In a busy day for America’s space industry, SpaceX launched 59 small payloads aboard a Falcon 9 rocket Wednesday just one minute before Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule undocked from the International Space Station and flew itself to a picture-perfect landing in New Mexico to close out a successful unpiloted test flight.
The Falcon 9 blasted off from pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 2:35 p.m. EDT, climbing away atop 1.7 million pounds of thrust. The first stage, making its eighth flight, successfully landed back at the launch site eight-and-a-half minutes later.
While SpaceX was managing its 22nd launch so far this year, the Starliner capsule undocked from the space station’s forward port at 2:36 p.m. Four hours and 13 minutes later, after a fiery plunge back to Earth, the spacecraft settled to an on-target parachute-and-airbag-assisted touchdown at White Sands Space Harbor, New Mexico, to close out a six-day flight.
It was a welcome moment for Boeing, more than two years after the Starliner’s initial test flight in December 2019 suffered embarrassing software and communications glitches that prevented rendezvous and docking with the space station. An attempted reflight in August 2021 was scrubbed due to corroded propulsion system valves.
This time around, with multiple upgrades and fixes in place, the capsule chalked up a solid performance, docking with the space station the day after itsatop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.
While flight controllers ran into a few relatively minor problems along the way, the Starliner’s navigation, flight control, communications and other critical systems appeared to work well, raising hopes Boeing may be able to launch astronauts on a piloted test flight to the ISS before the end of the year.
NASA is especially eager to get the Starliner certified for operational crew rotation missions to provide redundancy and assured access to space in case of a launch mishap, abort or other problem that might ground a rocket system and otherwise prevent U.S. astronauts from reaching the station.
When the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry in 2003, NASA was unable to launch astronauts for two-and-a-half years and was forced to buy seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft until the shuttle returned to flight.
With two U.S. providers, NASA managers are confident the agency can keep the station staffed as required with U.S. and partner-agency astronauts throughout the life of the program.
SpaceX, of course, is equally critical to NASA’s plans and the company continued its blistering launch pace Wednesday as its latest Falcon 9 climbed smoothly away from Cape Canaveral and into its planned initial orbit. It was the 156th launch of a Falcon 9 and the fifth so far this month.
The well-traveled first stage landed back at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station after boosting the upper stage and payload out of the dense lower atmosphere, chalking up the company’s 121st successful booster recovery and its 23rd in Florida.
The second stage, meanwhile, was expected to reach its final orbit 56 minutes after launch.
On board were 59 small satellites and other payloads making up SpaceX’s fifth dedicated Transporter “rideshare” mission, part of a company initiative to provide low-cost access to space for smaller satellites that might otherwise have problems hitching rides on higher-priority missions.
The Transporter 5 manifest included “CubeSats, microsats, non-deploying hosted payloads and orbital transfer vehicles,” SpaceX said, of which 41 were to be deployed. All were expected to be released from the Falcon 9 second stage within an hour and 15 minutes of launch.