including Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.
This has been SpaceX’s most incredible year yet for launching rockets.
In 2018, Elon Musk’s aerospace company achieved 20 successful launches. Those missions sent dozens of payloads into orbit, debuted two experimental Starlink internet satellites, and even shot a car past the orbit of Mars.
The company still has one more launch planned for December.
Musk was feeling good enough about SpaceX’s 2018 progress in May that he said the company might “launch more rockets than any other country.”
That didn’t come to pass, since China successfully launched 35 of its Long March orbital rockets in 2018, and the country still has a handful more planned.
But SpaceX did break its own record for the most orbital rocket launches by a single company in a year. The company set that record – 18 launches over a single calendar year – in 2017. (United Launch Alliance held the title prior to that with 16 commercial rockets launched in 2009.)
Here’s a look back at every SpaceX rocket launch of 2018, and what made each stand out.
1. Zuma — January 8
SpaceX’s first launch of 2018 was marked by secrecy and a controversial spat.
A classified US government payload (perhaps a spy satellite) was launched on a Falcon 9 rocket, but reportedly did not reach its intended orbit.
However, Gwynne Shotwell, the president and COO of SpaceX, said the company’s rocket performed just fine and SpaceX did not pause its ambitious launch plans after the alleged spacecraft loss.
By April, investigators seemed to conclude that a payload adaptor built by Northrop Grumman was responsible for the problem.
2. GovSat-1/SES-16 — January 31
Most of SpaceX’s missions are fairly standard: Launch a payload into orbit, and then try to land the 16-story rocket booster on a concrete pad or a drone ship in the ocean. Recovering the booster helps the company save tens of millions of dollars’ worth of hardware and reuse it, which keeps launch costs down.
SpaceX tried something a little different after launching GovSat-1 (a telecommunications satellite). The company purposefully let its valuable booster splash down into the ocean (not onto a ship), but then managed to recover the rocket part out of the water. This experiment paved the way for a contingency plan in case a returning booster ever malfunctions and misses its landing target.
3. Falcon Heavy and Starman/Tesla — February 6
The successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket was epic. It blasted a spacesuit-clad dummy called “Starman” toward Mars orbit inside a red Tesla Roadster car. The launch proved the rocket to be the world’s most powerful operational launch vehicle, and sent rumbles through the launch industry.
“Life cannot just be about solving one sad problem after another,” Musk tweeted about the stunt a month after the launch. “There need to be things that inspire you, that make you glad to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity. That is why we did it. We did for you.”
4. Paz and Tintin A/B — February 22
This otherwise typical launch of a large satellite, called Paz, carried something of a surprise: two experimental spacecraft called Tintin A and Tintin B.
Each was a prototype for SpaceX’s upcoming Starlink project, which aims to shroud the Earth in about 12,000 similar-looking satellites. The long-term goal is to provide ultra-fast internet to every square inch of the planet.
5. Hispasat 30W-6 — March 6
This launch of a bus-size Hispasat spacecraft (a telecommunications satellite) was the 50th flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, a low-cost yet money-making workhorse for the company.
6. Iridium NEXT-5 — March 30
This launch sent up 10 telecommunications spacecraft at once for a company called Iridium. The ultimate goal of the NEXT satellite constellation is to send up 75 newer, faster models than the ones that currently exist in an increasingly dated Iridium satellite constellation.
7. CRS-14 — April 2
The International Space Station (ISS) is a $US150 billion, football-field-size laboratory that zooms around Earth some 250 miles above the planet’s surface. Keeping it running requires resupply missions that carry up fresh food, water, and experiments.
SpaceX is one of several contractors that NASA relies on to send cargo up to the ISS and bring some back home. CRS-14 – which stands for Commercial Resupply Service mission 14 – delivered nearly 3 tons of stuff to the ISS.
8. Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) — April 18
A new NASA mission called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is on the hunt for small, rocky, watery, and potentially habitable exoplanets.
SpaceX launched TESS on a meandering path through space, and since then the telescope has settled into a funky orbit that should allow it to detect roughly 50 Earth look-a-likes over the next two years.
9. Bangabandhu Satellite-1 — May 11
The launch of Bangabandhu Satellite-1 brought new telecommunications abilities to Bangladesh. But the mission primarily gained attention because of the revolutionary new rocket that SpaceX debuted.
The mission marked the first flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Block 5 model, which has a booster that’s designed to be launched, landed, and reused perhaps 100 times. Musk said this model is essentially the “final version” of Falcon 9 before the company pivots to focus on bigger, badder rockets that can go to Mars.
10. Iridium NEXT-6 and GRACE-FO — May 22
In addition to launching five more Iridium NEXT satellites for that company’s constellation, SpaceX’s 10th launch of the year sent up two satellites for NASA.
Called Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On, or GRACE-FO, the NASA mission aims to analyse Earth’s water and ice content by detecting small changes in the planet’s gravitation field.
11. SES-12 — June 4
This mission was one of SpaceX’s most straightforward of the year. It launched a nearly 12,000-lb satellite into an orbit high above Earth, but the company did not try to land its typically reusable booster. The part was an older, non-Block 5 version, so was allowed to fall to Earth and crash into the ocean.
12. CRS-15 — June 29
Launches in the morning or evening can be extra-spectacular. During this resupply mission for the space station, a plume of smoke and vapour in the sky caught the rising sun. Because it was still dark on the ground, this led to a glowing “dragon’s tail” effect.
CIMON recently gained attention for a strange glitch: When asked to cancel its music-playing mode, the robot got defensive.
“Be nice, please,” it said to European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst. Then CIMON asked, “don’t you like it here with me?” and finally requested, “don’t be so mean, please.”
13. Telstar 19 Vantage — July 22
This mission sent up the 15,600-lb Telstar 19 Vantage telecommunications satellite – the largest of its kind ever launched. SpaceX managed to reserve enough fuel in its Falcon 9 booster for the part to land itself, which will allow the booster to be reused in the future.
14. Iridium NEXT-7 — July 25
Another month, another Iridium satellite launch. This mission marked the most impressive landing of a Falcon 9 rocket booster to date. Despite bad weather and large ocean swells, the 16-story-tall part landed successfully on a drone ship.
15. Merah Putih — August 7
Merah Putih is an Indonesian telecommunications satellite. What made this flight interesting was that it was the first time a Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket booster was reused.
16. Telstar 18 Vantage/Apstar-5C — September 10
This mission was strictly business: It launched a replacement for a shared satellite. The new spacecraft provides eastern Asia, Australia, and many Pacific islands with telecommunications coverage.
17. SAOCOM 1A — October 8
Argentina got its first Earth-observation satellite into orbit with this SpaceX mission. The rocket launched from the company’s site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It was SpaceX’s first booster landing on the West Coast.
A SpaceX photographer set up a camera in exactly the right location to capture all stages of the night mission.
18. Es’hail-2 — November 15
This launch debuted a new design for a NASA-approved helium pressure tank.
Such tanks help the second stage (or upper stage) of a Falcon 9 rocket maintain pressure to keep the rocket engines burning fuel.
The failure of one such tank led to a catastrophic launchpad explosion on September 1, 2016. (No one was hurt.)
SpaceX eventually plans to use its Falcon 9 rocket to launch astronauts, but NASA requires that the redesigned tank fly at least seven times before any people are onboard. This launch marked the first successful demonstration of that tank.
19. SSO-A (SmallSat Express) — December 3
With this single launch, SpaceX delivered 64 small satellites into orbit. Three of those satellites are testing a concept to track covert shipping, fishing, piracy, and other illegal activities on the ocean from space.
The launch of SSO-A, or SmallSat Express, was also the mission in which SpaceX broke its own 2017 record of 18 orbital rocket launches in one year.
20. CRS-16 — December 5
SpaceX’s recent mission to resupply the ISS and deliver experiments to the laboratory was picture-perfect.
SpaceX tried to land the booster of its Falcon 9 rocket on a ground pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. But the booster spun wildly before plopping down in the ocean and falling over.
The booster failed to land properly because one of four rocket-steering “grid fins” that guide the vehicle to the ground failed to pop out. Musk later blamed the anomaly on a faulty pump that was supposed to pop out the grid fin. He shared the video below.
Miraculously – perhaps related to the landing experiment SpaceX conducted in its January 31 launch of GovSat-1 – Musk said the booster was undamaged. It was eventually recovered and brought back to port. It might even get reused for a future launch of Starlink satellites.
21. GPS IIIA-01 — slated for December 18
SpaceX hopes to launch one more satellite this year, called GPS IIIA-01, which would improve global positioning coverage for the US military.
Musk’s company beat out competitor ULA for this launch, in large part because SpaceX’s price was tens of millions of dollars cheaper.
2019: The biggest year in launch history?
Yet again, SpaceX plans to launch more rockets than ever before in 2019 – perhaps 22 if all goes as planned. The list includes the inaugural launch of the Crew Dragon spaceship for NASA astronauts.
The rest of the world is ramping up spaceflight activity to record-breaking levels, too.