SpaceX has yet another Falcon 9 launch scheduled for tomorrow, and there’s something special about this one, but it’s not the payload. When this rocket lifts off, it’ll be the 50th launch of a Falcon 9 since SpaceX first sent the vehicle up in 2010. This doesn’t include the recent test flight of the Falcon Heavy, which is basically three Falcon 9 rockets. The Falcon 9 has evolved considerably since its first test flights to become the only fully reusable launch platform in the world. There were some bumps in the road, though.
When it first launched in 2010, the Falcon 9 was just another expendable rocket like the popular Atlas V. However, SpaceX designed the Falcon 9 to be an upgradable launch platform. Over the years, “Block” upgrades made the Falcon 9 more powerful, and the rocket’s advanced avionics eventually led to the propulsive landings that have become commonplace over the last few years.
Of the 49 completed launches, 47 are classified as successes. The only total failure came in June 2015 when CRS-7 (a resupply mission for the International Space Station) broke apart during ascent. The cause was traced back to a defective strut that caused a helium canister to break loose. The CRS-1 mission was a partial failure because one of the rocket’s engines lost power and prevented a secondary satellite payload from reaching orbit. While it doesn’t count as a failure, there was also the launch pad explosion in 2016.
Since landing the first Falcon 9 booster in late 2015, SpaceX has attained a 79 percent success rate at landing on both sea and land. We’ve almost come to expect landings after each SpaceX launch now. The company has also been unusually open when it comes to failed landings, including releasing footage of rockets slamming into its drone ship.
Landing from the chase plane pic.twitter.com/2Q5qCaPq9P
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 8, 2016
The mission on Tuesday is to deliver the Hispasat 30W-6 communications satellite to a geostationary orbit. The launch is scheduled for 12:33 AM ET at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and there’s a two hour launch window. Deploying a payload to geostationary orbit requires much more fuel than low-Earth orbit, and the Hispasat 30W-6 weighs in at more than 6,000 kilograms (13,227 pounds).
This payload is heavier than anything SpaceX has sent into geostationary orbit with the intention of landing the booster afterward. The Falcon 9 will use most of its fuel to get the satellite where it needs to be, so it might not have enough thrust to reach the drone ship. Even if this rocket isn’t recovered, it’s still a significant milestone for SpaceX.