SpaceX has built and shipped its 200th second stage of the Falcon, highlighting the rocket’s often underappreciated record of accomplishments on the ground and in flight.
Nearly 13 years ago, in late 2009 or early 2010, SpaceX shipped the first airworthy prototype of the first iteration of the second stage of the Falcon 9. In June 2010, the Falcon 9 took off on its inaugural test flight and with the help of that second stage , successfully launched a prototype Dragon spacecraft into orbit. Since the sudden inaugural success of the Falcon 9, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy 187 rockets have fired again for a total of 188 launches and 189 assembled rockets. Each of these launches required a new second stage, and all but one (Test Crew Dragon’s In-Flight Abort) required a new Merlin Vacuum engine.
While SpaceX is best known for successfully realizing reusable Falcon boosters at speed, the company’s overall success is also closely linked to Falcon II’s phases, which will always be spent after each launch. For every spectacular Falcon landing or reuse recording, the Falcon’s second stage will either unceremoniously burn up in Earth’s atmosphere or find itself stuck in orbit. As a result, even as SpaceX’s reuse allowed it to launch more than ever before with a fleet of only 10 to 20 Falcon boosters, the company had to expand production of the Falcon II stages to extraordinary levels.
SpaceX has just completed its 188th launch of the Falcon 9/Heavy, so it’s likely that a second-stage airworthy launch and Merlin vacuum engine (MVac) will 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 SpaceX has, on average, built, shipped, and tested a new second stage of Falcon every 6.2 days in order to more of a year.
Thanks to SpaceX’s record-breaking 2022 launch cadence, which resulted in more Falcon 9 launches in one calendar year than any other rocket in history, the Falcon II stage will likely be the most productive stage of orbital rockets in decades. Barring surprises, SpaceX is on track to meet CEO Elon Musk’s goal of launching 60 Falcons in 2022. But SpaceX isn’t done yet, and CEO Elon Musk says the company is targeting “up to 100 launches” in 2023. After doubling Roughly between early and late 2021, this will require Falcon Phase 2 production to increase another 67% year-over-year.
In its 12.5-year career, Falcon 9 has suffered three failures. In October 2012, upon its third launch, one of the Falcon 9’s boosted Merlin 1C engines failed to fly. The main mission – the Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station – was saved in the second stage, which independently compensated for the lost performance, but a secondary payload (Orbcomm’s first OG2 satellite prototype) was lost as a result. In June 2015, a defective strut inside the Falcon 9’s second stage caused a helium pressure vessel to fracture and rupture, destroying the missile mid-flight. And in September 2016, during a pre-launch fixed-fire test, a similar pressure vessel erupted inside the second stage of the automatically developed Falcon 9, causing an explosion that destroyed the rocket while it was still on the ground.
As a result, while problems with the Falcon’s second stages have technically caused each of the Falcon 9’s only catastrophic failures, it is still true that the free-flying second stage never failed in flight. The same is true of the Merlin Vacuum’s second-stage engine: Over hundreds of burns and over 70,000 seconds of run, the MVac has never failed to fly.
After the successful launch of the Falcon 9 on November 3, 2022, the Eutelsat Hotbird 13G communications satellite, SpaceX’s Falcon rocket family completed 160 launches without fail, making it the most reliable family of rockets in history. To achieve this feat with its partially reusable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, SpaceX had to master reusability And the Orbital rockets are so expendable that few companies or other space agencies in history can claim to match or surpass them, and none have simultaneously achieved them.
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