Enlarge /. SpaceX added a new core to its fleet with the Demo 2 mission at the end of May.
On Tuesday, SpaceX will attempt to launch a 3.7-ton Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite for the U.S. Air Force. This GPS III launch is scheduled to occur on a Falcon 9 rocket from 3:55 p.m. and 4:10 p.m. (7:56 p.m. – 8:10 p.m. UTC) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The launch is the first time that SpaceX has attempted to find a booster that launched a satellite for the U.S. military. Although the launch was originally scheduled to fly on a consumable booster, Space News reports that the U.S. Space Force's Space and Missile Systems Center has agreed to revise some mission requirements so that SpaceX can fly the booster back. In return, the company took "several million dollars" off the starting price originally awarded to SpaceX in 2017 for $ 96.5 million.
SpaceX needs this first phase back to make up for a busy second half of the year.
On May 11, 2018, the company launched the first of its new "Block 5" versions of its Falcon 9 rocket. This new version of the first stage contained all of the company's previous performance improvements to the Falcon 9 rocket while maximizing reuse. It worked – SpaceX has now flown two different Falcon 9 cores five times, and it could fly a first tier for the sixth time later this summer.
The success of the Block 5 rocket means that SpaceX needed less time and resources to build the first stages of Falcon 9. Since May 2018, it has been launched 31 times with a Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 rocket – with only 10 cores. In other words, reuse has saved SpaceX the cost of 189 Merlin rocket engines, dozens of fuel tanks, and many complex avionics systems.
However, only four of these ten first stages remain. In the past two years, SpaceX has lost some of the first phases – for example, in December 2018, a web fin pump failure caused a first phase to land just off the Florida coast – and some of them were deliberately used to launch particularly heavy payloads. Of its fleet of 10 first stages of the Falcon 9 rocket (based on input from readers and this resource in the subreddit r / SpaceX), SpaceX is currently only using these cores for the launch of Falcon 9:
- Five missions flown (September 2018 – today)
- Days since the last flight: 27
- Next flight: Unknown
- Four missions flown (March 2019-today)
- Days since the last flight: 69 days
- Next flight: Starlink-9 (early July)
- Flown a mission (May 2020-today)
- Days since the last flight: 31
- Next flight: Unknown (possibly Anasis-2 in July)
- Three missions flown (December 2019-today)
- Days since the last flight: 17
- Next flight: Unknown
The launch of the GPS III satellite built by Lockheed Martin on Tuesday will therefore add a new booster to the SpaceX missile fleet of the first stage. The company has two more new Falcon 9 first stage boosters in the pipeline. Another GPS III mission is scheduled for August and the Crew 1 mission with four NASA astronauts to the International Space Station is expected to take place in September.
Still, SpaceX needs to be careful when managing its fleet. The company has planned a busy second half of 2020, with approximately six additional Starlink Internet satellite launches, several commercial missions, some NASA launches, and some U.S. military launches in its manifesto.
To complete all of these missions, the company must continue to successfully return its first phases, perform more than five flights per booster, and possibly further reduce the processing time between missions. So far, the company record for the time it takes to check and recertify a first Falcon 9 flight level has been 63 days.
The bottom line is that launching a Falcon 9 rocket today is an essential mission for the U.S. Air Force. However, it is just as important for SpaceX to include the new core in the Just Read the Instructions drone ship in order to create a lengthy manifesto in 2020. Reuse is no longer experimental. It is on the critical path.
The following webcast should start about 15 minutes before the start window opens.
GPS III start.