After several months of preparation behind the scenes, SpaceX’s second and third serial Falcon 9 Block 5 rockets are ready for the first launches of the upgraded vehicle from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA (VAFB) and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL (CCAFS).
On the calendar for 1:50 am EDT/5:50 UTC July 22 and 4:39 am PDT/11:39 UTC July 25, SpaceX launches of Telstar 19V and Iridium NEXT-7 are set to mark the beginning of a new era for the company, where all future missions will fly with Block 5 hardware upgraded for reusability and reliability and attempt recovery almost without fail.
Bursting out of the expendable rocket cocoon
While it may be the case that an odd launch or two require a booster be expended to prevent schedule delays or carry an exceptionally heavy satellite to an exceptionally high orbit, it’s safe to say that such a mission with Block 5 boosters will be an anomaly. Somewhat iffy comments posted on Reddit recently claimed that Falcon Block 5 boosters would be able to easily (and rapidly) hop between roles as side and center boosters for both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. While wild, those claims, in retrospect, make a lot of sense, even if the reality of Block 5 booster interchangeability was a tad exaggerated.
If SpaceX truly wants to end the practice of expending rocket boosters, – and eventually fairings and upper stages, with any luck – the company will truly need to embrace a strategy that’s long been floated by executives like CEO Elon Musk and COO/President Gwynne Shotwell. That strategy dictates that SpaceX routinely use both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy as an almost interchangeable and rocket team capable of launching nearly every orbital payload conceivable today, all while remaining in fully or mostly reusable modes of operation.
At the moment, educated estimates of Falcon Heavy’s true performance margins with dual booster landings at SpaceX’s Florida landing zones and center core recovery aboard Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) suggest that the Block 5 version of Falcon Heavy should be capable of launching every commercial satellite planned or penciled in for launch over the next five years, at a minimum. Finally, while the Falcon family’s fuel choice of high-grade kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen make the rocket far more compact and energy-dense than alternatives, one downside of that choice is a loss of efficiency, although brute-force strength makes FH a competitive beast for all missions beyond Earth orbit (Mars, Venus, Saturn, asteroids, comets, etc).
However, a fully-expendable Block 5 Falcon Heavy seems to be at least 3X as unlikely as an expendable Block 5 Falcon 9. Nevertheless, CEO Elon Musk made it clear that a nominal Falcon Heavy launch where both side boosters were recovered at sea and the center booster expended could accomplish a full ~85-90% of an entirely expendable mission, and for roughly $95m. As such, a combination of reusable Falcon 9s, reusable Falcon Heavys, and ~30%-expendable Falcon Heavys could successfully complete every plausible commercial and non-commercial launch in the world and do so at the lowest cost for the better part of the next five years, at which point the company’s next-gen Big F____ Rocket (BFR) ought to be operational.
Side boosters landing on droneships & center expended is only ~10% performance penalty vs fully expended. Cost is only slightly higher than an expended F9, so around $95M.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 12, 2018
Telstar 19V and Iridium-7
With any luck, SpaceX’s next two launches will be the first huge step in the direction of that one-stop-shop for competitive transportation to orbit. Teslarati photographer Tom Cross will be setting up remote cameras for the Telstar 19V’s Florida liftoff later this evening, while our West Coast fellow and famed Mr Steven-stalker Pauline Acalin will be setting up her own set of remote cameras for VAFB’s Falcon 9 Block 5 debut on Tuesday.
Static fire test of Falcon 9 complete— targeting July 25 launch of Iridium-7 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) July 21, 2018
On the East Coast, drone ship OCISLY has already departed Port Canaveral with a duo of support vessels and a dedicated tugboat, while the West Coast’s Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) will likely take leave of the Port of Los Angeles within 24 hours. Those dual, successful (?) rocket landings will hopefully mark the first of many dozens of missions for F9 boosters B1047 and B1048.
Follow us for live updates, peeks behind the scenes, and photos from Teslarati’s East and West Coast photographers.
Tom Cross – Twitter
Pauline Acalin – Twitter
Eric Ralph – Twitter