SpaceX Is About to Launch Its Final Block 4 Falcon
SpaceX is swiftly moving toward achieving its ultimate goal of rapid reusability: winging a single booster twice within a 24 -hour time period. It’s a aim that Elon Musk says SpaceX will achieve subsequently this year–but in order to make good on that promise, the company must first say goodbye to its hardest-working rocket yet.
That would be the full-thrust Falcon, known to SpaceX adherents as the Block 4. Each booster is capable of flying two or three times–but if SpaceX is to meet its ultimate goal of winging daily, it needs to do even better. So with 36 flights under its belt, we bid farewell to the moderately reusable Falcons of yesterday and say hello to the more capable and reusable Block 5. On June 29, at 5:42 am EDT, smoke will billow and flames will light up the predawn sky as SpaceX mails its final Block 4 Falcon into space–completing its 15th mission to resupply the International Space Station.
The booster, officially named B1045 by SpaceX, is not just the last one of its kind to wing but likewise the last to be commissioned. Built for NASA, the booster last ferried the TESS mission, which launched in April, before staying its landing on the company’s drone ship waiting in the Atlantic Ocean.
SpaceX readied B1045 for its next and final mission and in record period. Typically, the amount of day between booster flights has been several months; this time, it took merely two. Following several weeks of checkouts and renovations, B1045 trekked out to Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for a routine static fire–essentially a dress rehearsal. Technologists secured the rocket on the pad, loaded it with fuel, and fired the engines for several seconds to ensure that it’s “re ready for” launch.
As with the previous two Falcon 9 missions, B1045 won’t attempt a landing, instead splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. But its demise opens up a chance for a new generation: the Block 5 Falcon, which first took flight in May. Elon Musk says that we will see a Block 5 launching, land, and relaunch within the same day sometime this year. A culmination of more than 10 years of developing, the Block 5 is designed to re-fly with no action taken between flights–just like commercial airplanes.
The design changes are intended to help the booster hold out better to the stress of launching: improved engines, a more durable interstage, titanium grid fins, and a new thermal protection system. According to SpaceX, each Block 5 is capable of flying 10 days or more before it needs light refurbishments, and up to 100 days before the booster is retired.
SpaceX plans to use the Block 5 in future Falcon Heavy rockets, as well as to launch astronauts to the space station. In ordering to achieve that goal, it has to meet NASA’s requirements, which include flying at the least seven periods without any designing changes.
It also will have to address a pesky hardware concern. In 2016, a Falcon 9 explosion on the launchpad after helium-filled bottles that sit inside the rocket’s gasoline tank–called composite overwrapped pressure vessels–malfunctioned. You can’t have that risk with human cargo on board. So SpaceX has been working to upgrade the COPVs. “The amount of testing and research that’s gone into COPV safety is gigantic, ” Musk said during a prelaunch bellow prior to the first Block 5 launching. “This is by far the more advanced pressure vessel was put forward by humanity.”
As it turns out, the Block 5 that launched in May lacked the COPV upgrades and does not count toward the seven launches SpaceX necessity before it can launch people. But testing and development of the new COPVs is complete, and the new hardware will be on board when SpaceX launches its first commercial crew demo flight, currently scheduled for this August. Dubbed Demo-1, that initial mission will send an unoccupied Crew Dragon to the Space Station.
If all goes well, the first crewed flight of the Dragon will launch in December. In ordering to satisfy NASA’s requirements, this means that SpaceX will need to wing six more Block 5s after Demo-1 and before December to meet that schedule. With at least a dozen more launchings on the manifest for this year, anything’s possible.