CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – In May, I was standing near a huge blue countdown clock as the minutes and seconds went to zero. I was surrounded by reporter colleagues, from whom a small group from Bangladesh traveled to Florida. The excitement built and built – and then scrubbed the start. The Falcon 9 was just not ready to fly that day. But the next day would be a different story.
We all returned to our observatory next to the countdown clock and stared across the water at the sleek black-and-white Falcon 9, which was sitting on its pad 39A launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. This time, everything went as expected: When the clock was at zero, the smoke sprang up and bright flames lit the sky as the hawk came to life. The sound waves that washed over us a few seconds later were much louder than expected, even for this experienced starting observer. That was because it was not an ordinary hawk, but a souped-up version.
Known as Block 5, this is the last variant of SpaceX's workhorse ̵
The company is already using the first stages of its spacecraft, but this iteration will take it to the next level. Previous versions of the Falcon 9 could only be used two or three times, which is an incredible achievement, but not enough for SpaceX founder Elon Musk. His plan is to make rockets more of a commercial aircraft capable of flying many times without stopping (except refueling). According to Musk, Block 5, which marks the culmination of more than 10 years of development, will do just that.
Block 5 Upgrades
To work toward this goal, SpaceX engineers outfitted this Turbo Falcon with some sweet improvements over its predecessors. The design changes – including upgraded engines, a more durable intermediate (the part that joins the two stages of the rocket), titanium mesh ribs, and a new thermal protection system – help the booster to hold better to trigger loads. According to SpaceX, each block 5 can fly 10 or more times before it needs repair, and up to 100 times before the booster retires.
Musk has said that we will see a launch of Block 5 the same day sometime next year. As the months drag on and the airline concentrates on its big task for the year, with the first unarmed test flight of the commercial crew program, this goal remains a high target. A more reasonable goal – one that places SpaceX nearing its goal – is to watch the same booster launch of Block 5 more than twice a year.
Although it has not reached this goal yet, I've seen how it got closer when I saw the booster start again. [Photos: SpaceX Launches, Lands 1st ‘Block 5’ Falcon 9 Rocket]
After the first launch of Block 5 on May 11, which put Bangladesh's first satellite – the Bangabandhu-1 – into orbit, the SpaceX officials said they did not know when the recovered booster would be back you would most likely take it apart and check to make sure it works as expected. So it was a small surprise when the company announced that the Bangabhandu 1 booster would fly again on August 7, just 12 weeks later.
This second start in Cape Canaveral's Pad 40 could have been more of a spectacle than the first one. It's like every time the booster tries to outshine itself. On a dam above the water from the Launchpad, a group of space journalists sat in folding armchairs. The Milky Way was barely visible. A spectator even brought a telescope with us, and we looked at Mars – which glowed like a glowing copper ball – before we turned the riflescope to Launchpad.
The hawk appeared upside down in the viewfinder, but was ready to take off. We could see what a hint of the rocket looked like when the last of the cryogenic propellants propelling the rocket was loaded. When the clock fell to zero, the night sky glowed bright orange as the hawk came to life. His engines were just as loud as the first time. But unlike his first space journey, which was a bit more dramatic with several holds and a scrub, this flight started right at the beginning of the window.
When the Falcon climbed into space, the glow of its engines could be seen for a few minutes. Surprisingly, after the booster was disconnected from the upper stage and launched far into the distance, we saw the engines of the Falcon ignite on the first of several scheduled burns. Cheers broke out over the loudspeaker as confirmation came that the booster had landed a second time on the drone ship.
SpaceX's successful launch and landing of the Block 5 Booster (on the drone ship of the company "Naturally Still Love You") with so little time in between is a big step towards faster after-flight times.
In another surprising turn, and before the second landing confirmed a success, the SpaceX launch webcast seemed to assume that booster would fly a third time before the end of the year. (Good that it landed). It is not yet known to which mission this booster will be applied.
Return to the Harbor
A few days after their second flight, The Booster proudly stood on the deck of the drone ship as it drove back to the harbor. I stood with a lot of rocket enthusiasts on the docks and greeted B1046 (a designation given by SpaceX to identify the booster). Some of the space fans followed the ship they rode to make sure they first saw the horizon.
As the booster approached the drone ship's normal parking lot, cameras snapped furiously and the crowd grew. A storm rolled in, providing a beautiful backdrop of dark clouds and lightning. The booster looked like it was on the launchpad, scorched from its first ride through the atmosphere and covered in soot. It was difficult to detect evidence of new signs of wear from this second space journey. One thing was clear, B1046 was ready for the next flight – suggesting SpaceX was on the way to flying missiles comparable to commercial aircraft.
Will we see the next Big Test of Block 5 this year – to start, land and fly again on a single day? SpaceX's commercial crew missions and another pre-season replenishment mission and Falcon Heavy's second flight on the way can make the company's hands full. But whenever it happens, it will be quite a feat.
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