SpaceX Flies First Vandenberg Mission of May, Contracts With Vast for Space Station, Crew Dragon Missions

B1075 heads smoothly uphill on Wednesday, kicking off SpaceX’s ninth Vandenberg launch of 2023 and its first of May. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has successfully lofted its first West Coast mission of May, with Wednesday’s rousing 1:09 p.m. PDT (4:09 p.m. EDT) liftoff of a three-times-flown Falcon 9 booster out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. Laden with 51 Starlink internet communications satellites, destined for insertion into low-Earth orbit, the 30th Falcon-class rocket launch of the year also coincided with SpaceX announcing a new contract with Long Beach, Calif.-headquartered aerospace firm Vast to launch a commercial space station and up to two Crew Dragon visiting flights as soon as August 2025.

Today’s launch was the 30th flight of a Falcon-class booster in 2023. Photo Credit: SpaceX

With this afternoon’s launch, a total of 18 boosters have lifted 28 Falcon 9s and a pair of triple-barreled Falcon Heavy vehicles uphill from the East and West Coasts since the dawn of 2023. Five of those boosters—including today’s outing by relative newcomer B1075—have already logged three launches apiece inside the year’s opening half.

A grand total of 725 Starlinks have been lofted on 15 dedicated Falcon 9 missions, including the initial members of SpaceX’s downsized “V2 Mini” fleet, with three to four times greater “usable” bandwidth than earlier models. Added to that list, Falcon 9s have delivered a new crew to the International Space Station (ISS), a pair of major payloads for the U.S. Space Force, six powerful geostationary communications satellites and two Transporter “rideshare” missions.

B1075 is a dedicated “Vandenberg Falcon”, having begun service at the West Coast launch site in January. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Those missions terminated with seven landings on terra firma and 23 on-point oceanic touchdowns on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS).

Flying Wednesday’s mission was B1075, which entered SpaceX’s burgeoning Falcon 9 fleet in January for a dedicated Starlink flight, before being quickly cycled back into duty just last month to deliver the first members of the Tranche-0 Transport and Tracking Layer (TTL) of satellites for the Space Development Agency (SDA). In readiness for today’s flight, the West Coast drone ship, “Of Course I Still Love You”, put to sea out of Port of Long Beach last weekend, bound for a recovery position about 410 miles (660 kilometers) offshore in the Pacific Ocean.

B1075’s exhaust appears to radiate outwards in the rarefied high atmosphere, late into first-stage ascent. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Yesterday, SpaceX announced that it was aiming for a pair of back-to-back launch attempts for this mission, the first at 1:09 p.m. PDT (4:09 p.m. EDT) Wednesday, followed by a second opportunity at 12:55 p.m. PDT (3:55 p.m. EDT) Thursday. Aboard B1075 were 51 Starlinks, bound for emplacement into a 70-degree-inclination orbit, at an altitude of about 350 miles (570 kilometers).

Rising from mountain-ringed Vandenberg precisely on the opening of Wednesday’s window, B1075 performed with perfection, her nine Merlin 1D+ engines burning for the first 2.5 minutes of ascent to propel the stack airborne. The core stage then separated and returned to a perfect touchdown on OCISLY, whilst the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage performed a standard six-minute “burn” to lift the Starlink stack the remainder of the way uphill.

B1075, landing legs deployed, approaches touchdown on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Of Course I Still Love You” (left pane), whilst the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the second stage pushes the Starlink payload uphill (right pane). Photo Credit: SpaceX

Deployment of the 51 Starlinks occurred about 17 minutes after liftoff. Since May 2019, more than 4,300 production-design Starlinks have been launched, facilitating high-speed and low-latency internet provision across more than 50 sovereign nations and international markets spanning North and South America, Europe, Asia, Oceania and Africa.

In the last few weeks alone, Haiti, Ecuador and El Salvador have officially signed up to Starlink. And Florida-based intercity operator Brightline last week revealed it has adopted the network on its trains, marking the first passenger rail service in the world to do so.

B1075 sits motionless on the drone ship’s expansive deck, wrapping up her third mission. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Today’s launch marked SpaceX’s ninth flight from the West Coast so far this year, with an expectation that the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered organization will soon eclipse 2022’s personal best of 13 Falcon 9 missions. Seven of those flights carried Starlinks to space, whilst the others lifted Transporter-7 and the SDA’s first Tranche-0 payload, with April marking the first occasion that three Falcon 9s have launched from Vandenberg in a single month.

Attention now turns to the East Coast, where another Starlink mission—the third of May—is targeting liftoff from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., just past midnight Saturday/Sunday. According to the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base, conditions are predicted to be around 90-95-percent favorable for both primary and backup launch attempts over the weekend.

Ax-2 crew members (from left) are Ali Al-Qarni, John Shoffner, Peggy Whitson and Rayyanah Barnawi. Photo Credit: AxiomSpace, Inc.

The anticipated departure of an upper-level trough to the northeast of Florida early this coming weekend is expected to produce “drier conditions” by Saturday morning and all through until Sunday, “with only a slight concern of the Cumulus Cloud Rule as winds will be onshore overnight”. The 45th added that conditions will drop to 90-percent-favorable later in the weekend, on account of a slight chance of “weak showers along the coast as low-level moisture slowly begins to return”.

In readiness for SpaceX’s third flight of May, the East Coast drone ship, “Just Read the Instructions”, put to sea out of Port Canaveral earlier today. Looking ahead, AxiomSpace, Inc.’s Ax-2 mission—crewed by America’s most flight-seasoned spacefarer Peggy Whitson, airshow pilot, athlete and motorsports endurance racer John Shoffner and Saudi Arabia’s Ali Al-Qarni and Rayyanah Barnawi—is targeting launch at 5:37 p.m. EDT on 21 May from historic Pad 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

Artist’s concept of the Haven-1 module inside a Falcon 9 payload shroud, with suited SpaceX crew members providing scale. Image Credit: Vast

The quartet are aiming for an approximately two-week stay in orbit, during which they will facilitate more than 20 multidisciplinary experiments spanning the life sciences, human research, physical sciences and technology. Additionally, Whitson’s crew will support about 130 hours of National Lab Science during their time aboard the ISS.

Also announced on Wednesday, Long Beach, Calif.-headquartered Vast announced that it has contracted with SpaceX to launch Haven-1, which it describes as “the world’s first commercial space station”. Scheduled to launch via a Falcon 9 no sooner than August 2025, Haven-1 will initially serve as an independent crewed station before “being connected as a module to a larger Vast space station currently in development”.

Video Credit: Vast

According to Vast, Haven-1 measures 33.1 feet (10.1 meters) long and 12.5 feet (3.8 meters) in diameter, with an internal pressurized volume of 2,500 cubic feet (70 cubic meters). Lifted to a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) orbit cocooned inside the Falcon 9’s bullet-like payload shroud, the station will weigh in the region of 30,800 pounds (14,000 kilograms), roughly equal in terms of launch mass to a 46-strong Starlink stack or a fully loaded Crew Dragon.

When fully functional in orbit, Haven-1 is touted to offer around one kilowatt of electrical power for science and research activities, 24/7 communications and up to 330 pounds (150 kilograms) of pre-loaded cargo mass, together with “opportunities for lunar artificial gravity by spinning”. Other features of the station include a large window “dome” for Earth viewing and photography.

A SpaceX Crew Dragon approaches Haven-1. Image Credit: Vast

Although no additional firm details about the contract were forthcoming, Vast—founded in 2021 by U.S. programmer, entrepreneur and philanthropist Jed McCaleb—has also secured at least one (and potentially up to two) Crew Dragon missions to the fledgling station, a flight identified as Vast-1. The mission is “available per seat” or “as a full, four-person crew mission”, targeted at national space agencies and private individuals. SpaceX noted on Wednesday that the crew selection process for Vast-1 “is underway” and that assignments will be announced “at a future date”.

“The vehicle and its four-person crew will dock with Haven-1 for up to 30 days whilst orbiting Earth,” Vast explained. “Vast also secured an option with SpaceX for an additional human spaceflight mission to Haven-1. This represents the first time in history that a commercial space station company has both a contracted launch for its space station and a visiting human spaceflight mission.”

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