On Sunday, a thrice-flown rocket took to the skies for the fourth time, lofting a Dragon spacecraft that will ferry a few tons of cargo toward the International Space Station.
This particular Falcon 9 rocket first stage had only made its first flight on May 30, with the historic launch of NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. Six months later, this booster, numbered B1058, was already making its fourth flight into space. A few minutes after launching, the first stage made a successful landing on a drone ship and will likely fly again early next year.
Sunday’s launch was the 24th successful one for SpaceX this year—including 23 orbital flights and a demonstration of Crew Dragon’s abort system back in January. And the company is not done, as it may launch two or possibly even three more missions this month. Next up for the Falcon 9 is the launch of a large satellite for Sirius XM to geostationary transfer orbit, possibly as early as Thursday.
The company has already smashed through its previous record of yearly launches, 21, set back in 2018. It is all the more remarkable that SpaceX has accomplished this during a pandemic, which halted launch activity for months in the European Union and India. The company’s closest competitors in the United States were Rocket Lab’s Electron booster (six launches so far, with an additional flight planned in December) and United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket (five launches, with no further 2020 missions planned).
Sunday’s CRS-21 supply mission for NASA also marked the completion of 100 successful missions for the Falcon 9 rocket, which made its debut in June 2010. With two more launches this year, SpaceX will have flown one-quarter of all its Falcon 9 flights in just this year.
SpaceX has been able to achieve this increased launch cadence thanks to a maturing design for its workhorse rocket. In May, 2018, the company flew the “Block 5” variant of its Falcon 9 rocket for the first time. This was the third major upgrade to the Falcon 9 rocket and built upon what SpaceX had learned from earlier versions of the Falcon 9 first stage. It was also optimized for reuse, both in terms of rapid turnaround times and durability.
In this, the Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9 rocket has done very well. The upgraded booster has flown 45 times since its first launch, all successful. SpaceX has recovered rockets and re-flown them within 50 days. And so far, it has been able to re-fly the same first stage as many as seven times. The company is likely to reach its goal of 10 flights for a single Falcon 9 first stage sometime next year.
Another factor in SpaceX’s increased cadence is the company’s need to get its Starlink satellites on orbit and deliver broadband Internet from space. Fourteen of this year’s Falcon 9 launches have lofted batches of 60 Starlink satellites or, in some cases, fewer, to accommodate rideshare payloads. We can probably expect at least as many Starlink launches in 2021.