Falcon 9 B1039 completed its fourteenth Cargo Dragon (CRS-14) launch with a dramatic, Falcon Heavy-esque hard impact into the Atlantic Ocean – as an expendable mission, its purpose, in this case, was to gather data on Falcon 9’s performance during extreme reentry conditions.
Aside from the inherent benefits of gathering critical data ahead of the April 24 debut of Falcon 9 Block 5, a rapid reuse version of the booster that SpaceX is not likely to be keen on expending, exploring the limits of Falcon 9’s ability to reenter Earth’s atmosphere could enable a greater proportion of missions to be recoverable in the future. In the past, Falcon 9 Block 3 was effectively limited to recovery attempts for geostationary payloads below 5400 kg, evidenced by three intentionally expendable (no recovery attempt) 2017 launch with satellites that weighed anywhere from 5500-6700kg.
Soon after, however, SpaceX introduced Block 4 of Falcon 9, most prominently featuring uprated Merlin 1D engines capable of around 10% more thrust than Block 3. Presumably related to this thrust upgrade, SpaceX recently announced that they would attempt an exceptionally hot booster recovery following the launch of the 6100 kg Hispasat 30W-6 communications satellite, an intent that was confirmed by the presence of titanium grid fins. Sadly, bad sea conditions in the Atlantic scrubbed the launch attempt, and the booster (B1044) instead attempted a soft landing in the ocean. Still, the intent alone demonstrated that SpaceX believed it could potentially land a Falcon 9 first stage despite the considerable mass of the satellite, effectively a 15% capability upgrade that would allow SpaceX to recover boosters after all but a tiny proportion.
It may feel unintuitive (perhaps even sad) seeing SpaceX expend booster after recoverable booster, but the company is almost certainly making a pragmatic decision to use the final flight-proven Block 3 and Block 4 first stages to flesh out the full range of their capabilities and explore the edge of the envelope ahead of the next generation. As SpaceX’s Jessica Jensen noted in both pre- and post-launch press conferences, these decisions to expend recoverable boosters are made on a case-by-case basis after considerable thought and cost-benefit analysis – in other words, the decisions to send these boosters to their watery graves are made with an eye on the future of Falcon 9 and Heavy.
Tom Cross’ incredible photos from this launch truly manage to capture the wildly dramatic mood of rocketry – even expendable vehicles never cease to amaze. In the background, a thunderstorm loomed large over the mission, but thankfully allowed a flight-proven Dragon and Falcon 9 booster to squeak by on their way to orbit.
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