SpaceX’s Record Setting Rocket Almost Falls In The Ocean After 19th Mission

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster that sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Douglas Hurley on the first privately launched spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS) tipped into the Atlantic Ocean late night yesterday as it was on its way back to land. The rocket was the first in SpaceX’s fleet that undertook 19 consecutive successful missions, and it launched close to a thousand satellites into space after the NASA mission. Its latest launch was just before the holiday weekend when it flew with a batch of Starlink satellites and landed on SpaceX’s drone ship in the ocean.

SpaceX’s Remarkable Rocket Tips Oveer In Drone Ship After Launching More Than Two Hundred Tons of Satellites In Less Than Four Years

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 program is arguably one of the most successful in the history of the launch vehicle or rocket industry. The boosters are the first of their kind in the world which are capable of lifting heavy payloads to space and landing vertically through the help of their propulsion. At the same time, since each rocket can be used more than a dozen times, the marginal costs to SpaceX and its customers of launching a payload to space are also drastically reduced from what would have been the case had SpaceX made its boosters for each new launch.

The Falcon 9’s somewhat rapid reusability, aided by a larger number of rockets in the fleet, has been one of the biggest drivers of SpaceX’s success in building the Starlink low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite internet constellation. Previous attempts at such missions have failed since building rockets means longer lead times for bookings.

Today’s booster was special since its first launch was in May 2020 when SpaceX launched the first crewed demonstration mission for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

SpaceX’s Dragon 2 Vehicle atop the Falcon 9 Block 5 launch vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A 11 minutes and 50 seconds before liftoff of the DM-2 mission on May 30, 2020. The vehicle is yet to undergo stage-1 engine chill to let the nine Merlin 1D engines’ turbopumps chill before they let liquid oxygen (LOX) flow through them to the main pumps. (Image Courtesy: SpaceX/NASA)

After launching the two astronauts, the rocket launched a South Korean military satellite, two satellite ride-share missions for SpaceX and 14 Starlink missions. In the three and a half years starting from the DM-2 launch, it lifted more than 260 metric tons or 860 satellites and spacecraft into space.

While the DM-2 astronaut launch rocket booster was the only one in SpaceX’s fleet to have launched 19 missions, three others have completed 17 missions each. The last of these flew this month to launch another military satellite for South Korea, and this rocket booster was also the first that flew and landed 14 times.

It’s also quite rare for SpaceX’s rockets to simply tip off of a drone ship into the water, and the firm characterized the Falcon 9’s first unplanned mission as an accident. It shared on social media that “the booster tipped over on the droneship due to high winds and waves” and changes to the mechanical design of the Falcon 9’s legs will ensure that similar mishaps do not occur in the future.

Update 10:22 am ET 12/26/2023: The booster is likely still present on the drone ship and can be salvaged

Here are some comments from SpaceX’s VP of Launch for more details:

Update 12:02 apmm ET 12/26/2023: Fresh footage of SpaceX’s drone ship shows that half of the booster was lost to the ocean as its final resting place. Here’s some great photography by Jonathan Kraus.

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