SpaceX tied a 42-year-old record with its 61st and final Falcon rocket launch of this year. On December 29th, at 11:38 pm PST a Falcon 9 lifted off from the company’s Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) SLC-4E pad. It was carrying a tiny Earth Observation satellite for Israeli company ImageSat International.
The satellite was built by Israeli Aircraft Industries, the EROS C3 space telescope is the third of its kind. It likely weighed just 400 kilograms (~900 lb) at liftoff, utilizing less than 1/40th of Falcon 9’s available performance in a reusable configuration. The extremely light payload precluded the need for SpaceX to send the drone ship, Of Course, I Still Love You (OCISLY) several hundred kilometers into the Pacific Ocean, likely saving several hundred thousand dollars. Instead, Falcon 9 booster B1061 lifted off for the 11th time, carried EROS C3 and an expendable Falcon 9 upper stage most of the way into space, and then boosted back towards the California coast to land less than a quarter-mile from SLC-4E.
Falcon 9’s first stage has landed on Landing Zone 4 pic.twitter.com/kEAYITOoQX
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 30, 2022
EROS C3 was SpaceX’s 170th consecutively successful Falcon launch, 160th successful landing, and 132nd launch with a reused booster. But more importantly, the mission was also SpaceX’s 61st successful Falcon launch this year, tying a record that hasn’t been touched since 1980.
The R-7 workhorse rockets
In 1980, after two decades of gradual buildup, the Soviet Union managed to launch variants of its R-7 workhorse rocket 64 times in one calendar year. 61 of those launches were successful, setting a record that has been left unchallenged for decades. Only the R-7 family ever posed a threat to its own record, managing 55 successful launches in 1988, but its launch cadence, heavily driven by disposable Cold War reconnaissance satellites, plummeted with the fall of the Soviet Union and has never recovered.
Only in 2022, almost half a century later has the R-7 family finally found a worthy challenger for its annual launch cadence record. That the challenger is a private company that had to legally force its way into parts of the US launch industry is arguably one of the deepest possible condemnations of the relative stagnancy of US space launch capabilities experienced after the Apollo Program. But it also makes SpaceX’s achievement, accomplished with rockets that did not exist before the late 2000s, even more impressive. Similar to the Soviet peak, an extraordinary period during which the R-7 family successfully launched 1181 times in 22 years, there is one main driving force behind the recent surge in SpaceX’s launch cadence. But instead of the Cold War, the force behind Falcon’s rise is SpaceX’s own constellation of Starlink internet satellites. Since operational launches began in November 2019, Starlink satellites were the primary payload on 66 of the last 125 Falcon launches. In 2022 alone, SpaceX launched 34 Starlink missions.