SpaceX completed its 21st Falcon 9 launch of 2022, continuing an impressive average cadence of more than one launch per week.
After an unexplained 40-minute delay from 6:20 a.m. EDT, the former Falcon Heavy B1052 booster blasted off from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A shortly after sunrise at 6:59 a.m. EDT (10:59 UTC) on Wednesday May 18. With its second batch of Starlink satellites on their third mission as Falcon 9 boosters and fifth launch overall, Falcon B1052 performed flawlessly, safely transporting a repurposed Falcon fairing, disposable upper stage and a stack of 53 Starlink satellites the most of the free path on Earth. atmosphere.
B1052 then broke up and returned to Earth while Falcon 9’s upper stage continued in orbit. About nine minutes after liftoff, the booster touched down on the A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG) unmanned spacecraft and the upper stage reached a safe parking orbit, marking the premature end of SpaceX’s official webcast. The deployment of the Starlink satellite, usually 20 to 60 minutes after liftoff, now occurs off-camera, with only a mild vocal confirmation and tweet from SpaceX verifying the most important part of each mission.
Looking beyond the boundaries of calendar years, Starlink 4-18 is SpaceX’s 28th successful launch since November 11, 2021, a period of six months and seven days or 27 weeks. In other words, SpaceX is already more than halfway to demonstrating a sustained cadence of one launch per week for a full 12 months, leaving little doubt that the company has the ability to achieve CEO Elon Musk’s lesser goal. of 52 launches by 2022. The company’s launch teams, processing facilities, launch pads, production, and fleets of reusable boosters and fairings have proven fully capable.
The only remaining uncertainty comes from reliability and unknown unknowns. Even the most reliable rocket in the world is a highly complex system that can still fail in thousands of unique ways. After an impressive run of 130 consecutive successful launch campaigns, Falcon 9 is by some measures the most reliable launch vehicle still in operation. However, already in June 2022, Falcon 9 will have the opportunity to set the record for the most consecutive successes of any rocket in history when it attempts to launch without failure for the 134th time in a row. For now, Russia’s R-7 or Soyuz family of rockets, which have been launched nearly 2,000 times since 1966, hold the current record of 133 successes in a row. Technically, if Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are considered to be part of the same family, R-7/Soyuz and Falcon are now tied for records of 133 consecutive hits.
However, the differences between Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy far outweigh the relatively minor differences between the many slight variations of R-7/Soyuz. Given that the variants of the Falcon 9 rockets that began SpaceX’s current run of success in January 2017 were significantly different than those flying today, the entire R-7/Soyuz and Falcon 9 family are more straightforward and fairly comparable than expected. what they might initially seem like.
Regardless, SpaceX will have accomplished an extraordinary feat if Falcon 9 completes its 134th successful launch in a row sometime next month. But at the same time, the R-7’s record 133 launches serve as a reminder that, at one point in history, an entirely different family of rockets averaging more than one launch per week for nearly a decade was still failing after launch. 133 successful launches. Modern airliners serve as another good reminder of the inherent instability of complex man-made mechanisms: even though they are statistically one of the safest forms of public transportation humans have ever created, they still occasionally crash.
To assume that such a system has become immune to failure after a string of successes is tempting fate. However, with the caveat that there are no guarantees, SpaceX’s performance over the past five years significantly increases confidence in the company’s ability to continue executing and completing orbital launches at a rapid pace through 2022 (and beyond) without fail.
Beyond Starlink 4-18, SpaceX is scheduled to launch its own Transporter-5 rideshare mission on May 25, Cargo Dragon’s CRS-25 space station supply mission on June 7, communications satellite Egypt’s Nilesat-301 on June 10 and several other unspecified commercial launches and Starlink missions in June and July.