December 21st marks the fifth anniversary of the first Falcon booster landing as SpaceX ends a halcyon year, and the company celebrates with a record-breaking performance streak.
On December 19th, SpaceX accomplished its last launch and landing, delivering a mysterious Low Earth Orbit (LEO) US spy satellite, while Falcon 9 booster B1059 returned to Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) for its fifth successful recovery in 12 months. The mission was SpaceX’s 26th of the year, known as NROL-108, breaking its previous record of 21 launches by almost 25 percent.
NROL-108 also marked an impressive booster landing milestone almost five years after the first success, aside from making Falcon 9 the world’s most-launched rocket of 2020 and demonstrating over a full quarter that an annual cadence of 40+ launches is well within SpaceX’s scope.
SpaceX has now landed 20 Falcon boosters consecutively without failure since NROL-108, shattering a previous record of 19. Incredibly, despite the fact that the last Falcon booster landing failure occurred in March of this year, the company set the record in 2020. In other words, in the eight months since then, SpaceX has landed 20 boosters in a row successfully.
SpaceX has experienced one or a few failed booster landings every year since, including two in 2020, following a perfect year of landings in 2017. As SpaceX continues to prove that Falcon boosters are really capable of achieving their design target of no less than 10 launches each, an increasingly undesirable result is failed landings (and thus the loss of boosters). With some luck, 20 back-to-back landings indicate that SpaceX has found its way and that most of the technological and organizational problems that have allowed several failed recoveries in recent years have been hopefully quashed.
As of NROL-108, 70 successful landings (out of 80 attempts) have been performed in the last five years by SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters. In other words, nearly two-thirds (67) of the 105 successful launches of the Falcon family have involved one or more successful booster landings.
Ultimately, SpaceX is just getting started and recently CEO Elon Musk announced a target of 48 launches in 2021-almost double its current record-breaking pace in 2020. With the expendable Falcon launch of an increasingly endangered species, it is fair to say that next year there will be a lot more booster landings.
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