SpaceX rings in Falcon 9’s 10th anniversary with a rocket reusability first

Five launches, one booster. (SpaceX, SpaceX, SpaceX, Richard Angle, Richard Angle)

Today is the tenth anniversary of SpaceX’s inaugural Falcon 9 launch, marking a decade of largely uninterrupted success that the company has rung in with a record-breaking Starlink launch and rocket landing.

Just one day shy of the occasion, booster B1049 lifted off on its fifth orbital launch and Falcon 9’s 86th launch overall, successfully placing the eighth batch of 60 SpaceX Starlink satellites in orbit and becoming the first booster ever to complete five orbital-class launches and landings. Designed to fly no fewer than 10 times each, that means that SpaceX is already half of the way to achieving a major goal of the rocket’s Block 5 upgrade just 24 months after its launch debut.

With Starlink-8 under its belt, Falcon 9 B1049 has officially become the fastest orbital-class rocket or spacecraft in history to perform five launches, beating out Space Shuttles Columbia (~27 months), Challenger (~24 months), Discovery (~22 months), Atlantis (~26 months), and Endeavour (~29 months) with launches in ~20 months. Over the 10 years it’s been operational, thanks in large part to the unprecedented leaps SpaceX has made while independently developing booster reusability, Falcon 9 has become the most affordable source of large orbital launches and has come to dominate the commercial launch market and the company’s lead is only likely to grow in the coming years.

Lifting off just hours after SpaceX completed Port Canaveral recovery operations with the first astronaut-proven Falcon 9 booster (B1058), B1049’s fifth successful launch and landing means that the company will soon be able to attempt the sixth launch of an orbital-class booster for the first time ever. All but guaranteed to support one of the 20-24 Starlink missions SpaceX has planned for 2020, B1049 could be ready for its sixth launch as early as late July or August.

(Richard Angle)
(Richard Angle)
(Richard Angle)
(Richard Angle)

Just like the booster’s two prior launches, B1049 was carrying a ~16 metric ton (~35,000 lb) batch of 60 Starlink communications satellites. Thanks to Falcon 9’s exceptional cost-to-performance ratio and the rapid expansion of Starlink launch activities, SpaceX’s workhorse rocket has already launched almost 450 metric tons (~1 million lb) of satellites and cargo into orbit over 10 years of service and 85 launches.

If things go according to plan, the Starlink launch campaign SpaceX needs to complete the massive satellite constellation will rapidly double (and almost triple) the total mass SpaceX has placed in orbit. The first major phase of 4400 satellites – currently 9.5% complete – will collectively weigh more than 1100 metric tons (~2.5 million lb), while the combined second and third phases will raise that by almost a full magnitude. Falcon 9 may forever be famous thanks to the leaps it’s made in reusability, affordability, and reliability, but it will likely end up being best known for its foundational role in the deployment of SpaceX’s vast Starlink internet constellation within a few years.

(Richard Angle)
(Richard Angle)

After B1049.5 safely returns to Port Canaveral aboard drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) sometime next week, SpaceX can offload the rocket, transport it to a nearby hangar, and begin preparing it for launch #6 – a first for the company. If SpaceX can average 90-day turnarounds for the booster over its next several flights, B1049 could potentially become the first Falcon 9 first stage to achieve its 10-flight design goal before the end of next year.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is already preparing to launch its next (ninth) Starlink mission as early as June 12th, beating the pad’s current turnaround record by almost three days (~25%). All things considered, a full decade in, SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket are just getting started.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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