The problems we want to have

A curious thing happened along the way collecting data about rockets and spacecraft to see what patterns emerged over time. This week I published the mid-year “State of Play,” an assortment of graphs mainly, driven by the belief a picture does so much more to communicate than rows or columns or endless bullets on a slide ever could. There are many rockets and spacecraft but one graph begun years ago with no immediately apparent shape and telling nothing much at first stands out now on its own. It is a graph of just one rocket and only reflects one measure, reusability.

This graph is kept updated at “Falcon 9 reusability trend data.” Credit:

Albeit, there are several ways of looking at the Falcon 9 and that key performance indicator – reusability. There is the number of times the same rocket booster (or first stage) gets reused, and there is the time it takes, in days, for that same booster to fly again. The former measure hints at the robustness of the rocket, like asking how long an appliance lasted. The later, the days to fly again, similarly says a lot about the booster’s robustness, as we could assume something too fragile would take a very long time to get ready for its next flight, but something sturdy will fly again sooner. Robustness also hints at margins, how much a system is over-designed compared to what’s the minimum to launch just once safely. These measures *over time* tell us how everyone is learning too because, as we saw with the Space Shuttle, the same hardware and the same tasks improve over time when they reflect effort, as people get better from doing the same thing over and over.

Boosters are trending to double-digit reuse and flying the same body every two months and going.

Right now, it appears SpaceX has leaders and followers. There is a clear line of boosters trending toward ten reuses, the fleet leaders that are still going. There is another line of boosters trending lower. NASA and the US DOD are using used boosters, oddly NASA doing this first with astronauts before the DOD did so with a satellite. A line of new boosters is just getting going.

Overall, the SpaceX team is turning around reusable first-stage rockets in a couple of months, in what appears to be a clear downward trend since late 2021.

What’s especially telling, though, is updating data now compared to when I began the State of Play publication. Then, weeks would go by, maybe more, and I would note that a launch occurred yesterday, and my calendar might have another for the weekend. Sometimes when it rained, it poured, and many launches would happen together worldwide. In 2022, however, SpaceX has been launching weekly, with no signs of slowing. Alone, SpaceX is cause for data updates on a scale that stands on its own.

As much data and graphs and analytical capability as we have today for such things, for visualizing and conveying in images what words can’t get across, some things are not measurable. Launches every week! Pretty soon, we’ll have to see if the FAA and a bot can track this automatically. And these are precisely the problems we want to have.

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