Ho hum. It’s Thursday, April 21, and around 2:00 p.m. EST, booster B1060 — the latest SpaceX Falcon 9 mission — thundered skywards from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 40, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. Two and a half minutes into the flight, the first stage booster rocket separated, returned to Earth, and within six minutes successfully landed on the “Just Read the Instructions” drone ship 100 miles off the coast of Florida to be refurbished and flown again. The nose cone fairings separated and parachuted back to Earth for recovery and reuse. The second stage continued into the vacuum of space, and within an hour successfully deployed the entire payload of 53 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit.
It’s the 12th orbital mission for this particular Falcon 9 reusable first stage rocket, the 115th successful recovery of a Falcon booster, the 15th SpaceX launch of the year, and the fourth launch this month. A fifth SpaceX launch to send NASA’s Crew-4 to the International Space Station is scheduled within 48 hours after the splashdown of the Axiom-1 crew capsule scheduled for Saturday. Another Starlink mission will launch from SLC-40 the first week in May.
Ho hum? Maybe. But the utility, reliability, and affordability of these SpaceX “milk runs” are important — and not just for cementing affordable commercial access to space. The ability to rapidly deploy communication platforms — civilian and military — constitutes an existential priority for the Western world.
The number and capabilities of anti-satellite “hunter-killer” satellites currently in orbit remain shrouded in secrecy. But it is no secret that both Red China and Russia consider space to be the ultimate military high ground and have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to destroy satellites with ground-based missiles.
Last Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris renounced “direct ascent” anti-satellite missile testing. On Wednesday, speaking at the Shriever Space Futures Forum in Beverly Hills, California, head of U.S. Space Systems Command Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein cushioned Harris’s seeming capitulation by touting Tac-RL — a plan to “rapidly” replace satellites shot out of the sky. Last year, Space Command tested the concept by executing a “21-day call-up to get a satellite in orbit, pulling the payload, and integrating the air-launched three-stage Pegasus XL rocket package onto the aircraft,” a Northrop Grumman–modified Stargazer L-1011.
Presumably, an aircraft-launched rocket that can deploy satellites is more tactical, more militarily viable, than rockets blasting off from fixed launchpads. But still.
SpaceX can mate reusable rocket components within days and launch up to five rockets per week, and it has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to deploy “ride-share” combinations of military and civilian satellites, spacecraft, and space platforms into a variety of orbits. SpaceX is not the only U.S. space corporation, and while no other private space corporation has demonstrated SpaceX’s speed, affordability, volume, or reliability, together, they represent a potentially deep resource to replace satellites faster than a committed foe — or even a united front of foes — can shoot them down.
There’s nothing ho-hum about that.
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