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The Barn Was Empty, SpaceX Ran Out of Block 5 Boosters

SpaceX activity has been quiet in July and August because they simply ran out of Falcon 9 Block 5 boosters. In June they successfully launched four of their seven pure revenue-producing flights of this year. That, combined with four launches in May for their white elephant Starlink program [SEE:  Must Sell Starlink], left them with nothing to put in the air. 

The Starship Stack Diversion

They did grab the attention of the SpaceX groupies by stacking a non-flightworthy Starship on a booster in Boca Chica. This allowed them to claim that they finally build a rocket taller than the Apollo Saturn Five rocket…of 50 years ago; however, SpaceX has still not launched a functioning rocket that can rival the Saturn Five.

Heavy lift Rockets and number of successful launches to date.

SpaceX Block Five Returns To Work?

Late this month, SpaceX has a launch scheduled to deliver a cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS) if they have a booster ready. They currently have eight flyable boosters (1049, 1051, 1060, 1061, 1062, 1063, and 1067;) however, booster 1051 is beyond its ten flight limit¹ and both 1049 and 1051 are now in California awaiting Starlink polar launches from Vandenberg Space Force Base. The most likely candidate boosters for the ISS cargo ship are 1058 or 1063. Both were launched in May and have had three months be readied for flight.

[¹The Block 5 boosters were designed for ten launches without refurbishment. Recently, According to Spaceflight Now, Elon Musk stated that they would fly the boosters for the Starlink program beyond ten missions “…until they break…” indicating the risk of losing the payload is a low priority.]

2021 4th Quarter – What To Expect

There are 17 SpaceX missions rumored for the remainder of 2021. Some of these missions are definitely planned and a few actually have dates and/or boosters assigned. Here is a list of the missions:

August (yes, I know that it is not in the 4th Quarter)

28 August – ISS cargo ship from Kennedy Space Center (KSC) – Booster 1061

LIKELY – [NOTE:  At the time of publication, the booster had not been identified.] The only question on this launch is why the booster has not been determined. SpaceX has a policy of not offering details of missions to the public, but usually, the booster assignment is eventually revealed in public documents or by SpaceX unofficial sources. At this late date, it is assumed that the booster has been assigned and is ready to be mated with the cargo ship.

September

September (x2) – Starlink Polar from Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) – Boosters 1049 and 1051.

LIKELY – This mission has been pushed back from July and August. Booster 1049 arrived at VSFB for this mission shortly after its last launch and recovery in May. If it doesn’t launch in September something is wrong. Booster 1051 arrived at VSFB a couple of weeks after 1049. It is possible both missions will be launched in September, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the 1051 mission didn’t happen until October.

15 September – Shift4 Joy Ride from KSC – Booster 1062

LIKELY – Although no booster has been assigned, several should be available for the public relations stunt. It will be a PR boost for SpaceX and they have every reason to make it happen as scheduled. 

September 2021, November 2021, & TBD 2021 – Starlink from KSC – Boosters unknown

QUESTIONABLE – SpaceX has launched 27 missions for their Starlink satellites in 2020 and 2021. That is 27 booster cycles that weren’t used for commercially viable launches. Three of those launches ended with the loss of the booster which cut short the revenue potential of additional launches with those boosters. SpaceX could reduce the risk of future booster losses by using Block 5 boosters that have finished their design lifespan of ten launches for the Starlink missions.

However, SpaceX has now moved their two Block 5 boosters with the most launches (Booster 1051 – 10 launches & Booster 1049 – 9 launches) to VSFB in California. It is unlikely they will move these boosters back to Florida this year. That means if a Starlink mission is launched, SpaceX will have to use a newer booster and risk its loss. It is unlikely that all three missions will be launched if any are launched.

October

31 October – ISS Crew from KSC – Booster 1067

LIKELY – The fact that this is a revenue-producing flight, that it involves the crew for the ISS, and that it is a NASA mission, is reflected by the fact that it already has a scheduled date and a booster assigned.

October – German spy satellite from VSFB – Booster unknown

QUESTIONABLE – Unless SpaceX is intending on risking a revenue-producing payload on the overextended 1051 booster, they don’t have a booster at Vandenberg for this mission. Certainly, they could move a booster to California or use the new 1069 booster, but this mission has no date, nor booster assigned. an October launch seems iffy.

October –  U.S. spy satellite from KSC – Boosters 1064, 1065, & 1066 (Falcon Heavy)

LIKELY – Boosters are tested and ready. It’s a classified mission and the core booster has to be expended to get the payload into a higher orbit. This is not one for a PR show but it is a mission that they need to show potential commercial and military customers that SpaceX is not just a flying circus.

November

17 November – IXPE satellite from KSC – Booster unknown

LIKELY – Since this mission has a launch date three months in advance it would seem that this is a serious mission. There should be several boosters that will be available.

23 November – DART satellite from VSFB – Booster unknown

LIKELY – This will be an interesting booster assignment. The payload has to go into a heliocentric orbit so it is possible, or even likely, that the booster will be expended. That might be a mission they would assign a booster like 1049 or 1051 as both will have had more launches than they were designed for originally.

December

4 December – ISS cargo ship from KSC – Booster unknown

LIKELY – The mission has a date and the ISS needs its cargo, so this is likely to happen but the date might slide by a few weeks, as in the past.

December – O3b mPower satellites from KSC – Booster unknown

QUESTIONABLE – SpaceX has a long history of putting missions on a tentative schedule and then pushing them back. SpaceX will have to divide its boosters up between Vandenberg and Kennedy Space Center to meet their launch schedule. It would seem that at least three boosters will have to be in California to meet the needs of their customers.

December – Transporter3 from VSFB – Booster unknown

QUESTIONABLE – This will depend upon how many boosters are committed to California. SpaceX seems to be making noises about going big at Vandenberg and the schedule indicates that intention. Unfortunately, SpaceX doesn’t have enough boosters to divide between two launch facilities, and moving them around costs money.

4th Quarter – Turksat 5B from KSC – Booster unknown

NOPE – The kiss of death on a SpaceX schedule is for it to be scheduled for ‘sometime in X quarter.’ It seems to be a schedule filler for SpaceX PR people to refer to when they discuss the number of launches planned for the year. 

4th Quarter – Maxar Technologies satellites from VSFB – Booster unknown

NOPE – Same as the Turksat mission. It probably won’t happen in 2021.