SpaceX almost loses Falcon 9 booster at sea

After more than a week at sea, the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster responsible for the company’s 100th successful landing finally returned to port on Wednesday, revealing that it nearly toppled into the sea during the recovery process.

Falcon 9 B1069 completed its first launch without issue early on December 21st, carrying a reused Cargo Dragon capsule into space and sending it on its way towards orbit and the International Space Station (ISS). Nine minutes after liftoff, it touched down on drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) without any apparent issue, more or less hitting the platform’s painted bullseye. While it’s difficult to determine with certainty, B1069 appeared to be in fine condition after landing, standing roughly straight up with all nine Merlin 1D engines well above the drone ship’s deck.

That was decidedly not the case when the once-flown Falcon 9 booster finally sailed into Port Canaveral eight and a half days later.

B1069 after its first landing. (SpaceX)

There remains plenty of ambiguity about how exactly things transpired after the landing but when B1069 was finally within eyeshot, the booster was significantly damaged, riding low on all four legs, inches away from falling off the drone ship’s deck, and only partially attached to the “Octagrabber” robot tasked with securing it. Based on photos of the damaged rocket taken by Teslarati photographer Richard Angle, most or all of B1069’s nine Merlin 1D (M1D) engines suffered likely irreparable damage to their fragile bell nozzles.

From the ragged nature of the damage to those nozzles, it appears that B1069 somehow fell on top of the drone ship’s Octagrabber robot during or after its recovery attempt, as the creases would be far cleaner if the booster had merely landed hard and pressed its M1D nozzles against the deck. But a very short fall onto Octagrabber still doesn’t quite explain the apparent damage to one of the booster’s landing legs or the fact that it’s sitting lower to the deck than usual – both potentially indicative of a hard landing.

Falcon 9 B1069 nearly broke from of the steel I-beam ‘fence’ that surrounds drone ship’s JRTI’s deck. (Richard Angle)

What is clear, though, is that SpaceX struggled to secure the rocket shortly after its first landing. Per the CRS-24 webcast, B1069 landed just shy of dead center. Likely as a result of poor sea conditions, SpaceX was unable to quickly grab the booster with Octagrabber, which uses giant clamps and its own weight to hold Falcon first stages in place. B1069 then clearly slid around drone ship JRTI’s deck at the whim of the ocean. Before SpaceX could secure it, the booster slammed into the side of the drone ship hard enough to partially flatten a steel safety barrier that runs along its port and starboard beams – a barrier specifically put in place to prevent wayward boosters from sliding off the deck.

Thankfully, above all else, there is no obvious reason that SpaceX won’t be able to repair the damage that was wrought. Replacing all nine of B1069’s engines will heavily delay the booster’s return to flight and probably singlehandedly cost SpaceX at least $5-10 million, but that cost is still far less than scrapping it and building a new booster. Aside from that, it’s possible that B1069’s fall will preclude strict customers like NASA or the US military from reusing the booster to launch their payloads, which the booster would have otherwise been a shoo-in for with just a single NASA launch on its record.

B1061.5, December 14th. (Richard Angle)

While CRS-24 and B1069’s dramatic return was SpaceX’s last launch and booster recovery of the year, the company did safely recovery several other boosters sans damage in the days and weeks prior. On December 14th, Falcon 9 B1061 was spotted being craned onto dry land after its fifth launch – NASA’s tiny IXPE X-ray space telescope.

Falcon 9 booster B1067 arrived at Port Canaveral not long after but spent most of the winter holiday sitting on drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG) as many SpaceX employees took a well-deserved break. The thrice-flown booster was ultimately lifted onto the dock and broken over a few days before B1069 finally sailed into port, setting it up for a fourth launch in the very near future.

Ultimately, while the damage B1069 and JRTI’s Octagrabber seemingly suffered are a significant annoyance and will take a good deal of time and money to fix, SpaceX still has ten other operational Falcon 9 boosters ready to support a potentially record-breaking 2022 launch manifest.

Eric Ralph: Eric Ralph is Teslarati's senior spaceflight reporter and has been covering the industry in some capacity for almost half a decade, largely spurred in 2016 by a trip to Mexico to watch Elon Musk reveal SpaceX's plans for Mars in person. Aside from spreading interest and excitement about spaceflight far and wide, his primary goal is to cover humanity's ongoing efforts to expand beyond Earth to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere.
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