Just weeks after SpaceX suffered its first in-flight rocket engine failure since 2012, the company has scheduled its next launch on April 16th.
Set to lift off no earlier than (NET) 5:31 pm EDT (21:31 UTC) from NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Launch Complex 39A (Pad 39A), the mission will be SpaceX’s seventh dedicated launch of 60 Starlink satellites. Known as Starlink-6 in reference to the sixth launch of finalized Starlink v1.0 spacecraft, a successful mission could leave SpaceX with some ~410 operational satellites in orbit – significantly more than twice as big as the next largest constellation.
More importantly, Starlink-6 will mark a sort of return-to-flight for Falcon 9 after booster B1048 suffered an in-flight engine failure and missed its landing attempt on March 18th. While the booster was able to sacrifice itself to ensure that the overall Starlink-5 mission was a success, any in-flight failure is still a significant event in aerospace. To that end, very little is known about the Starlink-5 anomaly, aside from announcements that both NASA and the US Air Force will be paying close attention to the results of SpaceX’s internal investigation. Starlink-6’s imminent launch is now the latest piece of that puzzle, shedding some welcome light on the situation.
Unsurprisingly, an in-flight Falcon 9 engine failure more than piqued the curiosities of high-profile SpaceX customers like NASA and the US Air Force (and Space Force), both of which have some of the company’s most important launches ever scheduled within the next few months. Most notably, NASA noted on March 25th that the space agency and SpaceX “are holding the current mid-to-late May [target for Crew Dragon’s inaugural astronaut launch] and [will] adjust the date based on review of the [engine failure] data, if appropriate.”
At time of comment, a few aspects of the unfortunate Starlink-5 engine failure were already positioned in SpaceX’s favor. Critically, it was the first time that a flight-proven Falcon 9 booster launched on its fifth orbital-class mission, meaning that the very same booster – B1048 – had already launched four times prior. In aerospace parlance, the mission thus served as a pathfinder for SpaceX’s reusable rocketry technology, venturing into new territory. Since it began internal Starlink launches, SpaceX has used those opportunities to take its most recent reusability leaps without risking customer payloads in the process.
At least for now, neither NASA or the USAF have plans to fly their most valuable payloads on flight-proven Falcon boosters. While that may change over the next several years, it means that SpaceX’s Starlink-5 anomaly and missions like Crew Dragon Demo-2 and GPS III SV03 – both set to fly on new boosters – share much less commonality. Of course, this assumes that B1048’s March 18th engine failure is directly related to the booster’s exceptionally flight-proven nature. Were SpaceX’s investigation to conclude that the fault had nothing to do with multi-launch wear and tear, it would likely ground Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy indefinitely.
Instead, SpaceX – knowing full-well the potential consequences of two consecutive in-flight failures – has decided to attempt another orbital-class Starlink launch and booster landing less than a month after Starlink-5. To be clear, while SpaceX could choose to throw caution to the wind on an internal launch, it’s doubtful that it would haphazardly take such a substantial risk. Instead, Starlink-6’s April 16th launch date strongly suggests that SpaceX is already reasonably confident that it’s both determined the likely culprit of last month’s engine failure and identified ways to prevent its reoccurrence.