SpaceX Completes 14-Mission May, as CFT Starliner Prepares to Shine

As SpaceX wrapped up its first 13- and 14-mission month in May, United Launch Alliance (ULA), Boeing and NASA are targeting 12:25:40 p.m. EDT Saturday for the long-awaited Crew Flight Test (CFT) to the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

As 2024’s launch cadence ramps up, SpaceX triumphantly closed out its first 14-mission month late Friday as a 14-times-used Falcon 9 booster roared uphill from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Veteran B1076—one of the earliest boosters to fly in 2024 and the first to reach a fifth launch since the start of the year—took flight at 10:37 p.m. EDT Friday and successfully lofted 23 Starlink internet communications satellites into low-Earth orbit.

Meanwhile, at the Cape’s neighboring SLC-41 teams from United Launch Alliance (ULA), Boeing and NASA are counting down to Saturday’s 12:25:40 p.m. EDT liftoff of a mighty Atlas V and the long-awaited Crew Flight Test (CFT) of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). Seasoned NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Suni Williams will fly CFT, spending about a week conducting critical flight test objectives aboard the sprawling orbital complex, before returning home to a parachute-and-airbag-aided landing in the southwestern United States.

Close-up view of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, atop the Atlas V. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Friday’s action closed out May as the first month for SpaceX to feature both 13 and 14 launches, as the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered organization continues to press forward with an aggressive campaign of flights from Florida and California, together with the impending Integrated Flight Test (IFT)-4 of a fully integrated Starship/Super Heavy stack out of Boca Chica, Texas, as soon as Wednesday, 5 June. With 57 Falcon 9 missions now “in the bag” since January, SpaceX is flying on average every 2.6 days and is well on track to exceeding an overall tally of 140 launches before the year’s end.

Sixteen reusable first-stage booster cores have contributed to 2024’s success, achieving SpaceX’s first ten-mission month in January, its first eleven- and twelve-mission month in March and now its first 13- and 14-mission month in May. This time last year, the organization passed a nine-launch month for the first time, an impressive indicator of its bullish progress to fly routinely and with regularity.

B1076 roars into the night on Friday to complete SpaceX’s 14th launch of May. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Since January, the fleet’s workload has been overwhelmingly dominated by SpaceX’s homegrown Starlink internet communications network, with over 900 of these flat-packed satellites emplaced into low-Earth orbit on 40 dedicated launches. Other missions included three large geostationary communications satellites for Sweden, Indonesia and Paris, France-headquartered Eutelsat, pairs of crewed and uncrewed missions to the International Space Station (ISS) and spacecraft to explore Earth’s oceans and atmospheric health and the potential habitability of the Moon

The raft of Falcon 9 missions in 2024’s opening half have been made possible by 16 first-stage boosters, including a pair of brand-new cores which came online in January and March. As well as increasing monthly launch totals, SpaceX flew four times out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., for the first time in January, then wrapped up its first five-launch West Coast month in May.

B1076 has now logged five missions since the beginning of January. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Other accomplishments included the fleet’s 300th Falcon 9 flight in February and its 300th safe landing of a booster in April. Three rockets triumphantly wrapped up record-breaking 20th launches for the first time in April and life-leader B1062 became the first booster to reach No. 21 just last month.

Early in March, SpaceX secured new records of less than two hours between pairs of missions and just 20 hours between a trio of launches. Added to that list, the organization conducted its first-ever “Leap Day Launch” on 29 February and flew Alper Gezeravcı, the first national space traveler from Türkiye on January’s privately-financed Ax-3 mission to the space station.

Spectacular streak view as B1076 climbs many miles high into Friday’s evening darkness. Photo Credit: SpaceX

May has proven a dramatic month, with 11 of its 14 launches devoted to Starlink and another—the NROL-146 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office—carrying the first dedicated batch of Starlink-based Starshield military satellites for communications, target tracking, optical and radio reconnaissance and missile early warning. Two other flights delivered the European Space Agency’s (ESA) EarthCARE mission to better comprehend the role of clouds and aerosols in reflecting incident solar radiation back into space and the inaugural pair of Maxar-built WorldView Legion geospatial imaging satellites.

Flying Friday’s mission was B1076, which has now flown five times in 2024 and was wrapping up her 14th overall flight since November 2022, when she lofted the CRS-26 Cargo Dragon for a six-week berth at the International Space Station (ISS). B1076 went on to log eight more launches in 2023, heaving 40 broadband satellites uphill for London, England’s OneWeb in the second week of January 2023, the heavyweight Intelsat 40e geostationary communications satellite—co-manifested with NASA’s Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO) payload—in early April, five batches of Starlinks in February, May, July, September and October and a pair of O3b mPOWER communications satellites in November.

B1076 first flew in November of 2022 on the CRS-26 Cargo Dragon mission. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Her 2024 campaign began with January’s launch of the Swedish Ovzon-3 geostationary broadband satellite and SpaceX’s first-ever “Leap Day” mission on 29 February. Most recently, she carried the 11,000-pound (5,000-kilogram) Eutelsat 36D geostationary communications satellite, built by Airbus Defence & Space for Direct-to-Home (DTH) television broadcasting and government services in March and an additional Starlink mission in late April.

Weather conditions for last night’s launch were ideal, with a 90-percent likelihood of acceptability at T-0, although SpaceX opted to fly at 10:37 p.m. EDT, right near the end of the “window”, citing a need “to allow recovery assets to get into final position”. And leading those assets was the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “A Shortfall of Gravitas”, which put to sea out of Port Canaveral last week and was positioned about 390 miles (630 kilometers) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

B1076 launches the Eutelsat 36D mission in March. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

B1076 sprang into the night to conclude SpaceX’s most banner month so far and returned less than nine minutes later for its 43rd droneship landing of 2024. An hour later, the 23 Starlinks were successfully deployed from the Falcon 9’s second stage, bringing to more than 900 the tally of these flat-packed satellites launched so far this year.

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. In the month of May alone, Starlink connectivity became available in Uruguay, Indonesia and Fiji, bringing to 78 the total number of sovereign nations or regions to be in full receipt of 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 May, Starlink reportedly had about three million registered subscribers or customers worldwide.

The Atlas V was returned from the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) to the pad on Thursday. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Attention now turns from SLC-40 to neighboring SLC-41, where the 172-foot-tall (52.4-meter) Atlas V booster was rolled out from the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) on Thursday for the long-awaited Crew Flight Test (CFT) of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner. Following a scrubbed launch attempt two hours prior to liftoff on 6 May—by which time Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Pilot Suni Williams were already aboard Starliner and pressing into pre-launch checkouts—teams stood down for what was hoped to be about a week to tend to a faulty oxygen relief valve on the second stage of the Atlas V.

That valve was promptly replaced and tested, with an expectation to fly as soon as 17 May, but in the meantime a small helium leak was detected in Starliner’s service module. Traced to a flange on a single reaction control system thruster, the issue caused the launch to move again to No Earlier Than (NET) 21 May, then no sooner than the 25th and eventually to the first day of June, with a targeted T-0 point at 12:25:40 p.m. EDT.

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

Teams and the Eastern Range are also primed to support a backup launch opportunity on Sunday, 2 June, after which they will stand down for another pair of launch attempts next Wednesday and Thursday, if needed. Shortly after last month’s scrub, Wilmore and Williams returned to NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, but were back on the Space Coast last week for their next opportunity to fly.

At the Delta-Agency Flight Test Readiness Review on Wednesday, ULA, Boeing and NASA personnel reviewed systems and facilities and on Thursday the giant Atlas V—flying in its unique “N22” configuration with Dual-Engine Centaur (DEC) and nicknamed “The Bodyguard” in honor of its crew-carrying credentials—was rolled from the 30-story VIF back out to SLC-41 for Round Two of launch preparations. At 1:05 a.m. EDT Saturday, countdown operations formally got underway for a midday launch.

The Atlas V N22 configuration, dedicated to crewed Starliner flights, boasts a Dual-Engine Centaur (DEC) upper stage and is nicknamed “The Bodyguard”. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

This weekend’s weather pledges 90-percent favorability, tempered by a slight risk of violating the Ground Winds Rule and Cumulus Cloud Rule. “A large area of high pressure, currently centered over the Ohio Valley region, should dominate Central Florida’s weather,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base in a Friday update.

“That high is expected to be near the North Carolina coast, bringing breezy, easterly winds and dry, stable air to the spaceport,” it added. “Weather is expected to be favorable, with winds and the Cumulus Cloud Rule being the primary concerns.”

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