A third Falcon 9 booster has entered SpaceX’s coveted “11-Club”, following Thursday morning’s successful launch of the veteran B1060 core from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Liftoff of the 11-times-flown booster came at 9:25 a.m. EST and provided the initial push to deliver 47 Starlink internet communications satellites into low-Earth orbit. It was SpaceX’s first launch of a busy March, with two more Starlink flights anticipated before mid-month and the eagerly-awaited Ax-1 voyage of Dragon Endeavour and a four-man crew to the International Space Station (ISS) on the 30th.
Weather conditions for today’s launch were highly favorable, with a 90-percent likelihood of being “Green” at the instantaneous T-0 point. “It is possible that a few cumulus clouds could be in the area,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base, “but the overall impact is expected to be negligible.” A slight risk of violating the parameters of the Cumulus Cloud Rule was the only potential showstopper standing in B1060’s way. The outlook was expected to remain equally favorable for Friday’s backup attempt.
In readiness for launch—SpaceX’s ninth Falcon 9 mission in 2022’s first nine weeks—the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, headed out of Port Canaveral last weekend, bound for a position about 400 miles (640 kilometers) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. It would be JRTI’s first “catch” of a Falcon 9 since last December, when it sustained damage due to rough seas and technical maladies after the troubled landing of the B1069 core from the CRS-24 Cargo Dragon mission to the ISS.
As for B1060, she now becomes only the third Falcon 9 core to log an 11th launch, following hard on the heels of her sisters B1051 and B1058—“Bob and Doug’s” old booster—hitting that number last November and just last month. Before this morning’s flight, B1060 had flown ten times successfully, having entered service on 30 June 2020 to lift the third Block III Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and timing satellite to Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) for the U.S. Space Force.
She went on to support seven dedicated Starlink missions between September 2020 and January 2022, delivering almost 450 of these flat-packed satellites safely to orbit, as well as lofting Turkey’s powerful Türksat 5A geostationary communications satellite in January 2021 and the 88-payload Transporter-2 rideshare last 30 June, on the first anniversary of her maiden launch. B1060 also cemented a record, which still stands, for the shortest interval—just 27 days—between two launches by the same Falcon 9 core.
This morning’s flight marked SpaceX’s ninth mission in the first nine weeks of 2022, a remarkable achievement and a quickfire tempo which shows no sign of slowing. Deployment of the 47-strong Starlink “stack” occurred 62 minutes after launch, making this the third mission in under two weeks to benefit from an additional (second) “burn” of the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage.
This new deployment architecture positioned the payload into a higher initial orbital altitude of 190 miles (310 kilometers). It became necessary following a much-publicized geomagnetic storm last month, one of whose unwanted effects was to cause several dozen Starlinks to prematurely re-enter the atmosphere to destruction. The additional Merlin 1D+ burn and a longer phase of “coasting” meant that the Starlinks were deployed at 62 minutes into flight, rather than 15 minutes as happened on earlier missions.
Eight minutes after leaving the Florida Coast, B1060 settled smoothly onto the deck of JRTI, to wrap up the 11th landing of her career and her tenth atop a drone ship. (Her return from last June’s Transporter-2 mission terminated on solid ground at Landing Zone-1 at the Cape.) The nine flights completed thus far in 2022—almost twice as many as occurred by this time last year—have been executed using seven Falcon 9 cores.
Looking ahead, two more Starlink flights are expected from Pad 39A and neighboring Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., before mid-month. And after that, all eyes will be upon Ax-1, the long-awaited flight of Dragon Endeavour on the first completely private crewed mission to the ISS, being undertaken by Houston-based AxiomSpace, Inc.
Former shuttle astronaut, veteran ISS commander and America’s most seasoned spacewalker Mike Lopez-Alegria—now a senior AxiomSpace executive—will command Ax-1, leading a crew which includes entrepreneurs Larry Connor of the United States, Mark Pathy of Canada and Israel’s Eytan Stibbe.
Current plans call for Dragon Endeavour to launch on 30 March for a ten-day voyage, which is expected to feature at least eight days docked at the ISS. It will mark Endeavour’s third orbital mission, having previously supported Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken’s historic 64-day Demo-2 flight in May-August 2020 and the 199-day Crew-2 flight by Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Aki Hoshide and Thomas Pesquet, which ended last fall. In flying this mission, Endeavour will become the first member of the Crew Dragon fleet—which also includes twice-flown Resilience and the currently-in-space Endurance—to launch into space for a third time.
Earlier this week, Lopez-Alegria and senior NASA, SpaceX and AxiomSpace figures gathered to discuss Ax-1, which is expected to support 26 experiments aboard the space station. Endeavour will also return some NASA life sciences samples and a spent nitrogen tank back to Earth. Describing the mission as “a dream come true”, Lopez-Alegria noted that this was the first crew to put through NASA’s Private Crew Syllabus and declared that they were determined to “set the bar very high” as “standard-bearers” for future commercial missions to the ISS.
A veteran of four previous spaceflights, Lopez-Alegria remembered visiting the station aboard shuttle Endeavour in the fall of 2002, during which he and his crewmates were “guests” of the Expedition 5 crew. He understands the sensitivity of joining another crew who have already made the ISS their home, a sensitivity which gained a heightened sense of importance when it became his own home for seven months in 2006-2007 during Expedition 14. After several months in training for Ax-1, Lopez-Alegria explained that the coming days will be filled with refresher launch-and-entry training and “day-in-the-life sims”.
AxiomSpace President and CEO Michael Suffredini, a former NASA leader and ISS Program Manager from 2005-2015, remarked that whilst Ax-1 is the “first completely private mission” to the station, its crew will not be just going up to “paste their nose on the window”. All four have a raft of scientific and educational activities planned. And with another Crew Dragon slated to launch as early as 15 April—carrying Crew-4 astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines, Jessica Watkins and Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti—this spring promises to be the first time since the shuttle era that two U.S. crewed orbital missions have occurred in such close succession.
Launching less than a week after Ax-1 returns home, Crew-4 may break the empirical record which elapsed between the return of shuttle Atlantis from STS-71 on 7 July 1995 and the launch of her sister ship Discovery on STS-70 just five days, 22 hours and 46 minutes later on the 13th. With Ax-1 set to return on 9 April and Crew-4 targeting a morning launch on the 15th, the possibility of breaking the shuttle-era record remains high.