26 Dec, 23

SpaceX dominated private spaceflight in 2023


It’s been a busy year for spaceflight — the busiest ever, in fact. This fall, space companies once again broke the record for successful orbital launches in a single year with 2023’s 180th flight. That record was broken when SpaceX sent up Starlink satellites on November 22, according to Ars Technica. The number has since climbed to 200.

That pace has been driven in no small part by Elon Musk’s aerospace venture, which set a goal of hitting 100 launches in 2023 and is nearly there, with 92 as of December 7. Private companies have become key players in the new space race, not only vying to serve as launch providers for science and communications missions but also ushering in the era of space tourism (for anyone rich enough to nab a ticket). But spaceflight is hard, especially if you’re trying to change the game with design innovations, and for all the wins in 2023, there have been plenty of hiccups. Here’s a look at how some of the leading private space companies made out this year.

SpaceX seemingly didn’t stop once to catch its breath in 2023. The company managed a record-setting run of orbital launches with its reusable Falcon 9 and partially reusable Falcon Heavy rockets, with the lion’s share dedicated to delivering its Starlink internet satellites to orbit. (There are now more than 5,000 of them circling Earth.) SpaceX also delivered payloads for other entities, including NASA, and carried out multiple crewed flights with its Dragon capsule. Four astronauts arrived at the International Space Station in March aboard a Crew Dragon, and Axiom Space contracted SpaceX for a private astronaut mission that flew to the ISS in May.

As for its experimental Starship flights, things were expectedly a bit more volatile. Starship is the biggest and most powerful launch vehicle built to date, and is designed to support future human spaceflight missions, including NASA’s return to the moon as soon as 2025. The spacecraft itself is 165 feet tall, and when stacked on top of the Super Heavy rocket, the two tower at a combined 397 feet. Both Starship and Super Heavy are planned to be fully reusable. It’s all still in development, and after a few years of suborbital flight tests without Super Heavy — Starship has six of its own Raptor engines that enable flight — the vehicle advanced to orbital tests in 2023.

Starship did fly again before the end of 2023, and again Starship exploded. This time, though, Starship officially made it to space, climbing to about 92 miles above Earth. It also performed SpaceX’s first attempt at hot staging — where the upper stage begins to fire its engines while still attached to its lower stage — and was able to complete separation from the Super Heavy booster. It fell well short of the planned 90-minute flight, lasting only around eight minutes, but it demonstrated hot staging was possible.