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SpaceX has confirmed that bad weather and an unfortunate lack of hardware has caused the second-ever Falcon Heavy center core to slide off the deck of drone ship
Sadly, despite the fact that all three Falcon Heavy Block 5 boosters did successfully land after the rocket’s commercial launch debut, the accidental post-landing loss of center core B1055 takes a bit of the wind out of the sails of the whole recovery endeavor. Preventable hardware destruction aside, this should development should not detract from the critical fact that both side boosters – B1052 and B1053 – are safe and sound at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Landing Zone (LZ), and should still be able to support Falcon Heavy Flight 3 without delay. This anomaly also serves as a bit of an abrupt reminder of just how hard the safe landing and recovery of giant, orbital-class rocket boosters really is.
According to Musk, the (partial or total) loss of Falcon Heavy B1055 was caused by a combination of bad weather – causing “swells as high as 10 ft (3 m)” – and the surprising fact that SpaceX’s robotic rocket grabber had yet to be modified to support Falcon Heavy center cores. Octagrabber is used to secure Falcon boosters after drone ship landings in order to better ensure the safety of SpaceX’s recovery crew. In anything short of quiet seas, massive, emptied Falcon boosters frequently end up sliding around the drone ship deck – ironically, one of the flight-proven side boosters that flew on Falcon Heavy’s launch debut was almost lost to (apparently) the same failure mode that has now either destroyed or ruined B1055.
However, Musk also suggested that the Falcon Heavy booster’s engines could potentially be recovered and reused “pending inspection”, indicating that B1055 may still be partially sitting on OCISLY’s deck. A similar event happened back in 2016 when a Falcon 9 booster aggressively impacted OCISLY’s deck after running out of propellant, leaving behind its battered octaweb and not much else. In B1055’s case, the booster was almost certainly successfully safed, detanked, and depressurized, meaning that it probably didn’t explode when it tipped over and impacted the water and drone ship guardrail. SpaceX may even be able to recover the booster’s four valuable titanium grid fins and salvage additional hardware, depending on how much of the rocket remained intact and attached to OCISLY.
The sad loss of another Falcon Heavy center booster has once again preventing SpaceX recovery engineers from being able to fully analyze the unique rocket’s custom side booster attachment and separation hardware. Still, the fact that major sections (including the entire octaweb) may be recoverable means that B1055 will at least be able to produce more valuable data than center core #1, which smashed into the Atlantic at ~300 mph after its own debut.
A step further, the US Air Force recently indicated that Falcon Heavy Flight 3 – carrying its Space Test Program 2 (STP-2) rideshare mission – would indeed reuse both of this launch’s side boosters but would feature a brand new center core. This was announced well before B1055’s anomaly, indicating that SpaceX and the USAF are likely some
Falcon Heavy Flight 3 is currently scheduled to launch the USAF STP-2 mission no earlier than late June, with current information available to a major customer with satellites aboard pointing towards NET June 22. Of course, SpaceX has only had a handful of days with its recovered Block 5 side boosters, the refurbishment of which will now be the critical path for launch. If B1052 and B1053 are in exceptionally good shape, a distinct possibility thanks to their relatively gentle return-to-launch-site (RTLS) recoveries, then that late June date may very well hold.
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