SpaceX has 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 am EDT, former Falcon Heavy booster B1052 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A shortly after sunrise at 6:59 am EDT (10:59 UTC) on Wednesday, May 18th. Carrying its second batch of Starlink satellites on its third mission as a Falcon 9 boosters and fifth launch overall, Falcon B1052 performed flawlessly, safely carrying a reused Falcon fairing, expendable upper stage, and stack of 53 Starlink satellites most of the way free of Earth’s atmosphere.
B1052 then separated and coasted back to Earth as Falcon 9’s upper stage continued to orbit. About nine minutes after liftoff, the booster touched down on drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG) and the upper stage reached a safe parking orbit, marking the premature end of SpaceX’s official webcast. Starlink satellite deployment – typically anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes after liftoff – now occurs off-camera, with only a slight vocal confirmation and a tweet from SpaceX to verify the most important part of each mission.
Looking beyond the bounds of calendar years, Starlink 4-18 is SpaceX’s 28th successful launch since November 11th, 2021 – a period of six months and seven days or 27 weeks. In other words, SpaceX is already more than half of the way to demonstrating a sustained cadence of one launch per week over a full 12 months, leaving little doubt that the company has the ability to achieve CEO Elon Musk’s lesser goal of 52 launches in 2022. The company’s launch teams, processing facilities, launch pads, Falcon production, and fleets of reusable boosters and fairings have proven themselves fully capable.
The only remaining uncertainty stems 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 streak of 130 consecutively successful launch campaigns, Falcon 9 is by some measures the most reliable launch vehicle still in operation. As early as June 2022, however, Falcon 9 will have an opportunity to set the record for most consecutive successes of any rocket in history when it attempts to launch without fail for the 134th time in a row. For now, Russia’s R-7 or Soyuz family of rockets – which have launched close to 2000 times since 1966 – hold the current record of 133 consecutive successes. Technically, if one considers Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy part of the same family, R-7/Soyuz and Falcon are now tied with records of 133 consecutive successes.
However, the differences between Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy far exceed the relatively small differences between the many slight R-7/Soyuz variations. Given that the variants of Falcon 9 rockets that began SpaceX’s current streak of success in January 2017 were significantly different than those flying today, the full R-7/Soyuz family and Falcon 9 are more directly and fairly comparable than they might initially appear.
Regardless, SpaceX will have accomplished an extraordinary feat if Falcon 9 does complete its 134th successful launch in a row sometime next month. But simultaneously, R-7’s 133-launch record serves as a reminder that at one point in history, an entirely different rocket family that had been averaging more than one launch per week for almost a decade still failed after 133 successful launches. Modern airliners serve as another good reminder of the inherent instability of complex artificial mechanisms: even though they are statistically one of the safest forms of mass transit humans have ever created, they still occasionally crash.
To assume any such system has become immune to failure after a number of successes is to tempt fate. Nonetheless, with the qualification that there are no guarantees, SpaceX’s performance over the last five years significantly raises confidence in the company’s ability to continue executing and completing orbital launches at a rapid pace throughout 2022 (and beyond) without failure.
Beyond Starlink 4-18, SpaceX is scheduled to launch its own Transporter-5 rideshare mission as early as May 25th, Cargo Dragon’s CRS-25 space station supply mission on June 7th, Egypt’s Nilesat-301 communications satellite on June 10th, and a number of other unspecified commercial launches and Starlink missions in June and July.