SpaceX built and launched the 200th Falcon second stage, highlighting the often-underrated rocket’s record of success on the ground and in flight.
About 13 years ago, in late 2009 or early 2010, SpaceX launched the first notable prototype of the first iteration of the Falcon 9 second stage. In June 2010, the Falcon 9 took off on its maiden test flight and, with the aid of this second stage, successfully launched a boilerplate mock-up of the Dragon spacecraft into orbit. Since Falcon 9’s stunning inaugural success, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have launched another 187 times for a total of 188 launches and 189 assembled rockets. Each of these launches required a new second stage, and all but one (Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort test) required a new Merlin Vacuum engine.
While SpaceX is most famous for its successful implementation of rapidly reusable Falcon boosters, the company’s overall success is also inextricably linked to Falcon second stages, which are and will always be spent after each launch. For every impressive Falcon booster landing or reuse record, a Falcon second stage either burns up unceremoniously in Earth’s atmosphere or is stranded in orbit. As a result, even though SpaceX’s repurposing allowed it to launch further than ever before with a fleet of just 10-20 Falcon boosters, the company had to expand Falcon production to extraordinary second-phase levels.
SpaceX just completed its 188th Falcon 9/Heavy launch, so its 200th viable second stage and Merlin Vacuum (MVac) engine are scheduled to launch sometime in January 2023. In the past 365 days, SpaceX’s Falcon rockets have completed 59 successful launches orbital launches. Each launch required a new second stage, so SpaceX, on average, consistently built, shipped, and tested a new Falcon second stage every 6.2 days for more from a year.
Thanks to SpaceX’s record 2022 launch, which resulted in more Falcon 9 launches in a calendar year than any other rocket in history, the Falcon second stage has become possibly the most productive orbital rocket stage in decades. Surprises aside, SpaceX is on track to meet CEO Elon Musk’s goal of 60 Falcon launches by 2022. But SpaceX isn’t done yet, and CEO Elon Musk says the company is targeting “up to 100 launches” in 2023. After nearly doubling between early and late 2021, this will require Falcon second stage production to increase another ~67% year-over-year.
In its 12.5-year career, Falcon 9 suffered three failures. In October 2012, on its third launch, one of Falcon 9’s nine Merlin 1C booster engines failed in flight. The primary mission—a Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station—was saved by the second stage, which autonomously compensated for the lost performance, but a secondary payload (Orbcomm’s first OG2 satellite prototype) was lost as a result. In June 2015, a faulty strut inside the second stage of the Falcon 9 caused a helium pressure vessel to loosen and rupture, destroying the rocket in flight. And in September 2016, during a pre-launch static fire test, a similar pressure vessel inside the upgraded Falcon 9’s second stage spontaneously detonated, causing an explosion that destroyed the rocket while it was still on the ground.
As a result, while problems with Falcon second stages technically caused the Falcon 9’s only catastrophic failures, it is still true that a free-flying Falcon second stage has never failed in flight. The same goes for the second stage Merlin Vacuum engine: after hundreds of burn-ins and more than 70,000 seconds of operation, the MVac has never failed in flight.
Following the successful launch of the Eutelsat Hotbird 13G communications satellite by Falcon 9 on November 3, 2022, SpaceX’s Falcon family of rockets has completed 160 launches without failure, making it arguably the most reliable family of rockets in history. To achieve this feat with the partially reusable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, SpaceX had to master the reusable and expendable orbital rockets to a degree that only a few other companies or space agencies in history can claim to have matched or exceeded, and that none have achieved at the same time.
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