Forty payloads were transported to orbit by SpaceX early Friday, part of the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch services organization’s Transporter-4 mission. Liftoff of the seasoned B1061 Falcon 9 core—the fifth booster to log a seventh flight—occurred from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., at 12:24 p.m. EDT.
The first-stage core returned eight minutes later to alight on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, whilst the second stage executed a lengthy seven-minute “burn” to pre-position the 40 Transporter-4 payloads from around a dozen nations for deployment over the next hour and a half. But today’s success proved to be no “April Fool”, for SpaceX stands primed for an ambitious month of missions, including no less than two crewed flights to the International Space Station (ISS).
And in terms of crewed flights, perhaps B1061 was the best booster to kick April off in fine style, for she has lifted not one, but two previous crews to the ISS. She first flew back in November 2020, when she launched Dragon Resilience and the four Crew-1 astronauts—NASA’s Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, plus Japan’s Soichi Noguchi—to the station. B1061’s crew-carrying credentials continued in April 2021 when she launched Dragon Endeavour and Crew-2 astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur of NASA, together with France’s Thomas Pesquet and Japan’s Aki Hoshide. Both crews went on to break records in February 2021 and last fall for the longest single space missions ever undertaken by a U.S. crewed vehicle.
Her people-hauling duties over, B1061 settled last summer into a more regular routine as a payload-lifter. She launched SiriusXM’s heavyweight SXM-8 broadcasting satellite last June, SpaceX’s CRS-23 Cargo Dragon to the ISS last August, NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) last December and, most recently, a 49-strong batch of Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites earlier this spring.
Primary payload for B1061’s seventh launch is the fourth haul of Transporter payloads, as SpaceX aims to regularly fly these multi-payload “stacks”. Three earlier Transporter missions in January and June of last year, and most recently in January 2022, lifted a grand total of 336 small payloads devoted to Earth observation, technology, communications, remote sensing, education and amateur radio to orbit on behalf of 32 nations.
Weather for Friday’s opening launch attempt for Transporter-4 looked iffy at best, with barely a 30-percent probability of acceptable conditions at T-0. A cold front, approaching from the northwest, was expected to “stall out” over the Space Coast, bringing with it “plentiful moisture”, according to the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base, as well as unsettled weather in the form of increased cloud coverage, showers and lightning. However, as launch time neared, SpaceX noted that the weather outlook had improved to 60-percent favorable.
Liftoff occurred on time at 12:24 p.m. EDT and B1061 powered smoothly uphill, the nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines providing 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kilograms) of thrust to lift the stack uphill. The core separated 2.5 minutes into flight and commenced a picture-perfect descent to land on JRTI, situated about 390 miles (630 kilometers) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the second stage kicked off a seven-minute-plus initial burn to pre-position the Transporter-4 payloads for deployment.
Leading the hour-long deployment list was Germany’s Environmental Mapping and Analysis Program (EnMAP), devoted to hyperspectral imaging of Earth’s surface at resolutions down to 30 feet (10 meters). Other payloads were dedicated to Earth observations, Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), technology demonstrations, communications, amateur radio, navigation and ionospheric research.
With the first mission of April thus complete, attention turns next to historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), where two crewed flights are set to fly within two weeks of one another. First up will be the three-times-flown Dragon Endeavour on Ax-1—the first all-private crew-carrying mission to the ISS—which is scheduled to launch at 12:05 p.m. EDT Wednesday, 6 April.
Commanding Ax-1 is former shuttle astronaut, seasoned ISS commander and America’s most experienced spacewalker, Mike Lopez-Alegria, joined by entrepreneurs and philanthropists Larry Connor of the United States, Mark Pathy of Canada and Israel’s Eytan Stibbe. They will spend ten days in space, eight of them aboard the ISS, during which they will support 25 scientific, educational and outreach experiments.
Next up at 6:37 p.m. EDT on 20 April, the brand-new Dragon Freedom will carry Crew-4 astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Bob “Farmer” Hines, plus Jessica Watkins and Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti, to the station for an expected 4.5-month tour of duty on Expedition 67. Both Ax-1 and Crew-4 will utilize previously-flown Falcon 9 boosters. Indeed, when Lopez-Alegria, Connor, Pathy and Stibbe launch into space next week, they will do so on a booster with four previous flights to its credit.
On the opposite coast of the United States, at Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., a Falcon 9 which previously supported the highly classified NROL-87 mission in February will be pressed back in duty for a second mission on 15 April to launch the secretive NROL-85. Contracts between SpaceX and the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), worth $297 million and signed back in February 2019, covered the launches of NROL-87, NROL-85 and a third mission, USSF-44 for the Space Force, which is due to fly atop a Falcon Heavy later in 2022.
And returning to the Space Coast, another Falcon 9, possibly at month’s end, may lift Egypt’s Nilesat-301 communications satellite on the first leg of its trek to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). Weighing around 8,600 pounds (3,900 kilograms) and built by Thales Alenia Space, the satellite operates at the Ku- and Ka-bands and will provide direct-to-home television, radio and data transmissions in the Middle East and North Africa.