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SpaceX private astronaut launch debut to reuse Crew-1 Dragon spacecraft

A former NASA astronaut now employed by Axiom Space says that SpaceX’s private astronaut launch debut will reuse the same Crew Dragon spacecraft currently supporting NASA’s Crew-1 mission in orbit.

Currently just a few weeks into a planned six-month stint in orbit, potentially marking the longest uninterrupted flight of an American spacecraft ever, Crew Dragon capsule C207 and an expendable trunk section arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) on November 16th. Known as Crew-1, the mission represents SpaceX and NASA’s commercial operational astronaut launch debut, carrying four astronauts to the ISS.

Crucially, the mission has been an almost flawless success so far and Falcon 9 has now completed four Crew Dragon launches without issue. On the Dragon side of things, the Crew-1 spacecraft performed a bit less perfectly than those tasked with flying Demo-1 and Demo-2, but SpaceX handled the minor issues that arose with the professionalism and composure of a team far more familiar with human spaceflight.

Early success aside, there is still some definite uncertainty ahead of Crew Dragon. While several Russian spacecraft have decades of experience spending at least several months at a time in orbit, a crewed US spacecraft has never spent more than 84 days in orbit. SpaceX itself actually beat out NASA to secure the second-place record with Crew Dragon’s 63-day Demo-2 astronaut launch debut, completed with a successful reentry and splashdown on August 2nd.

SpaceX recovery teams secure Crew Dragon capsule C206 and the two NASA astronauts contained within. (NASA)

However, Crew-1 is expected to more than double that previous US record and almost triple SpaceX’s own second-place record, spending roughly 180 days (six months, give or take) in orbit. Barring an unprecedented space station or spacecraft emergency, Crew Dragon C207 will undock from ISS, reenter Earth’s atmosphere, and splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean sometime in May 2021. Of course, as the first recoverable US spacecraft to spend anywhere close to that long in orbit, the Crew-1 Crew Dragon will be closely monitored to ensure the safety and reliability of its intricate reentry and recovery systems after some six months exposed to the extremes of space.

Still, success is by far the likeliest outcome. When Crew Dragon C207 splashes down, its four astronaut passengers will be carefully extricated and the inspection and refurbishment process will begin almost immediately thereafter. Crew-1 will technically be the second Crew Dragon spacecraft to be refurbished after an orbital spaceflight, following Demo-2 capsule C206’s inaugural Dragon 2 reuse perhaps just a month or two prior.

Demo-2 Dragon capsule C206 does its best impression of a toasted marshmallow after a flawless crewed launch debut and 63 days in orbit. (NASA)

The Demo-2 Crew Dragon capsule is currently scheduled to fly a second time as early as March 31st, 2021 on SpaceX’s Crew-2 mission, ferrying another four astronauts to the ISS. If successful, Crew-2 will represent the first commercial astronaut launch ever to reuse both an orbital-class rocket booster and an orbital spacecraft, and the NASA-overseen process of refurbishment and re-flight will thus pave the way for future flight-proven astronaut launches. That includes private company Axiom Space’s first private AX-1 astronaut launch, which is currently scheduled to launch as early as Q4 2021.

AX-1 will be captained by former NASA astronaut Mike Lopez-Algeria and carry three other private astronauts, including Israeli multimillionaire Eytan Stibbe. SpaceX will thus be tasked with launching Israel’s second astronaut ever after Ilan Ramon was killed when a heat shield design flaw caused NASA Space Shuttle Columbia to break up during reentry in 2003.

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SpaceX sets dates for Starship static fire, high-altitude launch debut

CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX is set to attempt one final Raptor engine static fire test before putting Starship through its high-altitude launch debut later this week.

Liable to begin as soon as November 30th per public road closure notices, Musk says that Starship serial number 8’s (SN8) launch debut – both Starship’s first fully-assembled flight test and first high-altitude launch attempt – is now scheduled no earlier than (NET) 8 am to 5 pm CST (UTC-6) on Wednesday, December 2nd.

November 30th will instead host what is believed to be a unique kind of static fire test for Starship SN8, hopefully proving that the rocket has a decent shot at surviving its risky launch debut.

As previously discussed on Teslarati, SpaceX’s Starship development strategy means that SN8’s survival is far less important than it may seem.

“On November 25th, Starship SN9 (featuring “small improvements”) was stacked to its full 50-meter (~165 ft) height. If SN8 is destroyed during testing, SN9 will likely be ready to roll to the launch site almost as soon as the dust settles.

Meanwhile, Starship SN10 is likely just 7-10 days away from a similar nosecone stacking milestone, and Starship SN11’s tank section is just one stack away from completion, likely putting it less than two weeks behind SN10. In other words, insofar as speed is a priority and each prototype is anywhere close to as cheap as Starship’s majority-steel bill of materials might suggest, SpaceX is building Starships so quickly that it almost doesn’t make sense to spend more than a few weeks working through bugs on any single suborbital ship.” — November 25th, 2020

In fact, delaying SN8’s launch to try to refine the rocket in situ and better ensure success could actually be to the detriment of successive prototypes and the Starship program in general. If, for example, a fundamental design flaw is revealed in Starship SN8 only after the prototype’s first test flight, SpaceX could be forced to scrap a huge amount of work done on as many as six, seven, eight, or even more subsequent prototypes. In that since, while it may seem like caution maximizes the value any single Starship prototype can provide SpaceX, that’s only true as long as the Starship design is mature enough that new fundamental flaws are unlikely to arise.

Given how young SpaceX’s agile Starship development program is, it would make very little sense to hinge months of work and more than half a dozen rocket prototypes on the quality and success of a less mature prototype unless all the vehicles in question are more or less identical final products. SN8 through SN15+ are certainly not final products in the sense that Starship is meant to be the largest reusable orbital spacecraft ever built.

As such, the Starship program is probably better off if SpaceX pushes vehicles to failure as quickly as reasonably possible. Having now spent more than two months at the launch pad while no less than three full-scale prototypes rapidly approach a similar level of completion, Starship SN8’s test flow is likely an overcorrection from a haphazardly rushed schedule to extreme caution.

Along those lines, SpaceX is now hopefully set on launching Starship SN8 within the near future. First, though, the company apparently plans to attempt another Raptor engine static fire test on Monday, November 30th. Scheduled between 7 am and 9 pm CST, the test has been described as a “handoff” static fire, referring to the process of switching each Raptor engine’s propellant feed from Starship’s main tank to much smaller ‘header’ tanks reserved for landings.

To land, Starship SN8 will need to successfully switch from main to secondary propellant tanks and ignite one, two, or all three Raptor engines multiple times in close proximity. (Elon Musk)
Starship SN5’s common methane and oxygen tank dome (and spherical methane header tank) is pictured here on May 1st. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

What exactly that handoff refers to is unclear. It could mean that SN8 will switch from main tanks to header tanks during a Raptor static fire test, though it’s unclear why that capability would be necessary unless Starship’s current header tank design is too small. “Handoff” could also refer to the process of switching between main and header tanks between Raptor operations – far more likely. In other words, Starship SN8’s Monday testing might involve two back-to-back static fires, performed with no human intervention. If successful, such a handoff static fire would simultaneously test Starship’s ability switch propellant sources and perform multiple Raptor engine ignitions – both necessary for a launch and landing.

Starship SN9 was stacked to its full height on November 25th and should be structurally complete in a matter of days. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Musk himself believes that Starship SN8 has a ~33% chance of successfully launching, reaching apogee, stably ‘skydiving’ ~14 km (~9 mi) back to Earth, reigniting Raptor engines, and landing in one piece. It’s unclear what will happen in the seemingly unlikely event that SN8 survives, but Starship SN9 is practically nipping at the relatively ancient prototype’s heels.

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SpaceX backup Starship reaches full height after nosecone installation

SpaceX has installed another Starship’s nosecone, all but completing the second full-size prototype a matter of days before the first fully-assembled Starship’s risky launch debut.

Over the last two months, SpaceX has effectively put Starship number 8 (SN8) through an almost nonstop series of tests, completing at least four separate cryogenic proof tests, four Raptor engine static fires, and much more. The company’s South Texas team have also dodged an array of technical bugs; installed, plumbed, and wired what amounts to ~40% of Starship (the nose section) while fully exposed to the coastal elements; and even narrowly avoided a potentially catastrophic failure.

In spite of the many hurdles thrown up and delays resultant, CEO Elon Musk announced earlier this week that Starship SN8 is scheduled to attempt its 15-kilometer (~50,000 ft) launch debut as early as Monday, November 30th. Musk, however, does not see success as the most probable outcome.

SpaceX has stacked Starship SN8’s backup – Starship SN9 – to its full height just days before the former rocket’s risky launch debut. The two main parts of SN9’s nosecone are pictured before assembly on November 20th. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Why, then, push to launch Starship SN8 when, in Musk’s own words, the probability of success is as low as “33%”? As previously discussed many times in the history of Teslarati’s BFR and Starship coverage, SpaceX’s attitude towards technology development is (unfortunately) relatively unique in the aerospace industry. While once a backbone of major parts of NASA’s Apollo Program moonshot, modern aerospace companies simply do not take risks, instead choosing a systems engineering methodology and waterfall-style development approach, attempting to understand and design out every single problem to ensure success on the first try.

The result: extremely predictable, conservative solutions that take huge sums of money and time to field but yield excellent reliability and all but guarantee moderate success. SpaceX, on the other hand, borrows from early US and German rocket groups and, more recently, software companies to end up with a development approach that prioritizes efficiency, speed, and extensive testing, forever pushing the envelope and thus continually improving whatever is built.

In the early stages of any program, the results of that approach can look extremely unusual and rudimentary without context (i.e. Starhopper, above), but building and testing a minimum viable product or prototype is a very intentional foundation. Particularly at the start, those minimal prototypes are extremely cheap and almost singularly focused on narrowing a vast range of design options to something more palatable. As those prototypes rapidly teach their builders what the right and wrong questions and design decisions are, more focused and refined prototypes are simultaneously built and tested.

Done well, the agile approach is often quite similar to evolution, where prototype failures inform necessary design changes and killing off dead-end strategies, designs, and assumptions before they can be built upon. In many cases, compared to cautious waterfall-style development, it will even produce results that are both better, cheaper, and faster to realize. SpaceX’s Starship program is perhaps the most visible example in history, made all the more interesting and controversial by the fact that it’s still somewhere in between its early, chaotic development phase and a clear path to a viable product.

On the build side of things, SpaceX has created a truly incredible ad hoc factory from next to nothing, succeeding to the point that the company is now arguably testing and pushing the envelope too slowly. As of November 2020, no fewer than eight full-size Starships and the first Super Heavy booster prototype are visibly under construction. Most recently, Starship SN9 was stacked to its full height, kicking off nosecone installation while still at the build site (unlike SN8). SN10’s completed tank section is likely ready to begin flap installation within the next few days, while Starship SN11 is perhaps a week or two behind that. Additionally, large tank sections of Starships SN12, SN13, SN14, SN15, and (most likely) SN16 are already completed and have all been spotted in the last few weeks.

Some ~90% of the above work was likely started after Starship SN8 first left the factory and rolled to the launch pad on September 26th. In many regards, SN8 has been the first to reach multiple major milestones, largely explaining the relatively plodding pace of its test program compared to SN4, SN5, and SN6.

SpaceX build technicians and engineers began installing Starship SN9’s nose section on November 24th and will likely be done by the end of the month. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Ultimately, SN9’s imminent completion – effectively a superior, more refined copy of SN8 – means that Starship SN8’s utility to SpaceX is rapidly deteriorating. The company would almost assuredly never skip an opportunity to learn, meaning that there’s no plausible future in which SN8 testing doesn’t continue, but that doesn’t mean that SpaceX can’t turn its risk tolerance to 11. In essence, accept a 67% (or higher) chance of Starship SN8’s violent destruction but learn as much as possible in the process. As long as good data is gathered, SN8’s launch debut will be a success for Starship whether the rocket lands in one or several pieces.

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SpaceX ‘go’ for 50,000-foot Starship launch debut after static fire, Elon Musk says

CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX’s first fully-assembled Starship prototype is on track for its 15-kilometer (~50,000 ft) launch debut after completing a second three-engine static fire test on Tuesday.

Starship serial number 8’s (SN8) three Raptor engines ignited for a few seconds around 5:30 pm CST (UTC-6) on Tuesday, November 24th, less than four hours before a record-breaking Falcon 9 rocket launched another batch of Starlink satellites roughly a thousand miles to the east. Perhaps briefly producing upwards of 600 metric tons (6000 kN/~1.3M lbf) of thrust, Starship SN8’s second triple-engine static fire was actually the first with that particular trio of engines.

Back on November 13th, an otherwise successful one or two-engine static fire nearly ended in catastrophe when the hypersonic Raptor exhaust kicked up blade-like debris that severed crucial control cables and triggered an apparent engine meltdown. Thanks to a “burst disk” failsafe, Starship SN8 – unable to actuate valves needed to depressurize – was saved from what could have been catastrophic damage. Believed to be SN32, the damaged Raptor was subsequently removed on November 14th and replaced with SN42 on November 16th.

As such, SN8’s November 24th static fire was the first with that particular set of three engines, although it was technically the rocket’s second three-engine test. SN42 now (hopefully) proven to be flight-ready, it remains to be seen if SpaceX will attempt more static fires before Musk’s promised 15 km launch debut.

As of November 25th, SpaceX still has a static fire backup window open open from 8 am to 5 pm CST, while Starship SN8’s launch road closures remain in effect from 7 am to 6 pm on November 30th with backups from 8 am to 5 pm on December 1st and 2nd.

Having now spent more than a month at the launch pad, it’s increasingly unlikely that SpaceX will continue to choose caution first for upcoming Starship SN8 tests. As Musk recently noted and easily visible from public roads, SpaceX’s Boca Chica factory is developing an extraordinary backlog of giant steel rockets. Just today, November 25th, Starship SN9 (featuring “small improvements”) was officially reached its full 50-meter (~165 ft) height after SpaceX kicked off nose section installation. In simpler terms, if SN8 is destroyed during testing, Starship SN9 will likely be ready to roll to the launch site almost as soon as the pad is clear.

Meanwhile, Starship SN10 is likely just 7-10 days away from a similar nosecone stacking milestone and Starship SN11’s tank section is just one stack away from completion, likely putting it less than two weeks behind SN10. In other words, insofar as speed is a priority and each prototype is anywhere close to as cheap as Starship’s majority-steel bill of materials, SpaceX is building the rockets so quickly that it almost doesn’t make sense to spend more than a few weeks working through any given ship’s bugs.

Starship SN15’s common tank dome was sleeved with three rings as recently as last week. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Musk also says that Starship SN15 will be the host of some mysterious “major upgrades”, likely implying some substantial manufacturing improvements and design refinements. Given that that large portions of Starship SN15 (and likely SN16, too) are already visibly in work in Boca Chica, it makes even less sense to spend outsized amounts of time on a much earlier prototype.

It doesn’t come as a huge surprise, then, that Musk has given SN8 – warts and all – a 33% chance of successfully launching, ‘skydiving’ back to Earth, reigniting one or more Raptors, and landing in one piece. The only real certainty is that regardless of the outcome, Starship’s high-altitude launch debut is guaranteed to be spectacular. Stay tuned for updates as we get closer to SpaceX’s November 30th target.

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SpaceX ready for Starship suborbital flight as FAA begins new environmental study

Boca Chica

WASHINGTON — As SpaceX prepares for the first high-altitude test flight of its Starship reusable launch vehicle, the Federal Aviation Administration is starting a new environmental review required for the company’s future launch vehicle plans.

SpaceX performed a brief static-fire test of its Starship SN8 prototype Nov. 24 at its Boca Chica, Texas, test site. After the test, company founder and chief executive declared on Twitter that the vehicle was now ready for a suborbital flight to an altitude of 15 kilometers.

“Good Starship SN8 static fire! Aiming for first 15km / ~50k ft altitude flight next week,” he tweeted. “Goals are to test 3 engine ascent, body flaps, transition from main to header tanks & landing flip.”

That flight will be the first time that a Starship vehicle has flown more than a short distance off the pad at Boca Chica. Two earlier Starship prototypes, SN5 and SN6, each performed brief “hop” tests to altitudes of no more than about 150 meters in August and September, respectively. An earlier prototype, dubbed “Starhopper,” made a similar flight in August 2019.

Musk admitted the upcoming flight was risky, giving it “maybe 1/3 chance” of being successful. However, he added, two more prototypes, SN9 and SN10, are in development.

While Starship will take off and land on its own, it is intended to be the upper stage of a launch system that features a much larger booster called Super Heavy that SpaceX is also developing at Boca Chica. However, before Super Heavy can launch from the site, SpaceX needs a new launch license from the FAA.

As part of that launch licensing effort, the FAA announced Nov. 23 that it was undertaking an environmental review of Starship/Super Heavy launches from Boca Chica. The agency said that the new vehicle “falls outside of the scope of the existing final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Record of Decision for the launch site and requires additional environmental review” under federal law.

FAA completed an EIS for the Boca Chica site in June 2014 when SpaceX was proposing to build a launch site there for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Instead, the company decided to use Boca Chica as a test site, and ultimately launch site, for what would become the Starship system.

Environmental organizations criticized the FAA for allowing SpaceX to change its plans for Boca Chica without revising the EIS. “They went from proposing a few launches per year of an already field-tested rocket to ongoing experimentation of untested technology without doing the studies that would ensure environmental protection and public safety and without giving the local community a chance to have a say,” said Jim Chapman, president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a local environmental group.

Chapman spoke in June, shortly after another Starship prototype, SN4, exploded after a static-fire test. Three other Starship prototypes were destroyed in earlier pressurization tests dating back to November 2019.

The FAA, though, determined that Starship tests, including suborbital flights, fit within the scope of the EIS based on characteristics like noise levels and amount of pollutants generated. A June 12 report by the FAA, a revision to earlier updates of the original 2014 EIS, concluded that the Starship test plan, including 15 low- and high-altitude hop tests, “conforms to the prior environmental documentation, [and] that the data contained in the 2014 EIS remain substantially valid.” It also endorsed a SpaceX proposal to build a second test pad at the site “in the case of an anomaly on the primary test pad.”

A new environmental assessment, including potentially a new full-fledged EIS, could take significant time to complete. The original EIS for Boca Chica started with a notice of intent to develop the study in April 2012, followed by publication of a draft version a year later for public comment. The FAA published the final version more than a year after the draft report.


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SpaceX sets new Falcon 9 reuse milestone on Starlink launch

Starlink launch

WASHINGTON — SpaceX set a new milestone in Falcon 9 reuse with the latest Starlink satellite launch Nov. 24 as the company seeks permission to deploy Starlink satellites into a new orbit.

The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:13 p.m. Eastern. The rocket’s upper stage released its payload of 60 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit about 15 minutes later.

The rocket’s first stage landed on a droneship in the Atlantic, completing its record-setting seventh launch. The stage first flew in September 2018 launching the Telstar 18 Vantage satellite, followed by the final Iridium mission in January 2019. The rocket then launched four Starlink missions starting in May 2019, most recently Aug. 18.

The launch was also the 100th overall for the Falcon 9, a total that includes a June 2015 launch failure but not the destruction of another on the pad during preparations for a static-fire test in September 2016.

SpaceX has now launched 955 Starlink satellites, of which 895 are in orbit. The company has started a beta test of the broadband internet service provided by those satellites in the northern U.S. and southern Canada. During the webcast of this launch, the company said it would expand that beta test “in a notable way” in late January or early February.

To date SpaceX has launched Starlink satellites into orbits at an inclination of 53 degrees, maximizing coverage over mid-latitude regions but excluding higher latitudes, including Alaska, northern Canada and northern Europe. The company’s original authorization from the Federal Communications Commission called for other satellites at higher orbits and inclinations, but the company filed a proposed modification in April that would lower all the satellites into orbits between 540 and 570 kilometers, including those in high-inclination orbits.

In a Nov. 17 filing with the FCC, SpaceX sought permission to start launching satellites into sun-synchronous orbit. It requested permission to launch 58 satellites into one of six orbital planes at an inclination of 97.6 degrees as soon as December, arguing that doing so would allow the company to begin to provide broadband service in rural Alaska.

“SpaceX submits this request now because it has an opportunity for a polar launch in December that could be used to initiate its service to some of the most remote regions of the country,” the company stated in the filing, arguing that “launching to polar orbits will enable SpaceX to bring the same high-quality broadband service to the most remote areas of Alaska that other Americans have come to depend upon, especially as the pandemic limits opportunities for in-person contact.”

The company didn’t elaborate on the details of this launch opportunity, but claimed that its request was justified because it had resolved a concern with Amazon about a potential conflict with that company’s proposed Project Kuiper constellation. SpaceX agreed to tighten the orbital tolerances on the Starlink satellites at 570 kilometers such that they would not fly higher than 580 kilometers, avoiding Kuiper satellites at 590 kilometers.

Another satellite operator, though, objected to SpaceX’s proposal. “But commercial expediency is hardly a valid reason for the Commission to bypass the requirements of the Communications Act and grant an application prematurely, in the face of significant doubts as to whether SpaceX has met the public interest standard,” countered Viasat in a Nov. 19 FCC filing.

Viasat, which has criticized the reliability of Starlink satellites in earlier filings, again raised concerns about premature failures of Starlink satellites. It noted there was no evidence the December launch opportunity was the only one for those satellites, particularly since SpaceX controls the launches.

“The Commission should balk at SpaceX’s request to provide it with additional authority that it does not yet need when doing so could endanger orbital safety,” it stated. The FCC has yet to act on SpaceX’s request for the polar launch.


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A SpaceX rocket just aced its seventh launch and landing for the first time

For the first time ever, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster has successfully completed seven orbital-class launches and landings, leaving the company as few as three flights away from achieving its longstanding reusability goal.

Ending two days of “mission assurance” and weather-related delays, Falcon 9 booster B1049.6, a new expendable upper stage (S2), two flight-proven fairing halves, and 60 Starlink v1.0 satellites lifted off at 9:13 pm EST on November 24th. As usual, the rocket appeared to perform flawlessly, sailing through main engine cut-off (MECO), second stage start (SES), and first stage reentry and landing. Falcon 9 successfully touched down on drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) around 8.5 minutes after liftoff, officially making booster B1049 the first to complete (and survive) seven orbital-class launches.

For SpaceX, the success means that the company now has a new rocket booster “fleet leader,” referring to the fact that B1049.7 will now serve as a reference point and treasure trove of data for other SpaceX rockets pushing towards the same reusability milestone. Reuse record aside, SpaceX’s flawless Starlink-15 launch also pushed the company passed an arguably equally – if not more – important operational milestone.

A Falcon 9 booster has completed seven orbital-class launches and landings for the first time ever, leaving SpaceX 70% of the way to its ambitious ten-flight reusability goal. (SpaceX)
Some extreme winds just minutes before launch thankfully subsided and didn’t stop Falcon 9 from completing its Starlink-15 mission. (SpaceX)

Specifically, November 2020 is now SpaceX’s first four-launch month ever, handing Falcon 9 an achievement that only a few rockets in history can lay claim to. Crucially, extrapolated out to a full calendar year, achieving four orbital launches in one month directly implies that SpaceX is well within reach of an annual cadence of 40 launches or more.

Coming just ~6 weeks after CEO Elon Musk revealed an ambitious target of 48 launches in 2021, SpaceX has certainly delivered its first four-launch month at the best possible time. Even if four-launch months are not immediately sustainable, the achievement brings significant confidence that SpaceX will be able to crush its already record-breaking 2020 launch cadence next year.

Falcon 9 B1049.6, a new upper stage, and 60 Starlink-15 satellites stand vertical at SpaceX’s CCAFS LC-40 launch pad on November 20th. (Richard Angle)
Four days later, B1049.6 streaks towards orbit on its seventh orbital-class launch. (Richard Angle)

Technically, Starlink-15’s completion means that SpaceX has actually managed 4 launches in 19 days and 7 launches in the last ~50 days, representing an average of one launch every 4.75-7 days. Extrapolated over a full year, SpaceX has effectively demonstrated that its Falcon 9 infrastructure is already capable of achieving an annual cadence of 50-75 launches even if several technical bugs or weather delays arise every month.

Reusability is as essential as ever for SpaceX’s extremely ambitious launch cadence targets. The introduction of three new Falcon 9 boosters in just the last three weeks will almost certainly provide some relief to SpaceX’s hardworking rocket fleet while also offering even more capacity to strive towards an annual average of four or more launches per month. B1049 effectively opening up a new tier of reusability and taking SpaceX just three steps away from its original ten-flight reusability goal also serves as a force multiplier for the fleet, adding at least another seven launches of capacity.

Since this graphic was created in late-September, SpaceX has launched another four Starlink missions for a total of 16. (SpaceX/Richard Angle)

Now eight boosters strong, SpaceX’s flight-proven Falcon 9 fleet could theoretically support a rough average of one launch per week, though the flight rate of three boosters (B1061, B1062, and B1063) will be somewhat handicapped due to their recent assignments to several major NASA and US military launches. Ultimately, while SpaceX has a plenty of work left in front of it, the company is well on its way to becoming the world’s most prolific and experienced launch provider by a healthy margin.

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Starlink competitor Xfinity launches data caps, which SpaceX says it will not use

SpaceX’s Starlink project has a series of main competitors in the internet market, one of the largest being Comcast’s Xfinity. The Philadelphia-based Comcast recently announced that twelve U.S. states would be subjected to data caps in 2021, or limits on the amount of data one household will have access to before being charged extra fees. Statements from the company have described anything over 1.2 terabytes of data usage accessible with additional fees of $10 per extra 50 GB.

The extra charges for additional data usage are somewhat staggering, considering many households’ current economic situation and the fact that local governments are advising many residents to remain indoors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This leaves many people at home for work and leisure, with the internet being one of the few constants that remain in everyday life. While cellular devices are usually connected to residential Wi-Fi, other devices, such as smart TVs and streaming devices, are constantly connected to at-home networks, leaving the amount of data being used on a constant rise.

But surprisingly, this fact is not recognized by Comcast, nor is it stopping them from implementing the data caps in the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia, as well as parts of North Carolina and Ohio, The Verge originally reported.

In fact, it could be a way to combat customers from leaving Comcast’s television subscription services in favor of more affordable and flexible streaming options that are offered by platforms like Hulu and YouTube. The streaming services operate through a streaming device, like an Apple TV or Roku device, and use data to operate. This all contributes to a house’s data usage, and because of its ability to broadcast live television programs, it will use a substantial amount of internet data over the course of the month.

Comcast says that its average customer uses 308GB per month and that 95 percent of its customers do not get close to using the 1.2 TB threshold. But no statistic measures the data used in homes with more than one internet user or outlines the number of devices used in a home. With more people teleworking and having to rely on the home internet for productivity, the data usage is likely higher than normal.

All of these scenarios bode well for Elon Musk’s Starlink internet satellite program, which is currently operating in the Beta stage. Interestingly, Starlink Engineers performed an Ask Me Anything session on the r/Starlink subreddit and revealed that the satellite internet infrastructure would not use data caps when it enters public operation. The company intends to keep the service free of caps and added that it would only be implemented if technically necessary.

The company wrote:

“So we really don’t want to implement restrictive data caps like people have encountered with satellite internet in the past. Right now we’re still trying to figure a lot of stuff out–we might have to do something in the future to prevent abuse and just ensure that everyone else gets quality service.”

SpaceX’s intention with Starlink was to provide internet service to rural and remote areas. But now that the service is being launched and tested in high population areas like Los Angeles, it is obvious that Starlink will aim to serve every human being on Earth. As long as data caps continue to remain out of Starlink’s plans, there is a good chance that many customers of large Internet Service Providers will switch over to the more affordable and more forgiving Starlink service.

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SpaceX to attempt same-day Starship static fire, Starlink launch [livestream]

SpaceX is in the process of attempting static-fire the first fully-assembled Starship prototype as few as four hours before a Falcon 9 rocket’s schedule Starlink launch.

After SpaceX decided to scrub a November 22nd launch attempt for vague “additional mission assurance” and preempted a November 23rd backup to wait for better Atlantic Ocean recovery weather, Starlink V1.0 Flight 15 (Starlink-15) is now scheduled to launch no earlier than (NET) 9:13 pm EST (02:13 UTC), November 24th.

Simultaneously, SpaceX is three hours into a five-hour window for Starship serial number 8’s (SN8) second triple-Raptor static fire attempt, believed to be one of the last tests required before the massive steel rocket is considered ready for its 15 km (~9.5 mi) launch debut.

Starlink-15’s November 22nd launch attempt was unfortunately called off shortly before propellant loading was scheduled to begin. A backup window on November 23rd included a high risk of recovery weather violations, likely causing SpaceX to delay to November 24th, where weather forecasts are currently 80% go with a moderate (down from “high”) risk of unfavorable recovery weather.

After Crew-1 Falcon 9 booster B1061 was seemingly almost knocked off of its drone ship by a large swell around November 15th, it’s not a huge surprise that SpaceX is being a bit more cautious about recovery weather on its next launch.

Only three of B1061’s four landing legs were actually in contact with the drone ship deck when the pair arrived back at Port Canaveral. (Richard Angle)

While B1061 was exceptionally important due to the fact that it’s scheduled to become the first commercial reusable rocket to launch astronauts early next year, Starlink-15 Falcon 9 booster B1049 is still important in its own right, as the mission will be its seventh launch – a first for SpaceX. In the company’s own words, B1049 will become the Falcon booster flight leader, adding significant importance to its successful landing and recovery.

As usual, SpaceX will host an official Starlink-15 launch webcast, beginning around 9 pm EST (02:00 UTC) if the mission remains on track.

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SpaceX’s most important Falcon 9 booster yet returns to port with a lean

On November 19th, what is likely SpaceX’s most important Falcon 9 booster yet returned to Port Canaveral with a surprise – perhaps the most dramatic lean ever observed on one of the recovered rockets.

Tilted a solid 10+ degrees from vertical, the lean was immediately visible as soon as the top of the rocket crest the horizon, and it later became clear that one of Falcon 9 booster B1061’s four landing legs had no contact at all with drone ship Just Read The Instruction’s (JRTI) deck. Four days prior, Falcon 9 (and B1061) became the first commercially-developed rocket in history to be certified to launch NASA astronauts, a feat it pulled off flawlessly. Crew Dragon safely delivered four astronauts to the International Space Station on November 16th, marking the culmination of more than half a decade of (mostly) uninterrupted work.

Even before Crew Dragon and Falcon 9’s momentous Crew-1 launch, though, NASA had already revealed some details that would make parts of Crew-1 even more important and the follow-up Crew-2 launch – scheduled as early as March 2021 – perhaps the most significant mission in SpaceX’s history.

Both Crew-1 Falcon 9 B1061 and a separate Falcon 9 rocket (B1049; Starlink-15) were graced with spectacular rainbows on November 20th. (Richard Angle)

In short, less than a month after SpaceX’s equally flawless Crew Dragon Demo-2 astronaut launch debut, NASA contract modifications revealed that the company had permitted SpaceX to reuse both Dragon capsules and Falcon 9 boosters on upcoming astronaut launches.

“In a wholly unexpected turn of events, a modification to SpaceX’s ~$3.1 billion NASA Commercial Crew Program (CCP) contract was spotted on June 3rd. Without leaving much room for interpretation, the contract tweak states that SpaceX is now “[allowed to reuse] the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Crew Dragon spacecraft beginning with” its second operational astronaut launch, known as Post Certification Mission-2 (PCM-2) or Crew-2.” — June 9th, 2020

Crew Dragon capsule C206 spent a bit less than three months at the ISS before safely returning two NASA astronauts to Earth in early August. (NASA)

A few short months after that discovery, NASA itself specifically announced that it had given SpaceX the go-ahead to reuse Demo-2 Crew Dragon capsule C206 and Crew-1 Falcon 9 booster B1061 on Crew-2, the company’s second operational astronaut launch. Scheduled no earlier than March 31st, 2021, Crew-2 will most likely launch before the Crew-1 Crew Dragon departs the space station and returns its four crew members to Earth, a milestone expected sometime in April.

For almost anyone who has followed NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and its attitude towards SpaceX’s reusability efforts from the beginning, the space agency’s rapid willingness to trust its most important cargo – humans – to flight-proven Dragons and Falcon 9 boosters came as a huge surprise. If SpaceX is able to reuse both capsule C206 and booster B1061 as planned, Crew-2 will without a doubt be the most significant milestone in commercial spaceflight history, simultaneously proving that astronauts can be safely launched on commercial flight-proven rockets and spacecraft.

Falcon 9 B1061 recovery operations – and drone ship JRTI’s Octagrabber – are pictured on November 19th and 20th. (Richard Angle)

Of course, while Demo-2 Crew Dragon capsule C206 may have already been successfully recovered, SpaceX still had to land Falcon 9 booster B1061 and safely return it to port after Crew-1 before it could consider reusing it on Crew-2. Based on the rocket’s appearance upon its arrival at Port Canaveral, B1061 had an extremely close call. With what can be intuited from observation alone, it appears that sometime after B1061 landed and before the drone ship’s tank-like ‘Octagrabber’ robot could secure the booster, a stray swell or sudden burst of high seas must have bucked Just Read The Instructions about, causing B1061 to slide around on the slippery deck.

That would explain why the Falcon 9 first stage arrived in port on one of the far corners of drone ship JRTI – also sign that B1061 likely hit the yellow barrier included specifically to prevent boosters from sliding off drone ship decks. At the same time, B1061 must have had a moderately rough landing, causing at least one of its four legs to expend a large portion of a single-use shock absorber called a “crush core,” leaving the booster sitting at an angle. Based on photos of the arrival, that tilt likely left JRTI’s Octagrabber unable to latch onto all four of Falcon 9’s hold-down clamps, forcing recovery technicians to improvise and manually chain the rocket to the deck where the robotic solution fell short.

Despite the lean, B1061 was lifted onto land for leg retraction without issue around 24 hours after arriving in port. (Richard Angle)

Thankfully, the SpaceX recovery team’s apparent heroics and luck proved to be enough and the sturdy Falcon 9 booster was returned to dry land without issue, lifted off of JRTI’s deck around 24 hours after arriving in port. Based on photos of the crush cores at the bottom tip of each leg, B1061’s rough landing and eventful journey was fairly mild as far as they come and, as CEO Elon Musk notes, crush core replacement is likely all that’s needed to make the rocket good as new.

Had B1061 been lost at sea, Crew-2 would have almost certainly been delayed to give SpaceX enough time to come up with an entirely new Falcon 9 first stage. Luckily for SpaceX, that didn’t happen and the company’s plans to launch astronauts on the flight-proven booster are still in play.

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