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SpaceX loses Falcon Heavy core stage in rough seas

SpaceX announced today that it lost the Falcon Heavy core stage in rough seas on its way back to port.

“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,” SpaceX spokesman James Gleeson told FLORIDA TODAY. “As conditions worsened with eight- to ten-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,” he said.

While SpaceX does have hardware on its drone ship designed to secure first stages – often referred to as a flat “robot” that holds them in place – it was not used for this mission, which successfully took an Arabsat satellite to orbit last Thursday. The connections between the robot and center core aren’t compatible like they would be with a standard Falcon 9 booster, but SpaceX is expected to upgrade both in the future.

This is unfortunate. At the same time, it illustrates how far ahead of its competitors SpaceX is. While others throw their first stages away, SpaceX is disappointed when it loses one.


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  • Uncle Kenny

    Does anyone else find this deeply suspicious? First the video feed drops just as the landing is supposed to take place. View of empty deck. Video drops. Video returns with view of perfectly landed booster. Later, drone ship returns having “lost” the booster.

  • mpthompson

    Uncle Kenny, it’s not suspicious at all. You must not be very familiar with SpaceX landings. The video from landings on drone ships almost always drops out seconds before a landing because of high vibrations from the rocket blast causes the satellite communications link from the ship to be lost. Once the landing occurs, communications will usually be established 30 seconds to a few minutes later. This has been the case with live feeds from the earliest landing attempts. There have been some cases where the link wasn’t lost, but I only seem to remember that happening a small handful of times.

  • Richard M

    And the fix is an obvious and simple one.

    They learn, and they improve.

    What was really lost was the opportunity to closely examine the first recovered FH center core.

  • Max

    The barge was a means to an end, proof of concept. Now a proper landing platform that can be lowered below deck, even in rough seas, can be commissioned.
    As they increase their launch cadence, a decommissioned aircraft carrier may be necessary so they can land multiple Core’s and store them below deck. It could also be useful for a sea launch platform.
    If you dare to dream, dream Big.

  • Uncle Kenny

    Good information. Thank you. Conspiracy theories abound.

  • Orion314

    Hmm,lets see… an unsecured telephone pole with 3 tripod legs on a pitching deck on the high seas..What could go wrong?
    Isn’t “secure the deck” a time honored navy motto?

  • Andi

    Oooooh, a decommissioned aircraft carrier! I like it!

    Land the stages directly on the aircraft elevators, and lower them directly to storage below deck.

    The gas bill might be a bit high though. Don’t know if DOD would part with a nuclear one.

  • Col Beausabre

    You can get a carrier cheap from the Russians, just ask the Indians

  • Klystron

    Anyone remember Sea Launch? Anyone?

    Actually with the additional experience and innovation gained by SpaceX the last 5 years or so, it might be a viable and profitable idea this time around:
    * Equatorial launch advantages
    * Offshore oil platform for launch and recovery stability
    * Mothership to process boosters and payloads
    * RP-1 and LOX on a tanker
    * Lather, rinse, repeat

  • Edward

    Uncle Kenny wrote: “Does anyone else find this deeply suspicious? First the video feed drops just as the landing is supposed to take place. View of empty deck. Video drops. Video returns with view of perfectly landed booster. Later, drone ship returns having ‘lost’ the booster.

    Not really. In addition to mpthompson’s explanation of the video feed almost always dropping out just as the landing takes place, this is not the first time that SpaceX has had a problem with rough seas, but it is the first time that rough seas toppled a returning booster. SpaceX thought that they had already discovered this part of “How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster.” It is hardly surprising that they are still learning how to do it right. (2 minutes)

    The aircraft carrier idea is pretty good, but the rocket will have to be turned to the horizontal before going below the flight deck, as it is too tall in the vertical position.

    Blue Origin may have learned from SpaceX, however. Blue Origin expects to land its New Shepard boosters on a moving ship, because it is easier to keep a moving ship more stable than a stationary one; whether it is easier to land on a moving target has yet to be seen, but landing airplanes on moving aircraft carriers has always been quite a challenge. Size also matters, so a ship that is larger than the drone “barge” would be inherently slightly more stable.

    Klystron wrote:
    Lather, rinse, repeat

    Blue Origin did a variation on this theme: Launch. Land. Repeat. (2 minutes)

    Although Blue Origin has done some impressive things, SpaceX seems to be better at rapid development. The rest of the commercial space industry should take note, because rapid development has been important to most other commercial endeavors. The competition is fierce, and that fierce competition is named SpaceX.

    Both of my brothers have been in computer product development (non-space), and the successful products have come out in the 18-month time frame. Longer than that and the competitor tends to beat them to market, or in one case a supplier announced the end to the production line for my brother’s product’s computer chip just before the product was to be announced — a whole new and disappointing meaning to the phrase, “last orders, please!”

    Space product development may take longer than 18 months. SpaceX seems to do it in about half a decade.

  • eddie willers

    Hmm,lets see… an unsecured telephone pole with 3 tripod legs on a pitching deck on the high seas..What could go wrong?
    Isn’t “secure the deck” a time honored navy motto?

    I saw the video in those heaving seas and thought, “Shouldn’t somebody run out there with some chains? They’re gonna lose that thing”.

    I was right.

  • Orion314

    Eddie, you betcha…Amazing how extremely intelligent people can sometimes be as stupid as hell…Hubris , a fault we all suffer from time to time.

  • John

    I bet they get fined for polluting mother ocean with their dirty rocket.

  • I think both Orion314 and eddie willers are exhibiting a bit of hubris. SpaceX was very clear about why no one ran out there with some chains. They did not think losing some lives to save the booster was worth it. Running out there with a rocket booster about to fall over is not what I would call a smart thing to do.

    Next time they will have their robot ready to grab it, so this won’t happen again.

  • Andi

    They might get away with just a ticket for littering.

  • Orion314

    You don’t need Einstein to mechanically secure a spent rocket stage by autonomous means, just money , common sense ,and a half way decent engineer, which Spacex has plenty .That fact kind of belies ” While others throw their first stages away, SpaceX is disappointed when it loses one.”

    Speaking to the truth is not hubris.

  • wodun

    It is really surprising that they didn’t have their system in place for this launch.

    OT: Anyone watch TMRO on youtube? They have a mix of long and short format programs on space related topics. I guess they have been around at least two years but I just discovered them recently.

  • Edward

    Orion314 wrote: “You don’t need Einstein to mechanically secure a spent rocket stage by autonomous means, just money , common sense ,and a half way decent engineer, which Spacex has plenty

    It may be a little trickier when the rocket is in motion, skidding all over the deck. The autonomous robot(s) ends up chasing the thing and never quite catching up to it because there just isn’t a time when it is stationary for long enough to secure it. That assumes that the rocket does not damage the poor robot during all that random action.

  • Max

    Andi said;
    “Oooooh, a decommissioned aircraft carrier! I like it!”
    “The gas bill might be a bit high though. Don’t know if DOD would part with a nuclear one.”

    This made me think of a brand new department of the government called “Space Command”… As with all ever growing government agencies, I can just imagine specially built nuclear powered launch platforms created just for the purpose of launching, catching, refurbishing, and creating fuel from the water in a floating city. (Think “SeaQuest”)
    I do not know how the partnership would take place for space X and others to license the use of the facility, I know they would need to negotiate docking requirements at the mythical gateway project anyway.
    If space command is too slow, the US government will be negotiating for leasing rates from space X … As for a nuclear powered ship, there are many countries willing to part with one for the chance to be part of the future giving hope for their country. Especially if it comes with office space and mining rights on the moon.

    Government can’t build anything as well or as quickly as the private sector, but they have billions and billions of bucks to overwhelm and control any sector that challenges their superiority.
    They may not be able to control the rocket industry, but they can always out bid for the rockets payload to build their platform. It would make sense to offer a launch platform on earth to match the one in space…

    The future is now… You can smell the desperation of those running to catch up in fear that they will be left behind.
    Others are so fat and bloated, (NASA) that they are hopelessly mired in the political mud, which will soon be their cause to fall flat on their face unable to move.

  • pzatchok

    A nuclear Aircraft carrier is a bit of a problem.
    Granted it would be real cool.
    Getting one is the easy part. Docking it is the real problem.
    Most ports large enough will not grant permission to dock to a nuclear powered ship. They just do not like them.
    That’s why its such a big event when a nuclear powered ship comes into some ports.

    A diesel electric short carrier is a fine idea though. No need for the ability to bring the rocket below deck. But having a strong-back to lower it down to the deck to secure it would be a good idea.

    But for all the work just to do that, it would be cheaper and easier just to convert a huge cargo ship. Its not like it would be used more than once a month.

    In the end a new ship is not needed at all. It would just be for Falcon9’s and Falcon Heavies.

  • Orion314

    Edward, you are way overthinking the problem.I thought ” How would the Russkies secure this rocket stage automatically?
    {with an homage to the million dollar Nasa Inspired “Fisher Space pen” vs the USSR 5 cent pencil solution ..}
    The pitching deck has on it, a thick typical navy style hemp cargo net, attached at all 4 corners with telescoping poles just as tall as the rocket stage. you know , the cargo net type the troops climbed up the sides of the ships on the WWII movies we’ve all seen. Upon touchdown , the poles extract surrounding the rare avis in said heavy duty cargo net. A helluva lot cheaper than their rocket going overboard to Davy Jones’s locker. This isn’t thinking outside the box , rather, i would say , in the dead center KANSAS middle of the box. Hope SpaceX is reading this, if I was Musk, i’d be very angry at this situation. think about it…SpaceX is smart enough to autonomously land a rocket ship on a unattended barge out at sea, and having achieved that , they dont have one IQ point left to figure out how to keep it from going overboard? REALLY? it makes them look bad.

  • Chris

    They need a robotic reverse erector on the barge.

  • Tom D Perkins

    ” Speaking to the truth is not hubris. ” <– Orion, if you were doing that you'd have a point. You don't.

    They needed to launch when they'd said they would launch, that meets their obligation to their customer. First priority.

    They needed no to send people out to secure the booster in high seas, so they weren't risking the lives of poeple. Also a first priority.

    They have a certain amount of money, and spending it at the rate needed to get the robot modified to grab the booster on this launch did not make sense compared to other more existential priorities. The failure of a gamble does not mean never taking a shot is the best option.

  • Edward

    I am having some difficulty picturing your invention. Do the poles move to a vertical position so that the rocket is surrounded by the heavy duty cargo net?

    Are you sure that the netting will not damage parts of the Falcon, such as fins, landing legs, engines, and gas thrusters in the case that the Falcon loses its balance and needs this solution?

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