SpaceX Falcon 9 landing leg accidentally dropped during retraction attempt

Falcon 9 B1060 arrived in Port Canaveral on July 4th after its June 30th launch debut. (Richard Angle)

SpaceX has accidentally dropped one of its newest Falcon 9 booster’s landing legs during a retraction attempt in Port Canaveral while crews worked to prepare the rocket for transport.

Falcon 9 booster B1060 safely arrived in Port Canaveral, Florida on July 4th after a flawless June 30th launch debut, delivering the US military’s GPS III SV03 navigation satellite to an accurate orbit and becoming the first SpaceX rocket to launch and land as part of an operational US military mission. The major landing milestone was supported by drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) as part of its second East Coast recovery mission ever after an ~8000 km (~5000 mi) journey from Los Angeles and months of slow and steady upgrades.

Thankfully, despite the mishap caught on camera by diligent, unofficial observers, things appeared to work out just fine for booster B1060 as crews threaded recovery operations between bouts of disruptive Florida weather.

Based on video of the accidental leg drop captured by US Launch Report on July 7th, the most obvious conclusion is that operators either failed to release tension on a winch line or some kind of hardware/software/sensor failure unintentionally over-stressed the line. Regardless, around the same time as Falcon 9 or its ground operators were likely commanding the landing leg latch closed, one or both of the lines attached to the top of the retracting leg snapped, causing it to very quickly redeploy as gravity pulled it back to earth.

Almost certainly by design, nobody was underneath the ~1000 kg (~2200 lb) landing leg during retraction, and a small stand used to prop up the leg for winch line installation seems to have been moved out of the line of fire as part of the process. As a result, when the leg was accidentally released, it simply fell onto drone ship JRTI’s flat, steel deck under its own weight. Most importantly, nobody was (visibly) injured or at risk of injury

Jump to ~3:45 to catch one of SpaceX’s 2018 landing leg deployment tests on a recovered booster.

The landing leg’s impact and aftershock looks undeniably harsh in the footage but the reality is that SpaceX has already performed almost identical tests (albeit intentionally) on recovered boosters while leg retraction was still in development. Captured in the video above, B1049’s September 2018 leg retraction and deployment test appeared to be marginally gentler than B1060’s accidental leg smack, and B1049 went on to complete four more orbital-class launches without issue. That still ignores the fact that Falcon 9’s landing legs are designed to withstand extremely rough landings of entire ~30 metric ton boosters traveling up to several meters per second (~5 mph) – vastly more force than a single landing leg can exert on itself with gravity as the only input.

(Richard Angle)

Confirming those suspicions, SpaceX ultimately got back on the saddle after a few slight weather delays and successfully retracted all four of B1060’s landing legs without issue. The once-flown rocket was quickly broken over (referring to the process of lowering it horizontally) and installed on a custom transporter, which will soon move it from Port Canaveral to a nearby SpaceX hangar (likely Pad 39A’s) to prepare for its next launch.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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