Having launched 31 orbital Falcon 9 missions and four suborbital Starship tests, 2021 was the most active year for SpaceX to date. These launches included a number of new reuse records, including flying a booster for the eleventh time, flying the same booster twice in under a month, flying a fairing half for the fifth time, and setting a turnaround record for Dragon.

Falcon 9 Boosters

2021 brought only two new Falcon 9s into the fleet: B1067 and B1069, which first flew on the CRS-22 and CRS-24 missions, respectively.  All of the other 29 Falcon 9 missions were flown on flight-proven boosters. These flights included the first eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh flight of a first stage, meeting and surpassing CEO Elon Musk’s stated goal to fly a Falcon 9 first stage 10 times without major refurbishment.

In 2021, each flight used a booster that had flown an average of 5.7 times, which is up from 2020’s 3.6 average flights per mission:

Year
-1 flights
-2 flights
-3 flights
-4 flights
-5 flights
-6 flights
-7 flights
-8 flights
-9 flights
-10 flights
-11 flights

2017
13
5
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0

2018
10
12
1
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0

2019
7
5
4
1
0
0
0
0
0
0
0

2020
5
3
4
6
4
2
2
0
0
0
0

2021
2
4
4
2
3
3
2
4
4
2
1

During these 31 missions, SpaceX successfully landed and recovered all but one of the boosters. On February 16, B1059 was lost during the Starlink v1.0 L19 mission due to a hole forming in the engine’s boot – a cover that protects the engine from thermal loads of the exhaust – which led to an early shut down of the engine. The primary mission was still a success, but the first stage did not land on SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) Of Course I Still Love You.

The booster’s Guidance & Control (G&C) system realized that the booster would not be able to safely make it to the ASDS, so the booster intentionally diverted to ensure no damage would be done to the drone ship.

Welcome home, Falcon 9 B1051. This magnificently used looking rocket has flown to space and back 11 times, no big deal. @NASASpaceflight pic.twitter.com/dM2d4eBuI1

— Jack Beyer (@thejackbeyer) December 20, 2021

The 31 missions in 2021 were supported by only 10 Falcon 9 boosters: B1049, B1051, B1058, B1059, B1060, B1061, B1062, B1063, B1067, and B1069. This means that each booster supported an average of 3.1 missions, which is an all time high and up from 2020, which sat at 2.4 missions per booster.

Having not launched a single (intentionally) expendable mission in 2021, SpaceX successfully recovered the first stage on all 30 other Falcon 9 flights. This resulted in SpaceX’s 100th ever Falcon landing on their final mission of the year, CRS-24, and the highest percentage of boosters recovered in a year for SpaceX to date, having only lost a single booster throughout the entire year.

Year
Successful Landed
Landing Failure
Expended booster (No Attempt)
Successful Sea Trial
Sea Trial Failure
Precluded
Landing Success Rate
Percentage Of Boosters Landed

2010
0
2
0
0
0
0
0%
0%

2011
0
0
0
0
0
0
0%
0%

2012
0
0
2
0
0
0
0%
0%

2013
0
0
2
0
1
1
0%
0%

2014
0
0
3
2
1
1
0%
0%

2015
1
2
2
1
0
0
33.3%
14.3%

2016
5
3
0
0
0
0
62.5%
55.6%

2017
14
0
3
1
0
0
100%
77.8%

2018
12
2
8
1
0
0
85.7%
52.2%

2019
15
1
1
0
0
0
93.8%
88.2%

2020
23
2
1
0
0
0
92.0%
88.5%

2021
30
1
0
0
0
0
96.8%
96.8%

B1052, which previously supported the Arabsat-6A and STP-2 missions, was converted from a Falcon Heavy side core to a Falcon 9 booster. With the loss of B1059, B1067 and B1069 being added, and B1052 being converted into a Falcon 9, the Falcon 9 fleet now lies at 10 active boosters.

Falcon B1052 rolled by the press site with an upper stage attached. This booster that had previously served as a Falcon Heavy side booster on 2 missions has now been converted to fly as a Falcon 9! Cool! pic.twitter.com/E0w9Rz1rUg

— Stephen Marr (@spacecoast_stve) December 8, 2021

2021 also saw a large reduction in turnaround times. The fastest turnaround time of a booster was brought down by nearly a factor of two, from 51.1 days between SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission and the ANASIS-II mission in 2020 to 27.2 days between Starlink v1.0 L18 and L22 in 2021.

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Additionally, the average turnaround time significantly decreased in 2021, continuing the trend from previous years. In 2017, when SpaceX first started reusing boosters, the average turnaround time between flights was 225 days. This then slightly decreased in 2018, when the average was 224 days. 2019 saw a significant decrease to 140 days, and 2020 saw yet another decrease to 113.8 days. In 2021, the average turnaround time across the 31 flights was 94 days, with an impressive 56 day average in the first quarter.

Payload Fairings

A similar story is true for fairing halves: 2021 saw an increase in both the amount of flight-proven fairing halves flown and increased number of flights per half. In 2021, SpaceX flew 25 missions using payload fairings, for a total of 50 fairing halves launched (the other six Falcon missions were Dragon, and therefore did not have fairings).

33 (66%) of these payload fairing halves were flight-proven, which is a significant increase from previous years. For comparison, in 2020, less than 30% of the fairing halves flown were flight proven.

Due to SpaceX foregoing fairing catch attempts, and subsequently retiring GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief and replacing them first with two interim ships – Shelia Bordelon and HOS Briarwood – and later two permanent replacements – Bob and Doug – SpaceX recovered a higher percentage of fairings in 2021 compared to previous years:

Year
Recovered Fairing Halves in good condition
Re-flown Fairing Halves

2017
0
0

2018
8
0

2019
10
2

2020
35
12

2021
43
33

Of these flights, five halves had flown for the fourth time and two had flown for the fifth, both of which had yet to happen before 2021. Despite the increase in number of flights, SpaceX fell short of Musk’s goal to fly a payload fairing 10 times by the end of 2021.

Ahem, yes, it was the 3rd flight of this booster & 3rd flight for active half of fairing. Aiming for 10+ flights of booster & fairing by end of next year.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 6, 2020

Dragon Reuse

2021 saw the first reuse of a Dragon 2 spacecraft and the first launch of humans onboard a flight-proven Dragon. C206 Endeavour was first reused on the Crew-2 mission in April of this year with a 263.6 day turnaround time between Demo-2 splashdown and Crew-2 launch – the shortest turnaround time of a Dragon spacecraft, ever. 

This turnaround time record was later beaten by a 227.2 day turnaround time of Cargo Dragon C208 between the CRS-21 and CRS-23 missions.

This was later beaten again by C207 Resilience which was refurbished and retrofitted with a glass cupola in just 136.7 days between Crew-1 splashdown and Inspiration4 launch.

On CRS-24, Cargo Dragon C209 was turned around in 164.3 days. With the four flight-proved Dragon 2 flights in 2021, the Dragon 2 average turnaround time is already over three and a half times lower than Dragon 1, at 198.0 and 703.9 day turnaround times, respectively.

These trends are expected to continue in 2022, with a possibility of over 50 Falcon flights and multiple orbital Starship flights.

(Lead photo: Falcon 9 B1067 is processed in Port Canaveral following the Turksat-5B mission. Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF)

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