Record-Tying Falcon 9 Flies, Kicks Off Busy July

B1058 powers uphill on her record-tying 13th mission. Photo Credit: SpaceX

It may be unlucky for some, but 13 proved the charm for a veteran Falcon 9 on Thursday morning, as the B1058 booster—which first entered service two years ago, lofting NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to orbit aboard Dragon Endeavour for a multi-week stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS)—took flight yet again. Liftoff occurred at the start (and end) of an “instantaneous” launch window at 9:11 a.m. EDT from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla. Less than 15 minutes later, a payload “stack” of 53 Starlink internet communications satellites were inserted satisfactorily into low-Earth orbit.

Video Credit: SpaceX

The weather outlook for today’s launch, the first SpaceX mission of July, were highly favorable, with the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base having forecasted an 80-percent probability of suitable conditions, improving to 90 percent on Friday. With a relatively low likelihood of afternoon storms, the key area of concern was a violation of the Cumulus Cloud Rule, associated with the inland movement of the sea breeze.

Falcon 9 launches the 50th Starlink mission. Photo credit: Jeff Seibert

In readiness for today’s launch and recovery of B1058, the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, put to sea from Port Canaveral last weekend, bound for a position about 410 miles (660 kilometers) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. It would mark B1058’s fourth landing on JRTI and the 12th drone-ship landing of her career so far, having also alighted once on solid ground at the Cape’s Landing Zone (LZ)-1.

First used for NASA’s historic Demo-2 mission, B1058 flew four times in 2020, five times last year and a further four times (and counting) in 2022. Photo Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

B1058 is one of SpaceX’s true history-makers, having entered service to great fanfare on 30 May 2020, when she lifted Dragon Endeavour, crewed by “Bob and Doug”, to begin a 64-day mission to the space station. That flight saw the return of U.S. human spaceflight capability, aboard a U.S. spacecraft, atop a U.S. rocket, and from U.S. soil, for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle Program in July 2011.

Since then, and including this morning’s flight, B1058 went on to log an additional 12 missions, lifting almost 600 discrete payloads into orbit, including more than 400 Starlink satellites. Her second flight in July 2020 set a new record—now broken—of 51 days between two launches by the same orbital-class booster.

B1058 lifts South Korea’s ANASIS-II military communications satellite to space in July 2020. On this, her second mission, she set a new record of only 51 days between two launches by the same orbital-class booster. Photo Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

Eight dedicated Starlink missions between October 2020 and this morning were joined by CRS-21, the maiden outing of SpaceX’s upgraded Cargo Dragon, and the multi-payload Transporter-1 and Transporter-3 rideshares in January 2021 and January 2022, respectively. Of note, Transporter-1 marked the greatest number of discrete payloads (143) ever lifted to orbit by a single U.S. booster.

Having launched four times in 2020, five times last year and now four times in 2022, B1058’s frequent-flying credentials show little sign of slowing down anytime soon. She becomes only the second Falcon 9, after her sister B1060, to log a 13th mission.

A minute into this morning’s flight, B1058 passed through a period of peak aerodynamic stress, known as “Max Q”. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Today’s flight, the 28th SpaceX launch in the year’s first 28 weeks, was picture-perfect, as the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 took flight at 9:11 a.m. EDT. B1058’s nine Merlin 1D+ engines powered the stack smoothly uphill for the first 2.5 minutes of flight, before the core separated and twirled and pirouetted her way back to a landing on the deck of JRTI. After a few moments of concern, when it could not immediately be confirmed if B1058 had landed, there came official word that SpaceX’s second 13-times-flown bird was safely home.

Having already completed three back-to-back months with at least five launches apiece, SpaceX looks set for another aggressive five-flight tempo in July. Up to three more Starlink missions—including one out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., headed for a 97.6-degree inclination—are expected, together with the delayed CRS-25 Cargo Dragon to the ISS.

B1058 begins its 13th return to Earth. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The latter was originally slated to fly on 9 June but was delayed until at least month’s end in response to elevated monomethyl hydrazine vapor readings in the cargo ship’s Draco thruster system. Propellant and oxidizer were promptly offloaded from that region of the spacecraft to permit deeper investigation and testing.  

The source of the issue was ultimately narrowed down to a Draco thruster valve inlet joint, which was removed and replaced and launch rescheduled for No Earlier Than (NET) 11 July. That NET date was later shifted a few days to the right, to 14 July, to support continued inspections of the Cargo Dragon and the repair and replacement of components potentially degraded by the monomethyl hydrazine vapor.

The B1058 core heads back to Earth (left pane), as the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage executes a six-minute “burn” (right pane) to insert the 53-strong Starlink stack into orbit. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX teams also replaced the cargo ship’s main parachutes. It is understood that CRS-25 will ride atop the five-times-flown B1067 core, which has been almost exclusively devoted to ISS operations since it entered service in June of last year.

Its maiden outing saw it lift the CRS-22 Cargo Dragon to the station, after which it supported the launches of eight astronauts from three nations with last November’s Crew-3 and last April’s Crew-4. And just before Christmas 2021, B1067 delivered Turkey’s powerful Türksat 5B communications satellite on the first leg of its long trek to geostationary orbit.

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