August 10, 2022

After a dazzling evening launch, SpaceX going for Falcon 9 doubleheader

After a dazzling evening launch, SpaceX going for Falcon 9 doubleheader
After a dazzling evening launch, SpaceX going for Falcon 9 doubleheaderAfter a dazzling evening launch, SpaceX going for Falcon 9 doubleheader

For a few days there, it sure seemed like a previously flown Falcon 9 rocket carrying a satellite for the Italian air force would never get off the ground from Florida.

On January 27 and 28, poor weather scrubbed the rocket’s launch during the countdown. On January 29, foul weather precluded pre-launch activities from taking place. Finally, the skies cleared on Sunday, January 30. But there was another issue—Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas cruise ship had moved into the marine exclusion zone beneath the Falcon 9 rocket’s flight path.

Harmony of the Seas thereby caused discord on land as SpaceX had to scrub the launch of the COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation at T-33 seconds. Weather was good again on Monday evening, and this time, there were no wayward cruise ships to scuttle the flight. Instead, there was harmony on the launch pad, harmony on the seas, and ultimately harmony in space as the Italian satellite successfully made it to orbit.

The launch occurred near sunset in Florida, and it afforded spectacular views of liftoff, ascent, and a return to a land-based landing site. Also, SpaceX’s ground-tracking cameras delivered unprecedented shots of the first and second stage separating a couple of minutes after launch (see this sequence in the video below). It was spectacular to see the second stage pull away and its Merlin vacuum engine light as the first stage flipped away.

[embedded content]
Ground-track camera views of Falcon 9 stage separation.

SpaceX has now launched four Falcon 9 rockets in 2022, and it plans to further increase this cadence. The company has two launches planned for Wednesday, February 2. If the current schedule holds, two Falcon 9 rockets will launch within 93 minutes of one another.

First up is a launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. There, a brand-new Falcon 9 first stage will loft a classified mission for the National Reconnaissance Office dubbed NROL-87. Liftoff is scheduled for 20:18 UTC. Then, at 21:51 UTC, a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage will launch a Starlink mission for SpaceX from Kennedy Space Center.

If this happens, it would break SpaceX’s previous record of two launches within 15 hours, set only recently, in December 2021. It would also mean that SpaceX successfully launched three rockets in less than three days, which is about its maximum cadence given that the company presently has three orbit-capable launch pads—two in Florida and one in California.

All of this suggests that SpaceX is becoming extremely proficient and efficient at launching the Falcon 9 rocket. Over the weekend, SpaceX worked through four scrubs for non-technical reasons, each with only a 24-hour recycle in between, and the company is now ready to launch two more rockets two days later.

This bodes well for future operations. Should the company succeed in developing its Starship rocket, this vehicle will need to be fueled by multiple propellant-carrying launches for interplanetary missions. That SpaceX has been able to work up to an impressive cadence with the Falcon 9 rocket indicates that such activities with Starship need not necessarily be immensely complex and high-risk.

Listing image by SpaceX