Life-Leading Falcon 9 Flies, as CFT Starliner Launch Delay Lengthens

B1062 launches into darkened Florida skies at 8:32 p.m. EDT Friday, becoming the first Falcon 9 to reach 21 missions. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

In a year that has already seen record after record smashed, SpaceX successfully launched its most-flown-ever Falcon 9 at 8:32 p.m. EDT Friday out of storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla. Flying for the 21st time was the booster tailnumbered “B1062”: a vehicle whose 3.5 years of active service has now seen her lift more than 500 discrete payloads into orbit, including two crew-carrying missions, two geostationary communications satellites and a pair of Block III Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and timing satellites for the U.S. Space Force.

Rising atop a column of fire and light, B1062 has now delivered more than 500 discrete spacecraft into orbit, including two crew-carrying missions, two geostationary missions and a pair of missions for the U.S. Space Force. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Meanwhile, the long-delayed launch of the Crew Flight Test (CFT) of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V booster from neighboring SLC-41 has been pushed back again, now targeting No Earlier Than (NET) 3:09 p.m. EDT on Saturday, 25 May. Teams continue to work through closeout procedures to establish a flight rationale following last week’s detection of a small helium leak associated with a flange on a single reaction control system thruster in Starliner’s service module.

Weather conditions for B1062’s record-breaking launch were decidedly iffy for Friday night, hovering from as low as 75-percent acceptability to as high as 95 percent, with a northward-moving frontal boundary threatening to deliver sufficient moisture for showers and storms. Key issues centered upon potential violation of the Cumulus Cloud Rule and Anvil Cloud Rule.

Unusual atmospheric effect as B1062 approaches the end of her first-stage “burn” profile, late in the ascent. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

B1062 sprang from SLC-40 right on time for her 21st flight in 42 months, powering smoothly uphill under the thrust of nine Merlin 1D+ engines. Eight and a half minutes later, she returned to alight on the expansive deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “A Shortfall of Gravitas”, offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, the second stage executed a lengthy “burn” of its own Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine to insert the primary payload of 23 Starlink internet communications satellites into low-Earth orbit, deploying them at 65 minutes into last night’s flight.

As a network, Starlink enables high-speed and low-latency internet provision to over 70 sovereign nations and international markets in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Oceania and Africa. Last week, the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch services provider announced that Starlink connectivity is now available in Uruguay, bringing to 76 the total number of sovereign nations or regions to receive coverage.

A Starlink payload stack is readied for launch. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The downsized V2 Mini satellites, first flown in February of last year, boast three to four times greater “usable” bandwidth than earlier Starlink iterations. “V2 Minis include key technologies—such as more powerful phased-array antennas and the use of E-Band for backhaul—which will allow Starlink to provide 4x more capacity per satellite than earlier iterations,” SpaceX explained. “Among other enhancements, V2 Minis are equipped with new argon Hall thrusters for on-orbit maneuvering.”

Florida-based intercity operator Brightline adopted Starlink on its trains in 2023, the first passenger rail service in the world to do so. Additionally, El Salvador’s Ministry of Education has begun integrating Starlink capability into its schools to help close the digital divide between urban and remote rural communities and 50 Rwandan schools are now connected via Starlink’s high-speed internet service. As of April, Starlink reportedly had about 2.7 million registered subscribers or customers worldwide.

The exhaust plume of B1062’s nine Merlin 1D+ engines appears to flare radially in the rarefied high atmosphere, late in first-stage ascent during her 19th flight in March. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Looking back, it is remarkable in the extreme that boosters have reached such high levels of reusability in a comparatively short timeframe. Only as recently as March 2017 did SpaceX reuse a once-before-flown Falcon 9 core for a second launch.

Those figures climbed rapidly as boosters scored steadily ascending numbers of missions and cemented gradually growing levels of maturity. Boosters achieved third flights for the first time in December 2018, fourth in November 2019, fifth in March 2020, sixth in August 2020, seventh in November 2020, eighth in January 2021, ninth in March 2021, tenth in May 2021, eleventh in December 2021, twelfth in March 2022, thirteenth in June 2022 and fourteenth and fifteenth in September and December 2022.  

B1062 becomes the first Falcon 9 booster to reach a 20th launch in April. Photo Credit: SpaceX

With boosters initially certified by SpaceX only for 15 missions, the “active” status of two fleet-leaders was paused for six months in the opening half of last year as recertification got underway to extend their operational lives to 20 flights. Veteran B1058 went on to record a record-smashing sixteenth mission last July, a seventeenth in September, an eighteenth in November and a nineteenth a few days before Christmas.

Sadly, that nineteenth launch proved her last, for although the mission was successful, rough seas and winds caused her to topple on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) during her recovery and post-flight transit back to port and she was lost. Since then, in the last few weeks three more boosters—including B1062 herself—became the first in the Falcon 9 fleet to reach life-leading 20th launches.

B1062 began her career with a pair of launches of Block III of the Global Positioning System (GPS) for the U.S. Space Force in 2020 and 2021. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

With SpaceX now aiming to fly individual birds as many as 40 times, on Thursday SpaceX announced its intent to fly B1062 a record-smashing 21st time, targeting a broad three-hour “window” on Friday evening from 8:32 p.m. EDT through 11:30 p.m. EDT. Additional opportunities were available on Saturday evening, beginning at 8:06 p.m. EDT, and the East Coast-based drone ship, “A Shortfall of Gravitas”, put to sea out of Port Canaveral near the end of the week.

B1062 entered service back in November 2020 to lift the fourth Block III Global Positioning System (GPS III-04) navigation and timing satellite to Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) for the U.S. Space Force, followed by GPS III-05 in June of 2021. And during 2022, she recorded eight missions, the highest ever recorded by a single Falcon 9, notably flying twice in April of that year alone and setting a new empirical record (still unbroken) of only 21 days between flights by the same orbital-class booster.

B1062’s first human mission took place in September 2021, when she lifted Dragon Resilience to orbit with the Inspiration4 crew of Jared “Rook” Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Hayley Arceneaux and Chris Sembroski. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

B1062 is among a handful of vehicles to have launched two human crews. She flew the historic, all-civilian Inspiration4 crew of Shift4Payments billionaire Jared “Rook” Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Chris Sembroski and Hayley Arceneaux in September 2021 and launched Ax-1 astronauts Mike Lopez-Alegria, Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe on the first all-private ISS mission by AxiomSpace, Inc., in April 2022.

Added to those impressive credentials, B1062 has now lifted more than 500 Starlink internet communications satellites on 13 missions, plus a pair of geostationary-bound communications satellites—Egypt’s Nilesat-301 in June 2022 and Saudi Arabia’s Arabsat-7B (also known as BADR-8) last May—as well as 40 broadband satellites for London, England-based OneWeb. All but one of her 21 missions ended with pinpoint-accuracy Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) touchdowns, making B1062, as of now, the Falcon 9 record-holder for the greatest number of successful landings offshore.

Impressive exhaust plume during B1062’s third Starlink mission in July 2022. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Meanwhile, the launch of a 172-foot-tall (52.4-meter) United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V booster from the Cape’s neighboring SLC-41 for the long-awaited Crew Flight Test (CFT) of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft has met with additional delay, as teams now target No Earlier Than (NET) 3:09 p.m. EDT on Saturday, 25 May. Veteran NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Suni Williams will launch to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Starliner, where they will spend at least eight “docked” days executing a complex program of flight test objectives before returning to a parachute-and-airbag-aided landing in the Western United States.

After being scrubbed two hours prior to launch—with Wilmore and Williams already aboard Starliner—on the evening of 6 May, following observations of a faulty oxygen relief valve on the Atlas V’s Dual-Engine Centaur (DEC) upper stage, the mission was realigned to fly as soon as 6:16 p.m. EDT on the 17th, before slipping again to No Earlier Than (NET) 4:43 p.m. EDT on the 21st, due to a helium leak in Starliner’s service module that was subsequently traced to a flange on a single reaction control thruster.

Crew Flight Test (CFT) Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Pilot Suni Williams are pictured with their CST-100 Starliner spacecraft during its rollout in April. Photo Credit: NASA

That delay lengthened late Friday, as NASA announced that teams would “take additional time” to work through closeout procedures and flight rationale, ahead of a new launch attempt. “Pressure testing performed on 15 May on the spacecraft’s helium system showed the leak in the flange is stable and would not pose a risk at that level during the flight,” NASA reported on its website.

“The testing also indicated the rest of the thruster system is sealed effectively across the entire service module,” it was added. “Boeing teams are working to develop operational procedures to ensure the system retains sufficient performance capability and appropriate redundancy during the flight.”

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