While SpaceX was garnering headlines with the launch of its new and extremely powerful Falcon Heavy platform, another SpaceX rocket stage may have been the target of a U.S. Air Force air strike in the Atlantic Ocean.
Only days before the Falcon Heavy’s inaugural launch, SpaceX launched the SES-16/GovSat-1 mission. The mission was, for the most part, a textbook Falcon 9 launch into geostationary orbit from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but instead of returning to earth with a controlled burn for re-use as has been characteristic of most other SpaceX launches, this Falcon 9 adopted a different re-entry procedure. The first stage rocket entered into what has been referred to as a “high stress descent” over water in a planned experiment to gather data on how the platform would fair. The stage, surprisingly, survived the descent, despite SpaceX assuming it would either burn up or be so damaged that it would promptly sink upon touching down in the ocean.
“This rocket was meant to test very high retrothrust landing in water so it didn’t hurt the droneship, but amazingly it has survived,” Elon Musk tweeted at the time. “We will try to tow it back to shore.”
That word, “try,” seemingly indicated that SpaceX didn’t have a plan in place to get that rocket stage back to Florida, and when SpaceX’s Go Searcher offshore supply vessel returned to Port Canaveral soon thereafter with no booster in tow, it seemed clear that they failed to find a way to tow it back. The reason, of course, could be that it sank – but now it appears that the reason may have been that the booster itself was too dangerous to approach. The rocket needed to retain fuel in order to control its descent, and depending on the state of the platform, the rocket may have been a serious fire or explosion risk. Further, a faulty composite over-wrapped pressure vessels (COPV) valve, damaged in the descent or landing, could struggle to maintain internal pressures produced by the changes in the rocket’s altitude, making the entire rocket stage extremely volatile.
According to reports, it’s at that point that the Air Force got involved.
So the #Falcon9 1st stage for #GovSat1 that soft landed in the ocean and survived… @NASASpaceflight has confirmed that the Air Force conducted a scuttling operation to destroy it as there was no safe way to get it back to Port. (Photo credit: #SpaceX) pic.twitter.com/T1l4YhnyWL
— Chris G – NSF (@ChrisG_NSF) February 8, 2018
Multiple outlets have now begun reporting that an anonymous source within the Air Force stated that the rocket stage was taken out of commission via Air Force scuttling operation, though the Air Force has formally declined to comment, instead directing all questions to SpaceX. SpaceX did not immediately respond to SOFREP’s requests for comment on this issue.
If the Air Force did destroy the Falcon 9 booster, any number of combat aircraft would be capable and available, though it is also possible that an explosives ordnance disposal team was tasked with addressing the floating time bomb. In any regard, the booster appears to be gone, and it’s clear that SpaceX didn’t do the dirty work.
This is a developing story, and more details will be provided as they are released.
Image courtesy of SpaceX