SpaceX Falcon 9 breaks NASA Shuttle reuse record, catches full rocket nosecone

Falcon 9 B1058 is officially the world's most quickly reusable rocket after a successful second launch and landing. (SpaceX)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster has broken a decades-old NASA Space Shuttle reuse record after successfully launching a South Korean military satellite and landing on drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI).

Meanwhile, CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX also managed to catch both payload fairing (nosecone) halves for the first time ever – an achievement more than three years and a dozen failed attempts in the making.

Known as launch turnaround, the record SpaceX now holds refers to the time it takes for a reusable rocket to launch twice. Prior to today, NASA set that record in 1985 when it launched the same Space Shuttle orbiter (STS Atlantis) twice in 54 days – a truly incredible feat for such a complex vehicle.

Falcon 9 B1058 is officially the world’s most quickly reusable rocket after a successful second launch and landing. (Richard Angle)

On July 20th, however, Falcon 9 booster B1058 lifted off for the second time in 51 days, beating the Space Shuttle’s 35-year-old turnaround record by a slim margin. Prior to its successful launch of South Korea’s Lockheed Martin-built ANASIS II military communications satellite, B1058 supported Crew Dragon’s inaugural NASA astronaut launch, a historic moment and arguably the most important mission in SpaceX’s 18-year history. Now, less than two months later, the booster has broken what is arguably the most significant record in the history of reusable rockets.

Coincidentally, both Space Shuttle Atlantis and Falcon 9 booster B1058 set their respective turnaround records on their first and second launches. Shuttle Atlantis ultimately went on to launch 31 more times after two major overhauls in 1989 and 1997 and was also the last Space Shuttle to launch when it completed the STS-135 mission in June 2011.

Space Shuttle Atlantis’ second launch… (NASA)
…and landing. (NASA)
Falcon 9 B1058’s second launch… (SpaceX)
…and landing. (SpaceX)

As such, Falcon 9 booster B1058 – the rocket that ended nine years without a domestic astronaut launch capability – could scarcely be more deserving as the new world record holder for orbital-class rocket turnaround. The symmetry of that handoff is extraordinarily improbable and made even more impressive by the fact that less than two weeks after B1058 launched Demo-2, NASA appeared to give SpaceX permission to launch future astronauts on flight-proven Dragons and Falcon 9 boosters.

Crew Dragon is currently docked to the International Space Station (ISS) and is scheduled to return to Earth with two NASA astronauts as early as August 2nd. (NASA)

Meanwhile, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has revealed that the ANASIS II mission was host to yet another major rocket reusability milestone (and technically a record). For the first time ever, SpaceX has successfully caught both halves of Falcon 9’s payload fairing with twin recovery ships GO Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief, the first time in history that an orbital-class rocket’s deployable payload fairing has been fully recovery. SpaceX began experimenting with fairing recovery more than three years ago and started trying to catch fairing halves in February 2018. In 12 attempts, SpaceX managed to catch three single fairing halves, although many more were recovered and even reused after soft ocean landings.

The lucky Falcon 9 fairing in question. (Richard Angle)

The first successful double fairing catch comes after two failed attempts with both ships, suggesting that SpaceX has either made some significant improvements or got extremely lucky. Either way, it’s a huge step forward for a program that could ultimately save SpaceX up to $6 million (~10%) of the cost of every Falcon 9 satellite launch, while also acting as a multiplier for fairing production without requiring actual factory expansion. SpaceX’s next two launches are expected to occur within the next two weeks, giving the company plenty of opportunities to (hopefully) replicate today’s historic fairing recovery success.

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

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