SpaceX have denied the reports that the Air Force carried out a strike on their booster. Their statement is below, as is our story as it originally appeared.
“While the Falcon 9 first stage for the GovSat-1 mission was expendable, it initially survived splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. However, the stage broke apart before we could complete an unplanned recovery effort for this mission.
“Reports that the Air Force was involved in SpaceX’s recovery efforts are categorically false.”
Reports have claimed that a US Air Force strike was used to destroy a SpaceX booster in the Atlantic Ocean, after attempts to tow it back to shore failed.
Mike Killian, writing in AmericaSpace, said that “trusted anonymous sources” confirmed that the US Air Force “carried out an air strike to blow up the unsafed floating booster.”
The booster was the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket used to take the GovSat-1 satellite to space on January 31. On this flight, however, the booster did not return to the landing pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida or a floating drone ship, as has been done on other launches.
Instead, SpaceX performed an experimental landing in the Atlantic Ocean. They were practicing landing techniques using three of the rocket’s nine engines, rather than just one. If successful, this could be employed on future launches to use less fuel during landings.
The maneuver, as it turns out, was very successful. So much so that the booster survived the landing attempt, and was pictured floating in the ocean, something that was not expected.
“This rocket was meant to test very high retro-thrust landing in water so it didn’t hurt the drone ship, but amazingly it has survived,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted on January 31. “We will try to tow it back to shore.”
They attempted to tow it back using a boat called Go Searcher. However, an engine issue apparently forced the boat to return to port without the booster. And it appears that with no other method to save the booster, the decision was made to blow it up.
“Things like unsafed COPVs (composite overwrapped pressure vessels) at flight pressure could have made it a ticking time bomb and hazard to navigation and marine life, being that they store a dangerous amount of energy if not vented,” Killian noted.
We’ve sent enquiries to both SpaceX and the US Air Force to confirm the story, but so far neither has responded.
Chris Gebhardt, a journalist for NASASpaceFlight.com, also confirmed the story, saying that the Air Force had “conducted a scuttling operation to destroy it [the booster] as there was no safe way to get it back to Port.”
SpaceX this week also launched its Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time, sending Musk’s Tesla Roadster on a path that will reach the orbit of Mars.
On that launch, two of the rocket’s three boosters landed back at Cape Canaveral in a stunning double landing. The third booster was lost at sea when it ran out of fuel while attempting to land on one of the company’s drone ships.