The Falcon 9, SpaceX's primary launch rocket, has set a new record in space flight.
On Thursday, SpaceX announced via Twitter that the Falcon 9 is now the most-flown operational rocket in the United States, having undertaken 85 flights. This comes after SpaceX's Wednesday launch, when it sent up the eighth batch of 60 Starlink satellites for its increasingly-large constellation. It also comes less than a week after a different Falcon 9 sent up the Crew Dragon capsule, sending up NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley in a company-first.
It marks a key milestone for the Falcon 9, which on Thursday also marked the 10th anniversary of its first flight. The rocket was introduced in 2010 as a replacement for Falcon 1, the company's first vehicle that used a single engine to send up one ton into space. AirSpaceMag notes the Falcon 1 was fully expendable, and SpaceXStats showed it undertook five launches in its four years of operation, only two of which were successful.
The Falcon 1 may have seen limited use, but it was an important step toward SpaceX's current rocket. Musk described last month how it took the company four attempts to reach orbit, in a response to Virgin Orbit's failed maiden mission that month.
The Falcon 9 set the stage for SpaceX to move further. It measures 230 feet tall, 12 feet in diameter, and weighs 1.2 million pounds. It's capable of transporting over 50,000 pounds to low Earth orbit. As the name suggests, the rocket uses nine Merlin engines versus the single Merlin engine used with the Falcon 1. That gives it more than 1.7 million pounds of thrust at sea level.
But perhaps Falcon 9's most important improvement was its reusability. That enables SpaceX to recuperate around $46.5 million of the estimated $62 million price tag associated with these flights. SpaceX first attempted to land a Falcon 9 booster in 2013, but only succeeded for the first time the following year. By 2017 it was landing 15 cores per year. It has landed the Falcon 9 booster 46 times, and reflown it 31 times.
Falcon 9's feat is impressive, but why the caveat about the most-flown operational rocket in the United States? Because number one, by a huge margin, is Soyuz. The rocket's name is a word that means "union" in Russian. The rocket developed by the Soviet Union first flew in November 1966, taking off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in what is today Kazakhstan. Sky at Night Magazine explains that this was an evolution of the Vostok rocket, the one that sent the first person into space back in 1961.
The European Space Agency explained in 2013 that Soyuz is the most frequently-used launch vehicle in the world, having undertaken over 1,700 crewed and uncrewed flights.
Last month, the Falcon 9 managed to match Soyuz on one key capability. NASA's space shuttle program ended in 2011, so to continue sending its astronauts to the space station, it started renting seats on Soyuz rockets. With the Commercial Crew program, SpaceX and Boeing had been working to develop a new way to reach the International Space Station. The Crew Dragon's maiden voyage last week, powered by a Falcon 9, marks a new stage in NASA's history.
The Inverse analysis – The Falcon 9 has had an impressive history, but it may soon be taken over by something bigger. The Starship, under development in Texas, is designed to send humans and cargo to the moon, Mars and beyond. It's also designed to take over duties from Falcon 9, as well as its triple-core offshoot the Falcon Heavy. But just like the Falcon 1 that preceded it, the Falcon 9 will remain a key feature of SpaceX's history even if it does get replaced.