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.