SpaceX says it is on track to launch another set of Polar Starlink satellites from the West Coast as early as 10:39 a.m. PT (17:39 UTC), Thursday, July 21.
On top of delivering one of the fastest Falcon 9-boosted transitions ever, launching SpaceX’s Starlink 3-2 will more than halve the fastest lap of the Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) SLC-4E platform, making it capable of launching dozens of times each year.
Barring delays, the Starlink 3-2 from the SLC-4E is scheduled to launch just 10 days and 14 hours later than the same board that supports the Starlink 3-1. The current record – 22 days and 11 hours – was set between the launch of the German SARah-1 radar satellite and Starlink 3-1, meaning the SLC-4E is on track to break its own record twice in a row.
Most of the time since SpaceX began using the SLC-4E for the Falcon 9 launch in 2013, the board has rarely supported more than one launch every few months. Between 2013 and 2020, the board supported a total of 16 successful Falcon 9 launches. 15 were launched between January 2016 and November 2020, averaging one launch every four months and not flying twice in less than 36 days. Between January 2019 and September 2021, the platform only supported three launches and even lasted for 17 months without a single use.
In late 2021, something changed. On top of introducing custom launches for the West Coast Starlink, the obvious upgrades to the pad’s shift capabilities have allowed it to support more launches than usual. In the ten months since the SLC-4E came out of hibernation, it has supported nine Falcon 9 launches—five for Starlink and four for customers. Prior to 2021, the SLC-4E had never supported more than six launches in a ten-month period, meaning the board was already operating at 50% higher capacity.
However, SpaceX is clearly not satisfied and is on its way to significantly expanding the operational limitations of the SLC-4 once again, more than half. By definition, this also doubles the pad’s operational ceiling, meaning it can theoretically support about 34 launches per year without stopping. SpaceX appears to have achieved this expansion by applying the same upgrades it already made to its two East Coast launch pads, the LC-39A and LC-40, both of which had relevant turnaround records of about nine and eight days earlier this year. The SLC-4E will comfortably book the two with its impending 10.7-day turnaround.
Of course, no launcher routinely operates at the proven minimum, but a leap forward like the SLC-4E (22.5 to 10.7 days) all ensures that the platform will be able to launch more frequently as long as missiles and payloads are available. Over the past seven months, the LC-39A has averaged a firing time of once every 19 days—more than double its 9.1-day turnaround record. The LC-40, which generally handles simpler missions and only one of three different types of Falcon rockets, was able to launch one every 13 days over the same period—closer to its 8.2-day record but still a long way off.
Even if the SLC-4E’s average cadence settles somewhere between SpaceX’s two other pads, it will likely double its contribution to the company’s annual launch cadence and help speed up the deployment of its Starlink Internet constellation. If all three platforms could launch an average of one every two weeks, which is a goal within reach, SpaceX would have the capacity to launch 72 Falcon missiles per year — more than any other family of rockets in history.
Cushion aside, the Starlink 3-2 will be the fourth launch of the Falcon 9 Booster B1071 and the second launch in 33 days — the fifth fastest Falcon reuse from SoaceX since practice began in March 2017. Set at about 10:30 a.m. PT The Quiet (17:30) UTC) to watch the 32nd launch of the 2022 Falcon 9.