SpaceX has successfully completed its third month to boast at least five Falcon 9 missions, as an eight-times-flown Falcon 9 booster speared aloft from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., at 2:35 p.m. EDT Wednesday. Laden with 59 small payloads, representing more than a half-dozen sovereign nations, and covering a smorgasbord of disciplines from Earth observations to technology demonstrations, from Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) to radio occultation and from education to a NanoRacks investigation to cut representative metal samples in support of future deep-space outposts, the mission wrapped up a banner fifth month of the year for SpaceX.
After a spectacular April—which saw the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered organization fly six times in a single calendar month, achieve a new Falcon 9 turnaround record and execute a pair of Crew Dragon flights to the International Space Station (ISS)—it seemed that the bar had been set very high for May. But the challenge was met in style. No sooner had Dragon Endurance returned safely home on the 3rd, carrying U.S. astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, together with Germany’s Matthias Maurer, after the second-longest flight by a U.S. crewed vehicle, SpaceX staged no less than four launches from the East and West Coasts in only a dozen days.
First up was the joint fleet-leader B1058, which became only the third Falcon 9 core to log a 12th launch, which rose from historic Pad 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and delivered 53 Starlink internet communications satellites to low-Earth orbit on 6 May. Then came a spectacular salvo of three launches within a five-day period, as five-times-flown B1063 lifted another 53 Starlinks out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., on 13 May, “new kid on the block” B1073 hauled another 53 satellites uphill from the Cape’s SLC-40 only 22 hours later on the 14th and five-times-used B1052 doing likewise from Pad 39A just last Wednesday.
With this week’s Transporter-5 mission, May 2022 becomes only the third time since last Christmas that SpaceX has completed five or more launches in a single calendar month. And it has now flown 22 missions in the year’s first 20 weeks, rendering it increasingly likely that Elon Musk’s pledge of 60 launches in 2022 may yet come to pass.
Weather conditions for the Transporter-5 launch on Wednesday afternoon proved highly favorable, with a 90-percent chance of acceptable conditions during a relatively spacious, 57-minute “window”, which opened at 2:27 p.m. EDT. Rain and storm chances, noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base in its L-3 update on Sunday, tended to favor the late-morning hours as the East Coast sea-breeze develops and moves inland.
“For the primary launch time early Wednesday afternoon,” it added, “most activity is expected to be inland of the Spaceport, with just a few lingering cumulus clouds and the potential for anvils from activity further west.” All told, this pushed the likelihood of acceptable weather from 80-percent-favorable last weekend to 90-percent-favorable, per a SpaceX tweet on Wednesday morning.
Supporting this afternoon’s launch was the eight-times-flown B1061, a booster last used barely eight weeks ago for the April Fool’s Day mission of Transporter-4. That flight delivered around 40 small payloads representing a dozen sovereign nations into orbit, devoted to Earth observations, SIGINT, technology demonstrations, communications, amateur radio, navigation and ionospheric research.
But Transporter-4 was flown on the heels of an already stellar career which saw B1061 launch not one, but two crews of humans 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. And those 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 late 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 a 49-strong batch of Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites in February.
And as its nomenclature implies, today’s flight was SpaceX’s fourth haul of multi-payload Transporter “stacks”. Four previous missions in January and June of last year, and more recently last month and this afternoon lifted over 370 small payloads devoted to Earth observation, technology, communications, remote sensing, education and amateur radio to orbit on behalf of 32 nations.
But less than a half-hour before the opening of Wednesday’s launch window, SpaceX declared a slight delay. “New T-0 of 2:35 p.m. for today’s launch in order to complete pre-flight checkouts, including thermal testing for the payload deploy sequence,” it explained. “Weather continues to look good.”
Without further ado, the 22nd Falcon 9 of 2022 took flight and roared into picture-perfect skies. Passing the period of maximum aerodynamic turbulence a minute into the flight, B1061 separated from the stack at 2.5 minutes and began her descent—guided by a carefully orchestrated symphony of engine “burns” and hypersonic grid-fins—to alight on solid ground at Landing Zone (LZ)-1 at the Cape. It marked SpaceX’s fifth solid-ground landing of the year and the first of B1061’s career; her seven prior launches ended with on-point touchdowns on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS).
And with the core stage gone, the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage roared to life and burned for six minutes to power the Transporter-4 stack the rest of the way uphill. Shutting down at 8.5 minutes after liftoff, the stack “coasted” for almost an hour. During this period, NanoRacks’ Outpost Mars Demo-1 (OMD-1) experiment got underway. Contracted between NanoRacks and SpaceX back in November 2019, it sought to evaluate the robotic cutting of second-stage representative tank material in space, as a first-of-its-kind attempt to convert spent upper stages into commercial habitats.
“Structural metal-cutting has never been done in space and SpaceX is honored to help deliver a demonstration of this capability to orbit,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, in the November 2019 statement. “It’s promising to see more companies like NanoRacks investing in new technologies to advance the exploration of the Moon and ultimately Mars.”
Then, over a 16-minute period beginning a little under an hour after this afternoon’s launch, the multitude of Transporter-5 payloads commenced deployment. Kicking off with the CICERO-2 radio occultation satellite, provided by Pasadena, Calif.-based GeoOptics, Inc., and terminating with five Finnish ICEYE imaging satellites, the Transporter-5 haul represented about a half-dozen sovereign nations, including the United States, Spain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Argentina and Australia.
“Rideshare deployment sequence complete,” came the clipped tweet from SpaceX at 4:01 p.m. EDT as the last payload departed the Falcon 9’s second stage and vanished into the inky blackness.
With Transporter-5 thus completed, attention turns back to Pad 39A and the scheduled 7 June launch of the next Cargo Dragon mission to the space station, CRS-25. Widely expected to use the same Cargo Dragon as flew the CRS-21 and CRS-23 missions in December 2020 and last summer, CRS-25 will transport cargo, equipment and supplies uphill for the incumbent Expedition 67 crew. Commanded by veteran cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev, the crew includes fellow Russians Denis Matveev and Sergei Korsakov, who arrived at the ISS in mid-March, together with U.S. astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Bob “Farmer” Hines and Jessica Watkins and Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti, who arrived last month.