It was something like watching Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky, you know the result is almost a foregone conclusion, but it still sure is fun to tune in, particularly if you are a fan of Team USA.
During the overnight hours, SpaceX once again successfully launched a communications satellite on a commercial mission to Geostationary Transfer Orbit, and for the fifth time out of the last six attempts, recovered a Falcon 9 first stage. It was a good thing too, as the sight of another crumpled booster coming back into port might have been nearly as revolting as the lime green pool at the Rio Olympics.
With the weather cooperating nicely, the countdown and liftoff of Sky Perfect’s JCSAT-16 from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40 took place flawlessly at 1:26 AM ET, and a little over 8 minutes later, the upper stage and payload were in low Earth orbit, waiting out an 18 minute pause for a second burn which would send it on its way to GTO and a final position at 124 degrees East longitude, where it will serve as an in-orbit backup.
It was the landing however, that contained the highest degree of difficulty, and this was also where we all learned, or rather confirmed, something. On launches, even those to GTO, where the predicted propellant margin is enough to allow a single engine landing burn, SpaceX can now be expected to recover the stage almost every time. The envelope has now moved to the alternative, more violent three engine landing burn which was the source of the company’s single failure in the last six attempts. And of course the weather, which is something one can never take for granted, especially at sea.
There is a still a difference between recovery and re-use however, but it is one which is also narrowing with every flight. It is not the scorch marks blackening the body of a returned Falcon 9 first stage which are an indicator of its condition. Those are actually just soot, and if there was a properly sized truck wash in the very short drive between Port Canaveral and the SpaceX hangar at Pad 39A, one could almost imagine that with enough quarters, the rocket would come back clean.
Based on recent statements, from company officials, the actual damage on high speed re-entries has to do with heating around the base of the booster, where pipes, seals, valves, actuators and wiring are all directly subjected to a hellish environment unlike anything yet seen in the history of rocketry, even the Shuttle.
Each recovery, particularly those from the most challenging launches, becomes an opportunity to further improve the Falcon 9, increasing the ultimate recovery and re-use rate, and leaving would be competitors struggling for excuses.
The next opportunity is the launch of Spacecom’s Amos-6 satellite, currently scheduled for the first week of September.