SpaceX ships 200th Falcon second stage, highlighting the downside of booster reuse
SpaceX has built and shipped its 200th Falcon second stage, highlighting the rocket’s often underrated performance on the ground and in flight.
About 13 years ago, in late 2009 or early 2010, SpaceX shipped the first airworthy prototype of the first iteration of its second stage Falcon 9. In June 2010, Falcon 9 launched its inaugural test flight and successfully launched a standard model of the second stage using that second stage. a Dragon spacecraft in orbit. Since Falcon 9’s surprising initial success, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have been launched an additional 187 times for a total of 188 launches and 189 rockets assembled. Each of those launches required a new second stage, and all but one (Crew Dragon’s In-Flight Abort test) required a new Merlin vacuum engine.
While SpaceX is best known for successfully realizing rapidly reusable Falcon boosters, the company’s overall success is also inextricably linked to Falcon’s second stages, which are and are always consumed after each launch. For every spectacular Falcon booster landing or reuse record, a second Falcon stage burns unceremoniously in Earth’s atmosphere or gets stuck in orbit. As a result, while the reusability of SpaceX allowed it to launch more than ever before with a fleet of just 10-20 Falcon boosters, the company has had to expand production of Falcon second stages to extraordinary levels.
SpaceX has just completed its 188th Falcon 9/Heavy launch, so the 200th airworthy second stage and Merlin Vacuum (MVac) engine will likely launch sometime in January 2023. In the past 365 days, SpaceX’s Falcon rockets have completed 59 successful orbital launches. Each launch required a new second stage, so SpaceX has consistently built, shipped and tested a new Falcon second stage every 6.2 days on average. Lake than a year.
Thanks to SpaceX’s record-breaking launch frequency in 2022, which resulted in Falcon 9 launching more in a single calendar year than any other rocket in history, the Falcon second stage has probably become the most-produced orbital rocket stage in decades. Surprises aside, SpaceX is on track to meet CEO Elon Musk’s goal of 60 Falcon launches by 2022. But SpaceX isn’t done yet, and CEO Elon Musk says the company is aiming for “up to 100 launches” by 2023. After nearly doubling between early and late 2021, production of Falcon’s second phase should increase another ~67% year-on-year. .
Falcon 9 has been unlucky three times in its 12.5-year career. In October 2012, on its third launch, one of Falcon 9’s nine Merlin 1C booster engines failed in flight. The main mission – a Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station – was rescued by the second stage, which autonomously compensated for lost performance, but as a result a secondary payload (Orbcomm’s first OG2 satellite prototype) was lost. In June 2015, a faulty strut in Falcon 9’s second stage caused a helium pressure vessel to break loose and rupture, destroying the rocket mid-flight. And in September 2016, during a pre-launch static fire test, a similar pressure vessel in the second stage of an upgraded Falcon 9 spontaneously sparked, causing an explosion that destroyed the rocket while it was still on the ground.
As a result, while problems with the Falcon’s second stage have technically caused the Falcon 9’s only catastrophic failures, it’s still true that a free-flying Falcon’s second stage has never failed in flight. The same goes for the second stage Merlin vacuum engine: after hundreds of burns and more than 70,000 seconds of operation, MVac has never failed in flight.
Following Falcon 9’s successful launch on November 3, 2022 of the Eutelsat Hotbird 13G communications satellite, SpaceX’s Falcon rocket family has completed 160 launches without a hitch, making it arguably the most reliable rocket family in history. To achieve that feat with its partially reusable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, SpaceX needed to use reusable and replaceable orbital rockets to an extent that only a few other companies or space agencies in history can claim to have matched or surpassed, and none have achieved at the same time.
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