SpaceX delivers the second stage of the 200th Falcon, highlighting the other side of booster reuse
SpaceX built and delivered its 200th Falcon second stage, highlighting an often underappreciated record of rocket achievements on the ground and in flight.
About 13 years ago, in late 2009 or early 2010, SpaceX delivered the first flight-capable prototype of the first iteration of its Falcon 9 second stage. In June 2010, the Falcon 9 took off on its inaugural test flight and, with the help of that second stage , successfully launched a model Dragon spacecraft into orbit. Since the Falcon 9’s surprising inaugural success, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have launched 187 more times for a total of 188 launches and 189 assembled rockets. Each of those launches required a new second stage, and all but one (Crew Dragon’s abort test) required a new Merlin Vacuum engine.
Although SpaceX is best known for the successful implementation of the rapidly reusable Falcon booster, the company’s overall success is also inextricably linked to the Falcon second stage, which is expendable and will always be expendable after each launch. For every spectacular Falcon landing or reuse, the Falcon’s second stage either unceremoniously burns up in Earth’s atmosphere or finds itself stranded in orbit. As a result, even as SpaceX’s reusability made it possible to launch more than ever before with a fleet of just 10-20 Falcon boosters, the company had to expand Falcon second stage production to extraordinary levels.
SpaceX just completed its 188th Falcon 9/Heavy launch, so the 200th flight-capable second stage and Merlin Vacuum (MVac) engine should probably launch sometime in January 2023. In the last 365 days, SpaceX’s Falcon rockets have completed 59 successful orbital launches. Each launch requires a new second stage, so on average SpaceX consistently built, delivered and tested a new Falcon second stage every 6.2 days for more from one year.
Thanks to SpaceX’s record launch rate of 2022, which resulted in more Falcon 9 launches in one calendar year than any other rocket in history, the second stage of the Falcon has likely become the most-produced orbital rocket stage in decades. Unsurprisingly, SpaceX is on track to reach CEO Elon Musk’s goal of 60 Falcon launches in 2022. But SpaceX isn’t done yet, with CEO Elon Musk saying the company is targeting “up to 100 launches” in 2023. After nearly doubling between the start and end of 2021, this will require a further ~67% year-over-year increase in Falcon second stage production.
In its 12.5-year career, the Falcon 9 experienced three failures. In October 2012, on the third launch, one of the nine Falcon 9 Merlin 1C engines failed in flight. The main mission – the Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station – was saved by the second stage, which autonomously compensated for the lost performance, but the secondary payload (Orbcomm’s first OG2 satellite prototype) was lost as a result. In June 2015, a faulty strut inside Falcon 9’s second stage caused the pressure vessel to loosen and rupture, destroying the rocket in flight. And in September 2016, during a prelaunch static fire test, a similar pressure vessel inside the second stage of an upgraded Falcon 9 spontaneously ignited, causing an explosion that destroyed the rocket while it was still on the ground.
As a result, while problems with the Falcon second stage technically caused the only catastrophic failures of both Falcon 9s, it is still true that the Falcon’s free-flying second stage never failed in flight. The same goes for the second stage Merlin Vacuum motor: over hundreds of burns and more than 70,000 seconds of operation, the MVac has never failed in flight.
Following Falcon 9’s successful launch of the Eutelsat Hotbird 13G communications satellite on November 3, 2022, SpaceX’s Falcon rocket family has completed 160 launches without a failure, making it the most reliable rocket family in history. To achieve that feat with its partially reusable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, SpaceX had to master reusability and expendable orbital rockets to a degree that only a few other companies or space agencies in history can claim or exceed, and none have achieved simultaneously.
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