SpaceX breaks Space Shuttle pad record with Falcon 9 Starlink mission

SpaceX launches its 74th Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. This mission, combined with the preceding Falcon 9 launches and the nine Falcon Heavy flights, allowed SpaceX to surpass the total number of Space Shuttle launches from this pad. Image: Adam Bernstein/Spaceflight Now

Update 3:14 p.m. EDT: SpaceX landed the first stage booster, B1083, on the droneship, ‘A Shortfall of Gravitas.’

With a Wednesday afternoon launch, SpaceX’s Falcon family of rockets exceeded the total number of Space Shuttle missions from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The combination of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket launches passed the total number of shuttle flights seen at that pad.

They reached the milestone with the Starlink 6-56 mission, which launched on a Falcon 9 rocket at 2:42 p.m. EDT (1842 UTC), marking 83 orbital launches from SpaceX’s KSC pad. That’s one more than the 82 shuttle launches that took place over the 30-year history of that program.

The SpaceX flights are a combination of 74 Falcon 9 launches and nine Falcon Heavy launches.

The first stage booster supporting this mission, tail number B1083 in the SpaceX fleet, launched for a third time. It previously launched the Crew-8 mission to the International Space Station as well as the Starlink 6-48 mission.

A little more than eight minutes after liftoff, the booster touched down on the SpaceX droneship, ‘A Shortfall of Gravitas.’ This marked the 68th booster landing for ASOG and the 305 first stage landing for SpaceX to date.

Following the booster landing, Jared Isaacman, the commander of the forthcoming Polaris Dawn mission, posted a couple of times on X (formerly known as Twitter) in reaction to mentions of the mission. The comments fueled speculation that B1083 will be the booster that supports the launch of Isaacman and his three crew mates inside of the Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft.

During a Spaces event on X to talk about the Polaris Dawn mission, Stu Keech, the vice president of the Dragon program, noted that Crew Dragon Resilience was already in the Sunshine State, getting prepared for the launch. The mission will be highlighted by the operation of the first civilian spacewalk in history.

“It’s going through its prelaunch processing phase and the hardware is moving forward and on track for that early summer launch,” Keech said.

Growing constellation

Wednesday afternoon’s mission added another 23 Starlink satellites to the growing constellation. Prior to this launch, SpaceX has sent up 702 Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit in 2024 over the course of 31 launches.

According to expert orbital tracker and astronomer Jonathan McDowell, as of May 6 there are currently 5,935 Starlink satellites on orbit out of a total of 6,350 that have been launched to date.

Roughly half a day after the Starlink 6-56 mission launch, SpaceX aimed to add another 20 satellites to LEO with the Starlink 8-2 mission, lifting off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. That mission, set to launch at 7:48 p.m. PDT (10:48 p.m. EDT, 0248 UTC), includes 13 Starlink satellites that feature the Direct to Cell capability.

A Falcon 9 rocket transits behind the American flag at the Press Site of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 8, 2024. Image: Adam Bernstein/Spaceflight Now