On last night's Starlink Group 6-17 mission from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, SpaceX boosted the record flight count again. Booster B1058 flew for its 17th mission, taking the status as Fleet Leader. B1058 flew its 16th mission just over two months ago.
SpaceX launched its 67th rocket of the year on Tuesday night, a staggering total for the company and its workhorse booster, the Falcon 9. At this pace, a clip of one launch every four days, the company is likely to launch 90 or more rockets during this calendar year.
The liftoff was Tuesday night at 11:38 PM EDT and looked like their wonderfully routine, nearly boring missions. Booster B1058 had previously flown 11 previous Starlink missions along with GPS III-3, Turksat 5A, Transporter-2, Intelsat G-33/G-34, and Transporter-6.
In the early days of the Falcon 9, it seemed to be thought that they could fly 10 times without "major refurbishment" - whatever that means. Now that the 10 flight barrier has been broken many times, that's open for reconsideration.
SpaceX performed a fairly significant assessment of booster wear and tear after its first Falcon 9 stages reached 15 flights, and the company's engineers now believe the rockets can achieve at least 20 flights. Remarkably, SpaceX has been able to push the limits of booster reuse while maintaining a 100 percent record of success across the Falcon 9 rocket's last 228 launches, dating to a pad explosion in September 2016.
As part of its maintenance process, SpaceX still does some basic inspections and replaces engines and other critical components from time to time. Additionally, the company only risks its own internally built Starlink satellites on the most experienced boosters, reserving rockets with less mileage for its customers.
My own take on it (FWIW) is that there probably isn't one convenient number like 10, 20 or any other number. Parts do fail, but space-rated hardware is supposed to be the best and most reliable parts money can buy. Perhaps they should institute some sort of cost-tracking that says when the parts that have been replaced in a booster reach some percentage of the cost of making a new one, they should replace it. I just have no idea what that point should be. I have to believe that they already do something similar and if every booster needs a certain part replaced by the tenth flight, they'll redesign the part or re-specify it so that it lasts longer.
Moving the launch webcasts from the SpaceX website and YouTube to being on X probably reflects Elon Musk's tendency to think launch webcasts are not worth wasting time or effort on. His attitude is largely that no one hosts a webcast when an airplane takes off from an airport. So, if SpaceX strives for airline-type operations, why should it broadcast every launch?
Liftoff of the Starlink 6-17 mission. Image credit: SpaceX