Story by Jamie Groh
CAPE CANAVERAL – SpaceX is taking back-to-back launches to a new level this week. If everything goes to plan, the company is set to shatter one of the Space Coast’s longest-held rocket launch records on Friday, Dec. 16.
Between 4 and 5 p.m., the year’s 55th and 56th launches are set to liftoff potentially less than 35 minutes apart. The missions will occur from the company’s two Florida launch pads – Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Pad-39A at Kennedy Space Center.
Friday could rewrite the record for the quickest turnaround between orbital launches from the Space Coast which has stood since November 11, 1966. On that day, James Lovell and Buzz Aldrin launched aboard the Gemini 12 mission just 90 minutes after the launch of the Agena Target Vehicle they would later meet up with in orbit to practice rendezvous and docking with.
SpaceX did not respond to inquiries from FLORIDA TODAY, part of the USA TODAY Network, for this story.
While the company is notoriously tight-lipped with information about its launch practices, last month Sarah Walker, SpaceX director of Dragon mission management, told reporters “We can utilize different control rooms and different personnel and work together with our various customers on the minimum spacing between launches.”
“We could support launches on the same day, off of the two different pads,” Walker said.
The company’s quickest turnaround between launches stands at about 15 hours. That record goes back to December 2021.
SpaceX flew a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Dec. 18 that year taking a stack of Starlink satellites to orbit. Then 15 hours later, from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station a second Falcon 9 lofted the Turksat 5B mission for Turkey.
History of double launches
While Friday’s feat is set to be remarkable, double daily launches from the Space Coast isn’t completely unheard of. The last time it occurred was just four months ago.
Thirteen hours apart, United Launch Alliance and SpaceX both hosted launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on August 4.
Launching multiple rockets on consecutive days, let alone hours or minutes apart, was once difficult for the U.S. Air Force’s Eastern Range, John Tribe, a retired Apollo program engineer, told FLORIDA TODAY.
But, with “the advent of the autonomous flight termination system the range can now support shorter flight intervals and Friday’s schedule reflects that,” he said.
That’s a change that was implemented for the first time on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 CRS-10 resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA in February 2017.
A self-contained, independent system mounted to the launch vehicle designed to deliberately destroy a rocket in the event of an emergency, the Autonomous Flight Safety System “provides the capability to not only reduce reliance on aging range infrastructure, but enhances the ability to support more launches by expediting range turnaround times with more stringent safety standards and fewer people on console while reducing overall launch costs,” a 2017 U.S. Air Force statement explained.
What’s being launched on Friday? When are launch times?
Up first on Friday, A Falcon 9 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station will loft a pair of internet communications satellites for its customer SES, a Luxembourg-based satellite operator. Liftoff is set for between 4:21 p.m. and 5:49 p.m.
Then, between 4:54 and 5:13 p.m., at nearby Pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center another Falcon 9 will send another batch of SpaceX’s own internet-beaming Starlink satellites to orbit.
Both missions are expected to feature first-stage Falcon 9 booster landings on separate drone ships stationed in the Atlantic Ocean a short time after liftoff.
“The diminishing time between missions is impressive but not as impressive to me as the continued SpaceX successes in landing and reusing their (Falcon 9) first stages,” said Tribe, “That was inconceivable to us in days gone by and still blows my mind.”
Weather forecast promising
As for the weather for Friday’s potential record-breaker, forecasters with the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron said in a report on Tuesday that launch conditions for both missions are expected to be 90% “go.” A cold front should pass later in the week and only a slight chance of clouds should linger for Friday’s launch attempts.
“After the front pushes through, drier and cooler air will begin to filter into the area by Friday afternoon,” Space Force forecasters said Tuesday. “The only concern for Friday’s attempt is the small risk of a Thick Cloud Layers Rule violation from any lingering mid-level cloud cover.”
Should they be needed, backup launch opportunities around the same time on Saturday, will see weather conditions deteriorate slightly to 70% “go.”
“By Saturday, even though the front will remain to our south, a mid-level disturbance will bring in some additional moisture from the Gulf and increase cloud cover in the area,” forecasters said.