A local resident spotted a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster heading west out of Florida, likely bound for the company’s SLC-4E Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) launch pad and second California launch of 2019.
Barring a surprise reassignment, the booster Joshuah Murrah caught is Falcon 9 B1051, on its way west some 50 days after successfully supporting Crew Dragon’s March 2nd launch debut. Despite the availability of B1046, B1047, and B1049, B1051 was assigned to the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) shortly after landing aboard OCISLY, triggering major launch delays. The most logical explanation for customer CSA’s and satellite contractor Maxar Technologies’ curious decision is that they must believe that Falcon 9 Block 5 boosters with more than one launch in their past add more risk than those that do not.
According to an April 16th update from CSA, RCM’s launch was scheduled for no earlier than (NET) late May or early June, although word on the ground is that mid-to-late June is now a more likely target. Contrary to rumors of delays, B1051’s shipment west indicates that SpaceX has more or less completed the booster’s refurbishment, likely the easiest Falcon 9 Block 5 refurbishment yet thanks to its relatively slow and cool reentry after launching Crew Dragon.
B1051 returned to Pad 39A’s integration hangar around March 7th, where it spent approximately 50 days being inspected, refurbished, and prepared for cross-country transport. The booster departed Florida on April 26th and will likely arrive at VAFB around May 2nd. Even assuming a slow trip west and buggy preflight preparations, Falcon 9 should theoretically be ready to launch RCM no later than the third or fourth week of May, barring issues or production delays with the mission’s fairing or Falcon upper stage.
Given that Maxar/CSA chose B1051 at a cost of months of launch delays, they may have needs that far outstretch the normal demands of SpaceX’s private (non-government) customers, not out of the question given that CSA is a national space agency and RCM is a high-value (~$1B) science mission. Short of flying on a new Falcon 9 booster, B1051 does theoretically seem to offer the least risk of failure insofar as one can claim that boosters that have completed more launches are more likely to fail.
SpaceX would likely vehemently deny such a claim given their position that highly reusable rockets – much like aircraft – will actually become more reliable and trustworthy the more they launch. Both positions make sense in theory but theory falls flat in the face of actual data, of which only SpaceX and certain customers have access to.
As an external observer, the best data available is a binary public record of Falcon 9 launch success, as well as the degree to which missions are delayed beyond their scheduled launch targets. Falcon 9 Block 5 boosters have launched 16 times in 11 months, six of which used a flight-proven first stage. Flight-proven boosters appear to be a bit more finicky than unflown rockets in terms of late-stage launch delays, but the data is inconsistent and the sample size statistically insignificant. More generally, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy have launched 72 times in nine years and suffered two total failures, both caused by unflown upper stages. In 72 launches, including 20 missions with flight-proven boosters, a Falcon 9/Heavy first stage has never caused a total mission failure.
In short, it’s impossible to intuit any clear performance or reliability advantage without the sort of granular per-mission data that only SpaceX and privileged customers have access to. In general, Falcon 9 – reused or not – has consecutively completed 41 successful launches since its second and last mission failure in September 2016, half (49%) of which used flight-proven boosters. Of course, customers have every right to their own standards and expectations of quality and risk-reduction, but Falcon 9’s performance largely speaks for itself at this point – anything beyond its default record of mission assurance is just icing on the proverbial spaceflight cake.
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Author: Eric Ralph