Record-Tying Falcon 9 Lifts 500th Starlink, as Ax-1 Crew Eyes Homecoming

B1060 takes flight for the 12th time in less than two years. Photo Credit: SpaceX

As the Ax-1 crew readies for a weekend return to Earth and with the four Crew-4 astronauts awaiting liftoff next week, attention turned to storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., early Thursday afternoon, as a 12-times-flown Falcon 9 booster took flight with a batch of Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites. The seasoned B1060 core—which becomes only the second Falcon 9 to log as many as a dozen launchestook flight at 1:51 p.m. EDT. Launch came 2.5 hours later than intended, due to weather concerns.

Video Credit: SpaceX

Eight minutes later, B1060 twirled and pirouetted her way to a pinpoint touchdown on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, situated about 390 miles (630 kilometers) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. Today’s launch included the 500th Starlink to have been lifted to orbit by B1060.

Falcon 9 takes off on its’ 13th mission. Photo credit: Jeff Seibert / AmericaSpace

It was SpaceX’s 15th Falcon 9 flight of 2022, and the fourth of April, following on the heels of the multi-payload Transporter-4 at month’s start, the in-progress Ax-1 mission by Dragon Endeavour at the International Space Station (ISS) and last week’s classified NROL-85 mission out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., for the National Reconnaissance Office. One more mission—the launch of Dragon Freedom and the Crew-4 team of Commander Kjell Lindgren and Pilot Bob “Farmer” Hines, together with NASA’s Jessica Watkins and record-setting Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti—waits in the wings to launch no sooner than 4:15 a.m. EDT Tuesday, 26 April.

Mounted atop her own Falcon 9, Dragon Freedom was transported out to Pad 39A earlier this week. She will make SpaceX’s record-tying fifth flight of April when she launches as early as Tuesday. Photo Credit: NASA

In readiness for her impending launch, Dragon Freedom was transported from SpaceX’s processing facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., to historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on 16 April. The transfer of this brand-new Crew Dragon—which features a reused composite heat-shield structure, four reused Draco thrusters and USB charging points for the astronauts’ tablets—out to the pad came a day after the satisfactory completion of a Flight Readiness Review (FRR) on the 15th.

Following the arrival of Dragon Freedom at the pad, it was mated to its Falcon 9 booster, which underwent a customary Static Fire Test of its nine Merlin 1D+ engines on Tuesday. Uniquely for a NASA crew-carrying vehicle, the booster earmarked for Crew-4 will be making the fourth launch of its career.

The Crew-4 astronauts after their arrival in Florida earlier this week. From left to right are Jessica Watkins, Bob “Farmer” Hines, Kjell Lindgren and Samantha Cristoforetti. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Tail-numbered “B1067”, it previously lifted the CRS-22 Cargo Dragon to the ISS in June 2021, under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract, followed by last November’s launch of Dragon Endurance and Crew-3 astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn, Matthias Maurer and Kayla Barron and most recently Turkey’s powerful Türksat 5B communications satellite last December.

Although last year’s all-civilian Inspiration4 mission launched atop a three-times-flown booster and this month’s Ax-1 rode a five-times-flown booster, all previous NASA crew-carrying Falcon 9s have either been on their first or second flights. But NASA Associate Administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate Kathy Lueders noted that the number of flights by a booster matters less than their readiness for flight. “What I prefer to fly on,” she said, “is a rocket that meets our requirements.”

Currently heading into the homestretch of her historic all-private Ax-1 mission to the International Space Station (ISS), Dragon Endeavour is targeting an undocking from the orbital lab on Saturday and return to Earth on Sunday. Photo Credit: NASA

And those requirements—to safely and successfully launch a crew—have shifted a few days to the right. Originally scheduled to fly as early as 15 April, Lindgren’s crew found their placeholder launch date moved to the 20th and the 23rd, to ensure spacecraft readiness and an appropriate period of data-collection between the landing of Ax-1 and the launch of Crew-4. According to NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich, at least 48 hours are required between the landing of one Crew Dragon and the launch of the next to enable the completion of data reviews and the staging of recovery assets.

That proved something of a sticking-point, not solely in response to the delay of the Ax-1 launch from the end of March into the second week of April. The targeted return of Commander Mike Lopez-Alegria and his crew of entrepreneurs and philanthropists Larry Connor, Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy was originally set for 20 April, but weather conditions in the primary splashdown zone off the Florida Coast proved unfavorable.

B1060 powers away from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Yesterday, NASA announced its intent for Ax-1 to now depart the ISS no sooner than 8:35 p.m. EDT Saturday and return home around 1:46 p.m. EDT Sunday, wrapping up 16 days of research, education and outreach activities on the first all-private crewed visit to the ISS.

And the need for a minimum 48-hour landing-to-launch gap necessitated Crew-4 being correspondingly pushed to a new No Earlier Than (NET) of 4:15 a.m. EDT Tuesday. An on-time launch will see Dragon Freedom dock at the space-facing (or “zenith”) port of the station’s Harmony node on Wednesday, 27 April. That will set the stage for about five days of “direct handover” operations with Chari, Marshburn, Maurer and Barron, before the latter depart the ISS aboard Dragon Endurance for their own return to Earth.

The plumes from B1060’s nine Merlin 1D+ engines appear to bulge outward in the rarefied high atmosphere. This image was acquired less than a minute before Booster Engine Cutoff (BECO). Photo Credit: SpaceX

Enmeshed within this symphony of crew-carrying musical chairs, B1060 quietly underwent its own processing flow for a Thursday, 21 April launch of 53 Starlinks into low-Earth orbit. The ASDS, “Just Read the Instructions”, put to sea from Port Canaveral last Saturday, bound for a recovery position about 390 miles (630 kilometers) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

In flying today’s mission, B1060 becomes only the second Falcon 9 core, after her many-times-flown sister B1051, to log as many as 12 launches. First used back in 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 nine dedicated Starlink missions between September 2020 and this morning, lifting a grand total of 500 of these flat-packed internet communications satellites into low-Earth orbit. She also delivered Turkey’s Türksat 5A and the 88-payload Transporter-2 rideshare missions to space. 

Her 12th mission complete, B1060 heads for the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Passing her 500th Starlink launch today, B1060 joins her sister B1051 as one of the Falcon 9’s fleet-leaders with a dozen missions to her credit. She also holds SpaceX’s record for the shortest landing-to-launch turnaround of a single booster, having enjoyed a 27-day processing flow between her return from Türksat 5A on 7 January 2021 and another mission the following 4 February. All told, she flew six times last year—more often than any of her sisters—and today’s launch marked her third outing of 2022.

Following a successful ascent, the B1060 core enjoyed a smooth Booster Engine Cutoff (BECO) at 2.5 minutes into today’s flight and returned to her 11th landing on the deck of an ASDS; one of her earlier missions having terminated on solid ground at Landing Zone (LZ)-1 at the Cape. The Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the second stage then picked up the baton for a pair of “burns” to deploy the 53-strong Starlink a little under an hour into flight.

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