WASHINGTON — SpaceX had its busiest month yet in April in terms of launches, as the company emphasizes the value of a high flight rate.
A Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 40 at 5:27 pm ET on April 29 with a payload of 53 Starlink satellites. SpaceX confirmed a successful deployment of the satellites an hour after liftoff.
The first stage of the rocket landed on a drone in the Atlantic Ocean, completing its sixth flight. The booster was last used just three weeks earlier in the launch of a Crew Dragon on the Ax-1 private astronaut mission to the International Space Station, a turnaround time of 21 days that was the shortest between flights to date. .
That launch was SpaceX’s sixth in April, the company’s most in a single calendar month. The company has made four launches in a month multiple times and five in December 2021. SpaceX has made 17 Falcon 9 launches so far this year, keeping the company on track to meet the goal of one launch per week. this year.
“Flight rate is very, very important,” said Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, during a panel discussion at the AIAA ASCENDx Texas conference on April 28. “Flight rate allows you to learn, allows you to grow. You have to fly it correctly. You have to fly it safely.”
A key factor in that high flight rate is the company’s own Starlink constellation. While only two of the six launches in April were of Starlink satellites, the others were the manned Ax-1 and Crew-4 missions, the Transporter-4 rideshare mission, and the NROL-85 classified mission for the National Reconnaissance Office. , 10 of the 17 Falcon 9 launches so far this year have been for the broadband constellation deployment.
Starlink launches, Reed said, are important for things like pushing the limits of reusability. “It allows us to really learn and broaden the scope of what it takes to fly at very high flight speeds,” he said.
“This is the type of flight rate that we need to think about as an industry,” he added. “We should all look forward to the day soon when we’re releasing every day, every hour, every minute.”
Starship Environmental Delay
While SpaceX is increasing its launch cadence, its Starship program remains mired in delays. The Federal Aviation Administration announced on April 29 that it would again delay the deadline to complete an environmental assessment for orbital launches of that vehicle from the SpaceX test site in Boca Chica, Texas. The new deadline is now May 31, a one-month delay.
“SpaceX made multiple changes to its application that require additional analysis by the FAA,” the FAA said in a statement to reporters. “The agency continues to review about 18,000 comments from the general public.”
The FAA did not identify what changes SpaceX made and how they might affect the review of what is called a programmatic environmental assessment (PEA). “The FAA is finalizing the review of the final PEA, including responding to comments and ensuring consistency with SpaceX’s license application,” a statement on the FAA website for the effort states. “The FAA is also completing inquiries and confirming mitigations for SpaceX’s proposed operations. All inquiries must be completed before the FAA can issue the final PEA.”
According to a “permit board” operated by the Department of Transportation, the assessment completed one such consultation, which involved an Endangered Species Act consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service, on April 22. . Another consultation, called the Section 106 Review after its section of the National Historic Preservation Act, is scheduled to be completed in early May.
While this is the fourth time the FAA has delayed completion of the environmental assessment, originally scheduled for late 2021, it’s not clear that this is only delaying Starship’s first orbital launch. While SpaceX showed off a fully stacked Starship vehicle in February in Boca Chica, neither the Super Heavy booster nor the Starship upper stage are expected to fly as the company moved on to test other hardware, with no firm timeline of having a vehicle. ready to fly.