By William Harwood CBS News December 3, 2018, 1:59 PM SpaceX launches 64 "smallsats" in record flight

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off Dec. 3, 2018, carrying a payload of 64 small satellites.


A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket using a first stage making a record third flight vaulted away from the California coast Monday to boost 64 small satellites into orbit for a wide variety of government, academic and private-sector users — including artists — in a flight chartered by Seattle-based Spaceflight.

The Falcon 9's first stage landed successfully on an off-shore drone ship — the "Just Read The Instructions" — in SpaceX's 32nd recovery of a spent booster. The company also hoped to recover one or both of the rocket's protective payload fairing using a huge net on a ship known as "Mr. Steven."

SpaceX founder Elon Musk says the new "block 5" stages are designed fly dozens of times with minimal refurbishment between launchings, a key element in the company's drive to lower launch costs by recovering and re-flying the Falcon 9's first stage.

This was the company's 18th launch of a previously flown first stage. Going into Monday's flight, SpaceX's record stood at 19 successful drone ship recoveries, 11 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and one at Vandenberg Air Force Base northwest of Los Angeles.

Monday's flight got underway at 10:32 a.m. PST (GMT-8; 1:32 p.m. EST) when the Falcon 9's nine Merlin 1C first stage engines ignited with a rush of flame and steaming exhaust, pushing the slender 130-foot-tall rocket away from pad 4-East at Vandenberg.

Liftoff came five days late, first because of predicted high winds and then an additional day to allow unspecified inspections of the Falcon 9's second stage. But it was clear sailing Monday with an on-time launch and a spectacular southerly climb out of the thick lower atmosphere.

The first stage engines shut down and fell away about two minutes and 24 seconds after liftoff. The flight plan called for the single Merlin engine powering the second stage to fire for about seven-and-a-half minutes to complete the trip to a 375-mile-high orbit around Earth's poles.

Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express by SpaceX on YouTube

The first stage, meanwhile, was expected to flip around and plunge back into the lower atmosphere for a landing on the deck of the "Of Course I Still Love You" about seven minutes and 45 seconds after launch.

Spaceflight booked the Falcon 9 to launch 64 small so-called "smallsats" provided by 34 government and private-sector companies and organizations representing 17 nations, including the U.S. Defense Department, the Earth-observation company Planet, universities and even two art museums. One sponsored a balloon that will inflate in orbit and be visible from the ground.

The Falcon 9 purchased by Spaceflight was the first fully dedicated to a smallsat "rideshare" mission using a single rocket to carry dozens of spacecraft to orbit that otherwise might have difficulty finding a ride to space. The current record is held by an Indian rocket that launched 104 small satellites earlier this year.

"The mission … signifies the company's first dedicated rideshare mission to a sun-synchronous low-Earth orbit," Spaceflight said in a statement. "It also represents the company's purchase of an entire Falcon 9 to accommodate the growing number of domestic, international, government and commercial customers seeking affordable rideshare options to launch their spacecraft into orbit."