SpaceX launched its first Falcon 9 rocket less than a decade ago, in June 2010. Early next week, the California-based rocket company will go for its 50th launch of its workhorse booster.
The launch attempt will come as soon as early next Tuesday, 12:33am ET, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SpaceX will attempt to launch the Hispasat 30W-6 communications satellite to geostationary transfer orbit. The mission has a two-hour launch window.
Whether SpaceX will attempt to land the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket is not clear. The satellite weighs slightly more than six metric tons, which is about half-a-ton heavier than any Falcon 9 payload bound for geostationary orbit that the company has tried to land before. Therefore the rocket will expend nearly all of its fuel to get into a proper geostationary transfer orbit—making any return to Earth hot and fast.
Assuming the Hispasat mission launches next week, SpaceX will have reached its 50th launch fairly quickly for an orbital rocket, taking seven years and nine months. By comparison, the Atlas V rocket took nine years and seven months, while the space shuttle took 11 years and five months.
Last year, for the first time, SpaceX really began to hit its stride with the Falcon 9 rocket, flying 18 successful missions. That is double the maximum number of flights the Atlas V (2014 and 2015) and space shuttle (1985) performed during their most prolific years. SpaceX officials have said they expect to launch substantially more than 20 Falcon 9 rockets this year.
What might have been
On the occasion of SpaceX’s 50th Falcon 9 launch, it is worth pausing a moment to speculate on what might have happened with the space shuttle program had it not suffered the fatal Challenger accident on January 28, 1986. NASA had flown the shuttle nine times the year before, and the space agency had already launched one space shuttle mission in 1986. It is conceivable that NASA could have doubled its 1985 total in 1986, especially with an additional launch site coming online in California.
“If the Challenger disaster never occurred, military and intelligence payloads might have not moved over to expendable launch vehicles as quickly, especially in light of the Air Force being on the verge of expanding shuttle operations for its own purposes from the West Coast,” Robert Pearlman, editor of the space history news website collectSPACE.com, told Ars.
Without the accident, the White House might also have allowed the space shuttle to continue launching commercial satellites for paying customers. This means Lockheed Martin and Boeing probably wouldn’t have moved forward with development of modern version of their Atlas and Delta rockets.
“Without those moves in place, it is questionable if there would have been a market to sustain the Atlas and Delta flight rates as they came to be,” Pearlman said. “And lacking a foundation for a commercial space launch market, one then wonders if SpaceX would ever come to be—or at least be as aggressive in their development as they are today.”