SpaceX rocket sails into California port after interplanetary launch

Pictured here during its first East Coast recovery, Falcon 9 B1063 has sailed into a California port for the first time. (Richard Angle)

The first SpaceX Falcon 9 booster to help launch a payload directly into interplanetary space has safely arrived at a California port.

On November 24th, Falcon 9 B1063 lifted off from SpaceX’s West Coast SLC-4E launch site for the second time in about a year, successfully sending an expendable upper stage and NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft on their way to interplanetary space. Aside from marking the first time SpaceX has sent a paying customer’s functional spacecraft beyond the gravity ‘well’ of the Earth-Moon system, SpaceX did so with a flight-proven Falcon booster – a first for NASA’s Launch Service Program (LSP).

For Falcon 9 B1063, it was also the first time the booster performed a landing and recovery in the Pacific Ocean, touching down on recently-relocated drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) about 650 km (~400 mi) southeast of the central California coast.

Towed behind tug Scorpius, Falcon 9 B1063 sailed into Port of Long Beach (adjacent to Port of Los Angeles) on drone ship OCISLY a brisk two and a half days after touchdown. SpaceX’s oldest and most storied drone ship, OCISLY supported 52 Falcon booster recovery attempts off the East Coast (45 successful) before the company chose to transfer the vessel to its West Coast recovery fleet. In its relatively old age, OCISLY is underpowered and relatively finicky to operate and maintain in comparison to newer ships Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) and A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG). That makes it a perfect fit for SpaceX’s California launch facilities, which are also relatively old and only capable of supporting one Falcon launch per month.

In comparison, JRTI and ASOG are designed to support at least one or two Falcon booster landings every two weeks, while SpaceX’s more modern LC-39A and LC-40 Florida pads have both supported two back-to-back Falcon 9 launches in ten days or less. On the other hand, SLC-4E’s record turnaround is 36 days – almost four times slower – and SpaceX’s best-case goal for the recently reactivated pad is to average one West Coast launch per month. Perhaps due to Starlink production shortages and/or issues with the new V1.5 satellite design, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that SpaceX will be able to get close to that pace in 2021.

Falcon 9 B1063 prepares to roll out for its third launch. In the background, an entire second Falcon 9 rocket is visible. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

There are still some reasons for optimism, though. Even if SpaceX were to ‘merely’ tie its previous 36-day Vandenberg turnaround record, that would technically preserve the possibility of a launch on December 30th or 31st. More importantly, photos from NASA’s DART launch campaign recently revealed that SpaceX already has an entire second Falcon 9 rocket fully integrated (sans payload) inside its SLC-4E hangar. That rocket – Falcon 9 booster B1051 with a new upper stage already installed – was originally scheduled to launch Starlink 2-3 (polar-orbiting laser-linked satellites) on October 17th.

Several weeks of delays – most likely involving the mission’s Starlink payload – precluded an October launch and ultimately pushed the launch to December once it came within four or five weeks of NASA’s DART mission, which took priority. With any luck, SpaceX has fixed whatever issues grounded the mission in the last six weeks, potentially enabling a West Coast Starlink launch just one month after DART – around the last full week of December.

SpaceX rocket sails into California port after interplanetary launch
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