SpaceX rocket set to smash NASA Space Shuttle reuse record

A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster could potentially crush a NASA Space Shuttle record for the fastest orbital-class rocket turnaround. (Richard Angle)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster is on track to smash an orbital-class rocket reuse record set by a NASA Space Shuttle orbiter in 1985 – and in more ways than one.

On July 11th, SpaceX announced that Falcon 9 booster B1058 had successfully completed a static fire ignition test a few days prior to its second launch. Built by Airbus, South Korea’s ANASIS II military communications satellite is based on a bus that means it should weigh somewhere between 4600 and 6400 kg (~10,000-14,000 lb). Even in a recoverable configuration, Falcon 9 should be more than capable of launching that satellite into a healthy geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), where ANASIS II will use its own built-in propulsion systems to reach a circular geostationary orbit (GEO) and begin operations.

While ANASIS II is undeniably significant in its own right as South Korea’s first dedicated military communications satellite, much of the mission’s public focus has shifted to the Falcon 9 rocket SpaceX plans to reuse on it.

On May 30th, SpaceX successfully launched two US astronauts for the first time with Falcon 9 booster B1058. (Richard Angle)

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. It would be the second-to-last Space Shuttle launch and landing before the fatal Challenger disaster less than two months later.

Space Shuttle Atlantis debuted with the STS-51J mission in October 1985. After a long life, the vehicle found a resting place at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center (KSCVC). (NASA – Eric Ralph)
Atlantis conducted its second launch just 54 days after landing, setting a record that has held for almost 35 years. (NASA)
STS Atlantis landed for the second time four days after liftoff. (NASA)

Almost 35 years later, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is on the cusp of crushing 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. SpaceX has had that NASA record within reach for roughly two years, so the fact that Falcon 9 is about to snag it doesn’t come as a huge surprise.

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. Around the time NASA and Atlantis set the Shuttle’s longstanding record, some 5000-10000 full-time employees were tasked with refurbishing Space Shuttles and the facilities (and launch pads) that supported them. Based on retrospective analyses done after the STS program’s end in 2011, the average Space Shuttle launch (accounting for the vast infrastructure behind the scenes) ultimately wound up costing more than $1.5 billion per launch – more than the Saturn V rocket the Shuttle theoretically replaced.

According to a uniquely detailed 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 several dozen employees at most. 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.

B1058 lifts off from Pad 39A on May 30th. (NASA)

Somewhat ironically, ANASIS II likely wound up launching on Falcon 9 because Lockheed Martin was unable to built the satellite itself at the price it promised South Korea. Lockheed Martin originally designed and operated the Atlas V rocket before joining Boeing as to form the United Launch Alliance (ULA). ANASIS II exists because Lockheed Martin essentially had to sweeten the deal for a 2014 South Korean purchase of an additional 40 F-35 Lightning II aircraft valued at some ~$7 billion.

Regardless, the mission should hopefully see South Korea gain its first dedicated military communications satellite and set Falcon 9 booster B1058 up for a long and productive career of 5-10 more launches over the next few years.

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