SpaceX has successfully flown its seventh Falcon 9 mission of 2021 in record-setting time, as the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch services provider aims for as many as 48 flights—an average of nearly one per week—throughout this year. The veteran B1058 core, teamed with a sparkling-new upper stage and previously-flown payload fairing halves, rose into the night from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., at 3:13 a.m. EST Thursday.
Laden with another 60 Starlink internet communications satellites bound for low-Earth orbit, B1058 subsequently completed a smooth touchdown on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, the second success in a row after a failed landing last month.
Despite one lost booster and more than a month of delays suffered by life-leading B1049, SpaceX has now launched seven times in the first ten weeks of 2021. Elon Musk’s organization had gotten only five Falcon 9s airborne by the same time last year, yet still went on to establish a personal-best-beating 26 launches by the close of 2020.
Since the beginning of the year, five previously-flown boosters have delivered 310 Starlinks to orbit, as well as Turkey’s powerful Türksat-5A geostationary communications satellite and Transporter-1, the largest single number of primary payloads—143—ever lifted by a U.S. vehicle. And despite still being in its youth, 2021 has seen the first and second Falcon 9s to fly eight times and the shortest interval between two launches by the same orbital-class booster.
Flying Thursday’s mission was B1058, which became only the fourth member of SpaceX’s fleet to log a sixth flight. She first saw service to lift Dragon Endeavour from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), last 30 May, carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on their long-awaited Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
B1058 next flew on 20 July to deliver South Korea’s ANASIS-II military communications satellite to orbit and, in so doing, marked the shortest interval, of only 51 days, between two launches. This allowed her to eclipse an almost 35-year-old launch-to-launch record from the Space Coast, breaking the 54 days set by Space Shuttle Atlantis between her STS-51J mission on 3 October 1985 and her STS-61B mission less than eight weeks later on the night of 26 November.
Third and fourth flights followed in rapid-fire succession. B1058 deployed 60 Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites into space on the morning of 6 October—helping to break the curse of a delay-prone “Scrubtober” on the Space Coast—and in doing so set a new empirical record for the shortest interval (only 129 days) between three launches by the same orbital-class booster.
On 6 December, she recorded the 100th fully-successful mission by a member of the Falcon 9 rocket family when she boosted the CRS-21 Dragon cargo ship to the space station. This flight also set a record for the shortest interval (only 190 days) between four flights by the same booster.
More recently, on 24 January, B1058 became only the fifth Falcon 9 core to log a fifth mission and just the fourth—when one discounts the final moments of last March’s voyage of her ill-fated sister B1048—to return to an intact landing after so many flights. And in flying so often, she secured yet another record of 239 days between her first five missions. Launching a sixth time tonight, she has now flown six times in 285 days.
Following a Static Fire Test of the nine Merlin 1D+ engines at the base of B1058’s first stage, an initial launch attempt was set for 9:58 p.m. EST Tuesday. However, SpaceX elected to postpone the mission until early Thursday. “Now targeting Thursday, 11 March at 3:13 a.m. EST for launch of Starlink,” SpaceX tweeted. “Taking some additional time for pre-launch checks.”
Weather conditions for the middle-of-the-night launch were predicted to be around 90-percent-favorable, according to the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base. “High pressure continues to dominate the area with persistent onshore flow,” it noted in its Wednesday weather update.
“Winds will be a little gustier during the maximum heating hours from mid-morning until sunset, while brief coastal showers are most likely from the early morning hours through noon.” It was added that primary concerns were a potential violation of the Cumulus Cloud Rule and Liftoff Winds Rule.
Liftoff at 3:13 a.m. EST Thursday was perfect as Hurley and Behnken’s old booster powered uphill for the sixth time less than 9.5 months. Two and a half minutes into the climb, its job done, B1058 separated from the stack and began its descent—guided via hypersonic grid-fins, deployable landing legs and pair of Merlin 1D+ engine “burns” for entry and landing—to the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, situated about 390 miles (630 km) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.
Touchdown of B1058 came eight minutes and 30 seconds into the flight, marking this particular booster’s second landing on JRTI and its eighth drone ship return overall. In doing so, she became the fourth Falcon 9 to fly a sixth mission, but also—when one discounts the failed landing of B1059 last month—only the third to return safely and intact from a sixth mission.
Meanwhile, the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage executed a lengthy “burn” to deliver the Starlink stack—including the 1,200th member of these internet communications satellites flown since May 2019—towards orbit.