Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Even Minor New Records Are Good in the Orbital Launch Business

As part of last Friday's semi-regular roundup of small space stories, I mentioned a bit about the coming launch of Starlink 4-23 from SLC-40 on Cape Canaveral.  

The interesting part of the launch from SLC 40 is that this is Booster 1069.  This is the one SpaceX almost lost last December when it apparently landed harder than it should have, or perhaps landed on the octagrabber robot that helps keep the booster from sliding off the deck.  The booster required more than the usual amount of rework to make it flight worthy again, including replacing a few Merlin 1D engines.

It turns out to have been rather more involved than just that, and Teslarati has devoted an article to the launch, the booster and some interesting things about it.  To begin, Elon Musk tweeted this little remark early Sunday morning.  

It's a reference that B1069 set a new SpaceX record for payload weight to orbit.  The increase isn't extremely big, but seems to have been from lifting one more satellite than all the previous Starlink V1.5 missions.  

SpaceX confirmed that Falcon 9 broke the record with its launch of 54 Starlink V1.5 satellites at the end of its hosted webcast, revealing that the rocket launched 16.7 metric tons (~36,800 lb) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The last confirmed record – claimed by CEO Elon Musk – was 16.25 tons spread over 53 Starlink V1.5 satellites, which doesn’t entirely add up unless SpaceX added several kilograms to the mass of each satellite between March and August 2022.

16.7 metric tons is 16,700 kg while the older record was 16,250 kg, or 450 kg more payload.  Nearly 1000 pounds.  Remember there are still rocket companies trying to become able to lift just that amount of increase to orbit!  

The other little records aren't as pleasant as these, and concern the record-breaking steps that SpaceX had to do in order to get B1069 flying again after the December mishap.  

According to spaceflight writer Alejandro Alcantarilla Romero, one additional cost – at minimum – was a full set of new Merlin 1D engines. Sometime shortly after Falcon 9 B1069’s flawless December 2021 launch and landing debut, a robotic helper known as Octagrabber most likely lost its grip on the booster while attempting to secure it. Likely already in high seas, the conditions prevented SpaceX workers from safely boarding the ship and manually securing the booster, which was then free to slide about its tilting deck.

Alternatively, it’s possible that Octagrabber successfully secured the booster but was then subjected to truly awful sea conditions. Designed to passively hold boosters to the deck with its sheer weight, even the tank-like robot wouldn’t be able to save a booster if a storm caught the drone ship off guard and the waves were high enough.

To re-post the already re-posted photo of B1069 after it returned to port, pressed against the lip of drone ship Just Read The Instructions’ (JRTI) deck, to show just how wrecked it looked...

While we can see three engine nozzles, all crumpled looking, it turns out that all nine of its engine nozzles had been crushed like tinfoil against Octagrabber, damaging them beyond repair.  

We don't know that these nine engines were totally scrapped (sold as scrap metal) or if SpaceX even addressed what to do if something like this happens, but (by looking at them) it seems there could be a chance that SpaceX was or will be able to salvage the parts of B1069’s Merlin engines above their bell nozzles.  It does make one wonder about things like what this implies about how much inventory of Merlin engines they have lying around, and how much money it saves to replace nine engines as opposed to building an entirely new booster.  

Eric Ralph at Teslarati points out the SpaceX must have been completely confident in their repairs to put the record-setting payload on a rebuilt/repaired booster.  If this Starlink mission had failed, it's entirely possible that NASA would have grounded ALL Falcon 9 flights until the cause was identified.  That would affect the Crew-5 mission, currently set for NET October 3, very likely delaying it.  

The Artemis/SLS press conference this afternoon announced the next attempt to launch Artemis I will be Saturday, September 3rd at 2:17 p.m. EDT, the beginning of a two-hour window. 

I didn't listen super-attentively to the entire hour conference but, I'm sorry, I don't feel any more confident that they know what they're doing and this will go without a hitch.  

In the coming days, teams will modify and practice propellant loading procedures to follow a procedure similar to what was successfully performed during the Green Run at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The updated procedures would perform the chilldown test of the engines, also called the kick start bleed test, about 30 to 45 minutes earlier in the countdown during the liquid hydrogen fast fill liquid phase for the core stage.

And starting this step in the countdown earlier is going to fix everything?  I sincerely hope they get it to work, but my first reaction was to say "r-i-i-i-i-g-h-t. "


  1. Great on SpaceX. I wonder if they'll break 17 metric tons to LEO on Falcon 9, or if they're just maxing out and waiting for Starship to come on line?

    As to the rebelling-rebuilding-replacing of Merlins? Must be nice to have pieces parts or whole motors just lying around waiting in case they're needed. Gee... Sounds boring, doesn't it?

    Until you realize no other company. Repeat. NO OTHER COMPANY has replacements and pieces parts just lying around or buildable to replace damaged motors. NO OTHER COMPANY, private, public or governmental. None. Everyone else treats motors and motor parts (and other components) as exquisite, hand-fettled, hand-polished rare pieces of metallic art.

    That. That right there. That SpaceX has racks of parts and completed assemblies and whole motors just sitting around... That. That is so much more of a game-changer than even reusable rockets. A very unsung game-changer, one that doesn't seem bigger than reusable rockets, but it is. To have on-stock components to swap right there on site, that is the biggest thing.

    I am old enough to remember people working at the Cape going on fishing expeditions at the big mil-surp warehouses in Orlando and places that bought out huge quantities of post-Apollo/Saturn and post-Gemini parts for to fix existing rockets (or that was the rumor.)

  2. Read one analysis that Artemis was only rated for so many trips out to the pad . . .

    1. Saw that yesterday - and it's a surprisingly small number. As in with the two round trips for the Wet Dress Rehearsals and then this trip to the pad, I think one more leg puts them at the limit.

      I think all the means is they'll get somebody to pencil whip a form saying, "this is fine."

  3. As to Fartemis, well, gee, don't do all the tests and, well, perfect example of FAFO or CAFO (Copulate Around and Find Out.) Personally, between potential valve issues and tank leakage issues and motor issues, I don't see Fartemis launching any time this year. If this was SpaceX or even ULA, NASA would have grounded everything until every last spec of dust is catalogued and serial numbered.

    Yikes. A national disgrace. Should be stopped, totally stopped, cut up, sold to salvage yards after being salted and exorcised and spiritually cleansed. There isn't enough sage in the world to scare away all the bad spirits associated with this whole boondoggle. In fact, I can see boondoggle being replaced with artemising or artemised. Cluster copulation doesn't even begin to cover the scandal of this. Compared to this, Teapot Dome was just a local charity scandal. Compared to this, Tammany Hall was just a 'No Gurls Allowed' wooden shack built by 11 year old boys in someone's back yard

    Gah. The only reason I'm not hoping for SMOD to land on Artemis and its launch tower is that the splash will hit SpaceX and the VAB.

    I hope that someday, someday, something worthwhile will eventually roll out of the VAB again, something that will actually work, that will be underbudget and over-engineered and be a shining example of American Can-Do.

    1. Agree 100%, Beans. The entire program is a disgraceful display of pork.

    2. drjim, the entire program is a disgraceful display of incompetence.

  4. sad times, when nASSa has lost the confidence of the greybeard and his legion you know they are doomed

  5. I haven't added up the numbers lately, but I believe the two most used SpaceX boosters were on track to surpass all of the Apollo missions mass to orbit sometime this year.

    1. Very cool. I think I read that by the end of this year, SpaceX will have launched more payloads than the entire world did in the 60 years between Sputnik 1 and 2017.

  6. Question:
    Have they begun building Artemis 2 yeat? If not, stop now. Please.

    1. I've seen references to Artemis 2 being in process, so I went to the Artemis blogs at NASA and searched for it. It's definitely in process and lots of hits are there, but I couldn't tell how far along it is and whether it's "done" or not. This will get you all the hits from the search.