If SpaceX manages to recover Falcon Heavy center core B1055, it will be the second rocket to return to port as boat. (Tom Cross)

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy center core goes overboard, Elon Musk still hopeful

Pictured here is B1050 in late 2018. If SpaceX manages to recover Falcon Heavy center core B1055, it will be the second rocket to return to port as boat. (Tom Cross)

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 Of Course I Still Love You, although CEO Elon Musk suggests that the rocket’s engine section could be recoverable.

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 not detract from the critical fact that 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 are.

According to Musk, the loss of Falcon Heavy B1055 was caused by a combination of bad weather 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 effected B1055.

Musk suggested that the Falcon Heavy booster’s Merlin 1D 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 during the 2016 launch of Eutelsat 117 West B, when a Falcon 9 booster aggressively impacted OCISLY’s deck after running out of propellant but left behind its battered octaweb. In B1055’s case, the booster was almost certainly 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.

In December 2018, Falcon 9 B1050 suffered a grid fin hydraulic pump failure that caused the Block 5 booster to lose control authority. Despite the struggle, it managed a soft landing and SpaceX may even attempt to reuse the booster in the future.

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 2018 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 reuse both of this launch’s side boosters but feature a brand new center core. This was announced well before B1055’s anomaly, indicating that SpaceX and the USAF had planned for some time to use new center cores on Falcon Heavy Flights 2 and 3. This means that B1055’s untimely demise should have little to no impact on SpaceX’s launch manifest, including the imminent STP-2 mission.

Falcon Heavy Flight 2 has been completed successfully after marking SpaceX's first ever triple booster recovery. (SpaceX)
Despite a flawless landing, Falcon Heavy center core B1055 was reportedly lost at sea due to high waves. (SpaceX)
Mission complete! Taken by Airmen Alex Preisser, this photo shows B1052 and B1053 shortly after coming to a rest at SpaceX's Landing Zones.
Despite the struggles of the center core, side boosters B1052 (right) and B1053 (left) are safe and sound, awaiting their next launch. (USAF – Alex Preisser)

Falcon Heavy Flight 3 is currently scheduled to launch the USAF STP-2 mission no earlier than late June – a major customer with satellites aboard has suggested 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 the next 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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SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy center core goes overboard, Elon Musk still hopeful
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