SpaceX has successfully launched its third GPS III navigation satellite and simultaneously confirmed that the now once-flown Falcon 9 booster responsible will soon support the US military’s first operational launch on a flight-proven commercial rocket.
Known as GPS III Space Vehicle 04 (SV04), the ~3700 kg (~8150 lb) navigation satellite will join three other upgraded spacecraft launched since December 2018 – two of which flew on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. Of the six GPS III launch contracts the US military has thus far awarded, SpaceX has secured all but one, netting a total of $474 million for an average per-launch cost just shy of $95 million – likely saving more than $50 million per launch relative to comparable ULA contracts.
In June 2020, US Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (USAF SMC) took the next step towards even more affordable launches by allowing SpaceX to recover its Falcon 9 booster after future military missions. A mere three months after that milestone and Falcon 9 booster B1060’s successful post-GPS III SV03 landing, SMC took the most important step yet, announcing that it had reached an agreement with SpaceX to reuse Falcon 9 boosters on two upcoming GPS III launches.
SMC announced the contract modification in late September, revealing that the Falcon 9 booster (B1062) assigned to launch GPS III SV04 no earlier than September 30th, 2020 would be reused on future GPS III SV05 and SV06 missions, ultimately cutting almost $53 million of the cost to launch GPS III satellites SV03 through SV06.
Unfortunately for B1062, the SpaceX rocket’s GPS III SV04 launch debut was initially delayed by competitor ULA’s own unrelated launch delays, followed by a last-second abort on October 2nd after the rocket detected anomalous behavior in two of its nine Merlin 1D engines. SpaceX ultimately traced the issue back to faulty quality assurance and a blocked vent line, replaced both engines (and several more on different boosters), and completed a second static fire on October 31st.
On November 5th, things finally came together for the company and Falcon 9 B1062, a new upper stage and payload fairing, an GPS III SV04 lifted off from SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) LC-40 launch pad. The previously unflown booster performed perfectly, ultimately completing a soft landing on drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) after sending the satellite and upper stage on their way to orbit. A brisk eight or so minutes after liftoff, Falcon 9’s second stage shut off, coasted in orbit for 55 minutes, reignited for 45 seconds, and coasted another 25 minutes before finally releasing GPS III SV04 to complete the mission.
Mission complete and Falcon 9 B1062 intact and soon to be secured aboard drone ship OCISLY, SpaceX has now fully opened the door to reuse the same booster to launch GPS III SV05 and SV06. Over the course of its announcement, SMC did not that SpaceX’s GPS III SV05 mission had been delayed from January to July 2021 to allow extra time for the extremely conservative customer to “validate” SpaceX’s reuse process. If successful, SpaceX will then likely fly the same booster – B1062 – a third time to launch GPS III SV06 no earlier than (NET) Q3 2021.