The center booster that SpaceX used in Falcon Heavy’s first flight test late Feb. 6 failed to land on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean as planned, according to company founder Elon Musk.
The booster, or core, ran out of propellant used to slow its descent to Earth, causing it to slam into the water at a speed of 300 miles per hour, Musk told reporters. The crash occurred about 100 meters from the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship, knocking out two of the vessel’s engines and showering the deck with shrapnel.
The center booster’s loss is the only reported blemish so far in a demonstration that saw the rocket’s upper stage fly into deep space for hours and its two side boosters land simultaneously on Earth (Defense Daily, Feb. 6).
“The mission seems to have gone as well as one could have hoped, with the exception of center core,” Musk said. The "epic" landing of the two side boosters was “probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen. Literally ever.”
But getting there was “way hard,” Musk added. SpaceX spent more than $500 million in internal funds to develop the heavy-lift rocket, and the high cost and unexpected technical challenges almost led to the program’s cancellation three times.
While SpaceX originally thought it could simply combine three boosters from its smaller Falcon 9 rocket, it ended up having to redesign the center booster and other key components.
President Donald Trump praised SpaceX for overcoming such technological hurdles.
"Congratulations @ElonMusk and @SpaceX on the successful #FalconHeavy launch," Trump tweeted. "This achievement, along with @NASA's commercial and international partners, continues to show American ingenuity at its best!"
With the first flight test under SpaceX's belt, Musk said he now expects to conduct “several” Falcon Heavy launches a year, and he hopes the test means “smooth sailing” for obtaining certification to conduct national security launches. Falcon Heavy is already slated to launch a multiple-satellite payload for the U.S. Defense Department's Space Test Program-2 (STP-2), which could help it achieve that certification.
The Falcon Heavy test also gives Musk “a lot of confidence” that SpaceX can successfully finish developing an even larger launch vehicle, the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). The company plans to use BFR to start colonizing Mars.
BFR will be 30 feet in diameter, allowing it to accommodate huge payloads.
“It’s a beast,” Musk said. “You can put a lot” in a rocket that size.
SpaceX now intends to devote most of its engineering resources to BFR. No major design changes to Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are envisioned.