SpaceX has set a new record for the heaviest payload launched on a Falcon 9 rocket in a routine Starlink satellite launch.
Simultaneously, the rocket responsible for setting this new record was launched with a reusable booster that was last spotted cling to life – heavily damaged engines – on the deck of a SpaceX drone eight months earlier. At the time, it was unclear whether the Falcon 9 booster – theoretically capable of sustaining at least 12 to 14 additional launches – would be able to recover from damage and fly again.
It is now clear that the booster suffered no major unseen damage, ultimately allowing SpaceX to complete repairs and return the rocket to service after a long delay.
According to spaceflight writer Alejandro Alcantarilla Romero, an additional cost – at a minimum – was a complete set of new Merlin 1D engines. Shortly after Falcon 9 B1069’s flawless launch and landing debut in December 2021, a robotic assistant known as Octagrabber most likely lost his grip on the booster while attempting to secure it. Likely already on the high seas, conditions prevented SpaceX workers from safely boarding the ship and manually securing the thruster, which was then free to slide on its tilting deck.
Alternatively, it is possible that Octagrabber managed to secure the booster but was then subjected to truly appalling sea conditions. Designed to passively hold boosters to the deck with its weight, even the tank-like robot couldn’t save a booster if a storm caught the drone off guard and the waves were high enough.
Either way, B1069 returned to port pressed against the deck lip of the Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) drone ship, leaning heavily to port. Worse still, each of its nine fragile Merlin 1D engine nozzles had been crushed like tinfoil against Octagrabber, damaging them far beyond repair. While it’s possible that SpaceX was or will be able to salvage parts from the original M1D engines from B1069 above their bell nozzles, it’s no surprise that the company had to replace those engines entirely. before the booster can fly again.
The damage suffered by B1069 during its first launch makes it even more impressive that SpaceX attempted to break Falcon 9’s payload record with its return to flight, suggesting the company was extremely confident in its repairs.
SpaceX confirmed that Falcon 9 broke the record with its launch of 54 Starlink V1.5 satellites at the end of its hosted webcast, revealing that the rocket launched 16.7 metric tons (~36,800 lbs) into orbit terrestrial low (LEO). The last confirmed registration — claimed by CEO Elon Musk — was 16.25 tons spread across 53 Starlink V1.5 satellites, which doesn’t fully match unless SpaceX adds several kilograms to the mass of each satellite between March and August 2022.
Assuming the two numbers are comparable, an improvement of around 3% is hardly a shocking or surprising step forward for SpaceX, a company renowned for its relentless iterative improvements. What’s impressive, however, is that SpaceX has pushed the envelope as Falcon 9 is fast approaching its 150th consecutive successful launch and is the only rocket currently certified to launch multiple NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. The fifth operational launch of NASA astronauts by SpaceX (Crew-5) is scheduled for October 3. If SpaceX pushing the envelope on Starlink 4-23 somehow caused the launch to fail, everything The Falcon 9 rockets would likely have been grounded for months, almost certainly delaying Crew-5 and throwing NASA’s ISS program into chaos.
Given the success and reliability of Falcon 9, it would be hard to blame SpaceX if it decided to freeze the program and avoid further modifications, even if those modifications might slightly improve the rocket’s performance. Instead, the company somehow manages to keep improving the Falcon 9’s performance without affecting its reliability or incurring the ire of its toughest US government customers. Even Falcon landings, once considered a failable secondary objective, did not suffer. Starlink 4-23 marked SpaceX’s 64th successful booster landing.
Until next time, SpaceX is planned to launch Starlink 3-4 at the earliest (NET) on August 31, Starlink 4-20 NET on September 4, and Starlink 4-2 NET on September 7.