SpaceX broke its annual launch record this year! It conducted a total of 31 Falcon 9 missions. Since its founding in 2002 the company has launched 138 successful missions, landed first-stage rocket boosters 100 times, and reflown boosters 78 times. SpaceX pushed the boundaries of rocket reusability by reusing a particular Falcon 9 booster an 11th time –a first in the history of rocketry. In fact, they launched 94% of all missions on flight-proven Falcon 9 boosters this year. SpaceX achieved so many amazing things from successfully landing Starship to launching the world's first all-civilian crew to orbit the Earth aboard Crew Dragon, and even launched humanity’s first planetary defense test to redirect an asteroid. As this year comes to an end, let’s look back at SpaceX’s most historic moments of 2021!
STARSHIP DEVELOPMENT – First successful landing after 15-kilometer-high flight
SpaceX is working hard to transform humanity into a multi-planet species. The company’s ultimate goal is to enable hundreds of people to live on Mars, as well as reduce the cost of spaceflight enough so that anyone who wants to experience going to outer space can be able to afford it. To achieve this, SpaceX engineers are developing a fully-reusable stainless-steel Starship that could be a multipurpose launch system to make spaceflight more affordable long-term. Starship consists of a spacecraft that could carry up to 100 tons of cargo (or a hundred passengers) and a gigantic Super Heavy rocket that propels the spacecraft to orbit.
This year SpaceX performed four Starship prototype test flights under 15-kilometers-high at Starbase Boca Chica Beach, Texas, during which the company performed the first-of-its-kind ‘belly-flop’ landing maneuver and tested the vehicles' aerodynamic flaps and three Raptor engines in-flight. The belly-flop maneuver is how the spacecraft will fly to enter a planet’s atmosphere before landing. Each high-altitude test flight lasted around 7-minutes and Starship glided down the sky to attempt landing. On February 2nd, SpaceX launched Starship SN9 but failed to land it. Then on March 3rd the next prototype in line, Starship SN10, lifted off the sandy beach and performed an incredible flight, however, minutes after landing it exploded. Starship SN11 had a similar fate, it blasted off into a foggy sky on March 30, performed a flawless belly-flop landing maneuver like all previous prototypes but exploded before landing. SpaceX founder Elon Musk then decided to skip Starship prototypes SN12 through SN14, in order to launch an improved spacecraft prototype that would address the issue. The next stainless-steel vehicle, Starship SN15 conducted a flawless flight and landed successfully on May 5th. “These test flights of Starship are all about improving our understanding and development of a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration interplanetary flights, and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond,” the company said. Finally landing a Starship is a milestone that enabled the company to move on to manufacture the Starship/Super Heavy that will attempt the first orbital flight test.
SPACEX STACKS STARSHIP ATOP SUPER HEAVY FOR THE FIRST TIME
By August, SpaceX completed the assembly of the first orbital Starship prototype, identified as SN20, and the Super Heavy rocket that will propel it to orbit, Booster 4. On August 6, SpaceX stacked Starship atop Super Heavy for the first time. The awe-inspiring view made space enthusiasts excited about the future. The rocket-ship stood taller than the Statue of Liberty, at 394-feet-high it is the world’s largest rocket and it is set to become the most powerful as well. Musk shared stunning photographs of the launch vehicle and said that it is a “Dream come true” to see the vehicle he designed finally stacked at the Starbase launch pad. “An honor to work with such a great team,” Musk said. The Super Heavy booster is equipped with 29 methane-burning Raptor engines capable of generating over 12 million pounds of thrust! The Starship SN20 is equipped with six Raptor engines, the three with the larger nozzle are optimized for the vacuum of space (pictured below). The first orbital flight is planned for early 2022, so next year is guaranteed to be even more exciting for space enthusiasts. Engineers are already conducting pre-flight ground tests of Starship SN20 and Booster 4 to ensure the vehicles are ready for flight.
SpaceX also completed the construction of the first orbital Super Heavy-class launch tower at Starbase Boca Chica that will support Starship missions. The 400-foot-tall tower features giant robotic claw-like arms designed to 'catch' the Starship and Super Heavy vehicles as each conducts a propulsive descent. Musk nicknamed the tower arms 'Mechazilla' the company could test the new rocket recovery mechanism sometime in 2022.
An honor to work with such a great team— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 6, 2021
INSPIRATION4 - THE WORLD’S FIRST ALL-CIVILIAN MISSION TO ORBIT EARTH
This year SpaceX made history when it launched the Inspiration4 spaceflight on September 15. It is the world’s first all-civilian mission to orbit the Earth for three days aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft. Inspiration4 crew members Shift4Payments founder Jared Isaacman, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Physician Assistant Hayley Arceneaux, Geoscience Professor Dr. Sian Proctor, and Air Force veteran/Lockheed Martin engineer Chris Sembroski, got to enjoy beautiful views of Earth and experience zero gravity. The non-professional astronaut crew only trained for around six months to embark on the once-in-a-lifetime adventure. They lifted off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and became the first all-civilian crew to orbit Earth at a max altitude of 585-kilometers, which is higher than the International Space Station and the orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope. The Inspiration4 crew used their new-found fame to fundraise $200 million for St. Jude. Their journey even became a Netflix documentary series called 'Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission To Space'.
The moment when me and my amazing crew, @rookisaacman, @ArceneauxHayley, @ChrisSembroski opened up the @SpaceX cupola for the first time, a true highlight of the @inspiration4x mission. Make sure you tune into Countdown on @netflix to see more epic moments from space! @TIME pic.twitter.com/AKmturr9Du— Dr. Sian “Leo” Proctor (@DrSianProctor) September 21, 2021
Amazing views from Crew Dragon Resilience’s cupola. @ArceneauxHayley, @DrSianProctor, @ChrisSembroski & I were so fortunate to have this perspective and we will do all we can to share the experience with the 🌎. The @inspiration4x mission to inspire and support @StJude continues pic.twitter.com/jiZK8hsBJo— Jared Isaacman (@rookisaacman) September 22, 2021
NASA COMMERCIAL CREW MISSIONS TO THE SPACE STATION
SpaceX also launched eight astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program in 2021 and transported around 28,000 pounds of cargo and scientific research to and from the orbiting laboratory. SpaceX returned human spaceflight capabilities to the United States in 2020, throughout the year it continued on track to launch the agency’s manifest. NASA initially planned to conduct rotational crewed missions by alternating flights between SpaceX and Boeing; the agency purchased 6 crew flights from each company. However, Boeing fell behind with its Starliner spacecraft development and SpaceX conducted all crewed missions with Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon this year (the Crew-2 and Crew-3 astronaut missions to the ISS). The agency decided to extend SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Program contract to include three additional flights to give Boeing time to test its spacecraft next year.
SPACEX FALCON 9 LAUNCHES NASA PLANETARY DEFENSE MISSION
SpaceX launched NASA’s first planetary defense mission led by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) on November 24. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), will test asteroid deflection technology to defend Earth against future potential asteroid impacts by intentionally crashing a spacecraft into a binary asteroid system to determine whether a collision could effectively change a small asteroid’s orbital speed. A previously-flown SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, propelling the DART spacecraft towards the 'Dimorphos’ asteroid which orbits a larger asteroid named ‘Didymos’. The agency expects DART to arrive to the binary asteroid system sometime between September 26 and October 1, 2022. The DART spacecraft will smash into Dimorphos at a speed of approximately 15,000 miles per hour. NASA scientists estimate the kinetic impact will shorten Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos by several minutes. Astronomers will also use ground-based telescopes and radar to gather data of the collision effects. This event will be something to look forward to in the new year!
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All Featured Images Source: SpaceX & NASA