SpaceX’s first successful commercial mission came off almost without a hitch last week. Almost. Despite landing safely on a drone ship off the Florida coast, one of the three boosters was lost before it could return to dry land.
By design, the two outboard boosters returned safely to land, while the larger, center booster successfully touched down on an unmanned ship in the Atlantic. But high seas tumbled the booster from the platform before the assembly could reach dock. Normally, after a booster lands on the floating platform, it’s secured by the so-called Octagrabber. In this case, however, changes to the design of the Falcon 9 stage prevented its use. SpaceX says it will make modifications to the grabber so future missions will be able to employ it.
According to SpaceX, “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 8- to 10-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.”
On Twitter, Elon Musk said, cryptically, that the booster might not be a total loss. “Engines seem ok, pending inspection,” he said. Upgrades to the Falcon 9 rockets, which when bundled in threes are called Falcon Heavy, are said to make them reusable as many as 10 times with a modest amount of reworking between flights.