SpaceX’s longest-serving Falcon 9 booster roared back into service Sunday morning, carrying 53 Starlink internet communications satellites, bound for emplacement in low-Earth orbit. The veteran B1051—making a record-tying 13th trek to space—rose from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., at 10:20 a.m. EDT.
A little less than nine minutes later, she twirled and pirouetted her way to a smooth, on-point touchdown on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, situated offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. Despite an initially iffy 50-50 weather outlook (which later improved to 60-percent favorable), SpaceX threaded the needle between predicted periods of showers and occasional storms, as tropical moisture continued its northward march into the Florida peninsula.
“Another batch of convection is expected to develop over South Florida late tonight into Sunday morning and lift north towards the area,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base in its Saturday morning update. “The window for the primary launch attempt late Sunday morning may be in a lull in activity between overnight storms and those triggered by daytime heating.”
This gloomy picture created a risk of violating the Launch Commit Criteria (LCC) pertaining to thick clouds, cumulus clouds and anvils. Meanwhile, a rapid mission-to-mission turnaround was in store for JRTI, which returned to Port Canaveral just last Tuesday after recovering the B1058 core from her 7 July Starlink launch.
After offloading B1058, she was back into service the very next day, heading out into the Atlantic for her second Falcon 9 recovery of the month and her tenth of 2022. All told, JRTI supported seven launches out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., between January 2017 and January 2019, before moving to the East Coast where she recovered 28 core stages between June 2020 and this morning, including Crew-1 and Inspiration4.
In April 2022 alone, she retrieved no fewer than three returning boosters. And the booster for today’s launch is the longest-serving Falcon 9 core still in active operational service within the SpaceX fleet.
B1051 first flew in March 2019, when she lifted an uncrewed Crew Dragon into orbit for the historic Demo-1 mission to the International Space Station (ISS). She was then transferred to the West Coast, launching Canada’s three-spacecraft Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) out of Vandenberg in June 2019.
A return to Florida saw B1051 commence a golden age of no less than eight missions between January 2020 and May 2021, before another transfer to the (now renamed) Vandenberg Space Force Base for her record-breaking eleventh launch last December. She was then moved back to the Cape for a 12th mission in March.
All told, across her 13 flights, B1051 lifted Demo-1, the Radarsat triplets, 575 Starlinks and SiriusXM’s high-powered SXM-7 radio broadcasting satellite to orbit. In 2020, she became the first Falcon 9 to complete five missions in a single calendar year.
After playing catch-up with her many-times-flown sister B1049, from January 2021 through last March, B1051 was by far the most-used Falcon 9 core, leading the fleet in logging eighth, ninth, tenth, 11th and 12th missions. However, following her most recent flight in March, she has been eclipsed by her sisters B1058—the selfsame booster that launched NASA’s Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on the historic Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in May 2020—and B1060, which both recorded their 13th launches in recent weeks.
Originally targeted for an “instantaneous” launch window at 10:50 a.m. EDT Sunday, SpaceX announced late Saturday that it was shifting T-0 a little earlier to 10:20 a.m. EDT instead. The successful launch marked the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered organization’s 31st mission in the first seven months of 2022, tying with 2021 for the greatest number of Falcon 9 missions in one calendar year.
Those 31 missions since January have been achieved using only ten Falcon 9 cores, four of which have flown four times apiece. New records have been set for the shortest interval—just 21 days—between launches by the same orbital-class booster and the first Falcon 9s to log 12th and 13th missions.
More than 900 Starlinks have launched from Vandenberg and the Cape on 18 dedicated flights, plus a pair of geostationary communications satellites, two classified payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), three multi-payload Transporter missions and two crewed flights to the ISS. The most recent addition to the list is last Thursday’s successful launch of the CRS-25 Cargo Dragon to the space station under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program.
The Cargo Dragon docked autonomously at the forward-facing port of the station’s Harmony node at 11:21 a.m. EDT Saturday for a month-long stay. It is laden with 5,800 pounds (2,600 kilograms) of payloads, equipment and supplies for the incumbent Expedition 67 crew.
Its final approach and docking were closely monitored by NASA astronauts Jessica Watkins and Bob “Farmer” Hines. “Here there be Dragons,” tweeted their Expedition 67 crewmate Kjell Lindgren after yesterday’s smooth arrival. “Welcome aboard!”
Up next are a pair of Starlink flights out of Vandenberg and the Cape, provisionally scheduled for Thursday 21st and Sunday 24th. They look set to close out July as SpaceX’s second six-launch month on record.
The first of these launches marks the seventh Falcon 9 of the year to originate from Vandenberg, making 2022 SpaceX’s most-flown year out of the mountain-ringed West Coast site. And flying less than 11 days since its most recent mission, a launch on Thursday will halve the current 22-day record for the shortest interval between Falcon 9 missions from Vandenberg.