SpaceX could still break NASA Shuttle reuse record after launch delay

SpaceX appears to have been granted permission to launch NASA astronauts on flight-proven spacecraft and rockets as early as 2021. (SpaceX)

Despite a minor launch delay, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket still has a shot a breaking a NASA Space Shuttle reuse world record that has lasted for more than three decades.

On July 13th, roughly one day prior to a planned liftoff on July 14th, SpaceX announced that it had decided to delay a Falcon 9 launch of South Korea’s ANASIS II military communications satellite. Citing a need to “take a closer look at the second stage” and “swap hardware if needed,” the delay was effectively indefinite, as replacing hardware would be a multi-day process at best. CEO Elon Musk later took to Twitter to comment on two recent Falcon 9 launch delays, noting that SpaceX is “being extra paranoid” to ensure that “maximizing [the] probability of [a] successful launch” is the company’s first priority.

It’s unclear whether these delays are the result of SpaceX being more paranoid than usual (i.e. stricter internal requirements) or what exactly that change stems from. Regardless, as of July 16th, SpaceX hasn’t officially announced an updated launch target for ANASIS II, but signs are pointing to a second launch attempt late this weekend.

Falcon 9 B1058 still has a shot at breaking the world record for orbital-class rocket reuse despite a minor launch delay. (Richard Angle)

New Launch Hazard Area maps used to delineate dangerous areas for those at sea show that SpaceX could be heading towards a second ANASIS II launch attempt no earlier than ~5pm EDT (~21:00 UTC) on Sunday, July 19th. As previously discussed on Teslarati, the flight-proven Falcon 9 booster SpaceX has assigned to the launch has a shot at breaking a world record for orbital-class rocket reuse held by NASA for almost 35 years.

“In October 1985, Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off from Pad 39A on its inaugural orbital launch, spending four days in space before returning to Earth at Edwards Air Force Base. Just 54 days later, the very same Space Shuttle orbiter lifted off from Pad 39A again, setting a record for orbital-class launch vehicle turnaround that still stands today.

Almost 35 years later, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is on the cusp of BREAKING Space Shuttle Atlantis’ record turnaround by as many as nine days (20%) if booster B1058 launches as planned between 5pm and 9pm EDT (21:00-01:00 UTC) on July 14th. By far the most impressive aspect of Falcon 9’s imminent record is the comparison between the resources behind Space Shuttle Atlantis’ 54-day turnaround and Falcon 9 booster B1058’s ~44-day turnaround. Some 5000-10000 full-time employees were tasked with refurbishing Space Shuttles and the facilities (and launch pads) that supported them, a vast infrastructure that made the average Space Shuttle launch (accounting for the vast infrastructure behind the scenes) ultimately cost more than $1.5 billion per launch – more than the Saturn V rocket the Shuttle theoretically replaced.

According to a May 2020 AviationWeek interview with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Falcon 9 booster turnaround may cost as little as $1 million apiece and can be managed from start to finish by a team of just several dozen. In other words, even though SpaceX boosters are suborbital and stressed quite a bit less than orbital Space Shuttles, Falcon 9 reuse is approximately a thousandfold more efficient that Space Shuttle reuse.” — July 12th, 2020

Space Shuttle Atlantis debuted in October 1985 and launched a second time just 54 days later, a reusability record that still stands today. (NASA/NASA/Eric Ralph)
Falcon 9 booster B1058 has a shot at stealing Space Shuttle Atlantis’ decades-old record.(NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Of course, a potential five-day launch delay means that Falcon 9 B1058’s margin on the orbital-class reusability record has more than halved to 8% from ~20% (50 days to Atlantis’ 54). As of now, ANASIS II can slip another 3-4 days before the mission’s shot at that record slips away completely. Of course, given the vast chasm of difference between the efficiency of Falcon 9 and Space Shuttle reuse, breaking NASA’s turnaround record is far more symbolic than evidence of any material progress. Still, it does serve as an important milestone for SpaceX along the path to the mythical goal of 24-hour booster turnaround.

SpaceX’s tenth Starlink satellite launch was also recently delayed and appears to be swapping launch order with ANASIS II. It’s unclear what caused the Starlink delay or if it was related to ANASIS II, but Starlink-9 could feasibly launch at any point within the next week or two, including within just a few days of ANASIS II. Stay tuned for status updates.

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