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Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Thursday hosted back-to-back rocket launches in an occurrence that hasn’t happened since 1966.
SpaceX’s KPLO Falcon 9 mission lifted off at 7:08 pm EDT from Pad 40 less than thirteen hours after the sunrise launch of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from neighboring Pad 41 which occurred at 6:29 am EDT.
The feat marks the quickest turnaround between orbital launches from the Space Coast since James Lovell and Buzz Aldrin’s Gemini 12 mission lifted off on November 11, 1966, 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.
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Thursday’s Falcon 9 launch featured the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, or KPLO, carefully packed inside the protective nosecone — an ambitious first mission to the moon for South Korea. KPLO is a satellite designed to orbit the moon with a suite of South Korean experiments and one US-built instrument, according to NASA.
The mission also featured a bonus payload, a mosaic made of hundreds of pictures of Tesla owners that was laser-etched onto glass. It was included as part of a Tesla-owner referral reward package that offered to “send (the pictures) into deep space orbit for millions of years.”
After liftoff, the rocket continued East before separating and dropping off the first stage for a landing aboard a drone ship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.
After a few days, a tug boat will tow the drone ship and booster back into Port Canaveral. SpaceX will collect it and refurbish it for reuse on a future mission.
In February Col. Mark Shoemaker, Space Launch Delta 45’s vice commander of operations, assumed that the Eastern Range, which includes Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, would break the record 31 missions launched in 2021.
“Prior to 2020, we would receive about 100 requests to launch per year,” Shoemaker said. “In 2021, we were getting over 200 requests. Now we project over 300 requests.”
So far, between SpaceX, ULA, and Astra, the Space Coast has hosted 34 orbital rocket launches this year.
More are on the way.
With that many requests, it’s feasible that the Eastern Range could continue the near-weekly cadence of rocket launches through the end of this year.
The end of August should bring with it the highly anticipated debut launch of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket which is expected to lure millions of thousands to the Space Coast for the Artemis I demonstration mission around the moon and back.
SpaceX is expected to launch at least one more crewed mission sending NASA’s Crew-5 to the International Space Station. A second crewed launch could squeak in with the Polaris Dawn Mission, a private venture funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman, slated to liftoff no earlier than December.
Of course, more SpaceX Falcon 9 Starlink launches can also be expected as the company continues to build out its massive in-orbit network of internet-beaming satellites.
For the latest, visit floridatoday.com/launchschedule.
Jamie Groh is a space reporter for Florida Today. You can contact her at JGroh@floridatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AlteredJamie.