Mother Nature has splashed cold water over SpaceX’s triumphant triple booster landing in the wake of last week’s Falcon Heavy rocket launch. Literally.
After sending the Arabsat-6 telecommunications satellite on the first leg of its journey to geostationary orbit on Thursday, the three first-stage rocket cores went their separate ways.
Two side boosters touched down safely at SpaceX’s Landing Zones 1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, not far from their launch pad. The center core landed on a drone ship christened “Of Course I Still Love You,” stationed several hundred miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.
The center core’s landing was a first. During the Falcon Heavy’s maiden launch in February 2018, the center core missed its target.
SpaceX was planning to reuse all three cores — as well as the two halves of the rocket’s nose cone, or fairing — on future launches. Unfortunately, the center core didn’t make the trip back to shore intact. Today SpaceX explained why in a statement:
“Over the weekend, due to rough sea conditions, SpaceX’s recovery team was unable to secure the center core booster for its return trip to Port Canaveral. As conditions worsened with eight- to ten-foot swells, the booster began to shift and ultimately was unable to remain upright. While we had hoped to bring the booster back intact, the safety of our team always takes precedence. We do not expect future missions to be impacted.”
SpaceX usually employs a system known as the “Octagrabber” to secure recovered Falcon 9 boosters on the drone ship’s deck, but that system couldn’t be used this time around because the Falcon Heavy core booster had a different mechanical interface. The company plans to use the system for the next Falcon Heavy mission, which could lift off as soon as June.
In other SpaceX news:
- NASA has selected SpaceX to provide launch services for the agency’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, which aims to demonstrate the capability to deflect an asteroid by hitting it with a spacecraft at high speed. SpaceX will get about $69 million for the 2021 launch on a Falcon 9 rocket. In a statement, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the award “underscores NASA’s confidence in Falcon 9’s capability to perform critical science missions while providing the best launch value in the industry.”
- The Wall Street Journal quoted Shotwell as expressing ambivalence about SpaceX’s plan to send thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit for global internet access. “It’s worthy of the hard thought and the hard work we’re putting into it. But is it feasible with our approach or not? It’s still [to be determined],” the Journal quoted her as saying in a February interview. Shotwell has expressed similar sentiments about the plan’s financial prospects going back as far as 2015.
Update for 11:30 a.m. PT April 18: The damage to the core booster could be clearly seen when it was brought back to shore. But in a tweet, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the booster’s Merlin “engines seem ok, pending inspection.” Here are some views of the booster on its recovery ship:
— Kyle Montgomery (@fragmen52_) April 18, 2019
BATTERED BOOSTER: The 3rd @SpaceX booster that landed successfully but damaged out at sea has arrived at Port Canaveral. Look closely and you can see the 2 fairings that were successfully salvaged from the ocean. pic.twitter.com/zzgfnFokrT
— Port Canaveral (@PortCanaveral) April 18, 2019
And then the view of the #SpaceXFleet from @Explorationtwr observation deck: Look closely & in addition to the #FalconHeavy center core you can find the #Arabsat6A fairing halves & a #Dragon capsule all while the VAB @ KSC looks on.
— Michael Seeley (@Mike_Seeley) April 18, 2019