SpaceX Successfully Launches Falcon Heavy Rocket, Fails to Recover Center Core

SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon Heavy rocket this morning in a historic flight that saw the first reuse of Falcon Heavy booster rockets, marking a major milestone for the company.
John Loeffler

SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket this morning in a historic flight that saw the first reuse of booster rockets for the Falcon Heavy, marking a major milestone for the company that should clear it for certification of major military contracts going forward, but they were unable to recover one of the three rockets used in the mission.

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy Launch a Success

Falcon Heavy STP-2
Source: NASA HQ Photos / Flickr

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket successfully lifted off this morning towards the end of its launch window at 2:30 AM EST.

The rocket launch, designated as the STP-2 mission, took off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida after a three-hour delay for maintenance on the ground.

The launch is historic in that the rocket reused two side boosters that had first been used to support the launch of the Arabsat-6A mission back in April of this year.


Raptor Rockets Firing
Source: SpaceX / Twitter

The boosters fired, returned, and successfully touched down back on Earth about nine minutes after launch in a spectacular synchronized landing in the dark.

SpaceX Successfully Launches Falcon Heavy Rocket, Fails to Recover Center Core
Source: SpaceX / YouTube

The Curse of the Center Core Continues

The center core engine detached about a minute after the boosters, placing it too far away from land to attempt a return to Kennedy Space Center, but instead, it was supposed to land on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You about a few hundred miles off the Florida coast in the Atlantic Ocean. It failed to land on the ship, however, appearing to just barely miss it and instead land in the ocean just ahead of the ship and explode.

SpaceX Successfully Launches Falcon Heavy Rocket, Fails to Recover Center Core
Source: SpaceX / YouTube

After the first Falcon Heavy test flight saw the successful landing of its side boosters but its center core rocket miss the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You by more than 300 feet, crashing into the ocean at 300 mph.

SpaceX successfully landed the center core on Of Course I Still Love You during the Arabsat-6A mission in April, but that center core rocket was lost when the drone ship encountered heavy seas on its way back to Florida, causing the rocket to tip over and fall overboard.

Now, during the Falcon Heavy's first night launch, the center core again failed to make it safely back to dry land for the third straight mission, prompting some to invoke the curse of the center core as the culprit.

However, this will almost certainly have an impact on any planned Falcon Heavy launches in the near-term, as today's center core was actually the only remaining center core for the Falcon Heavy rocket system.

Since that loss, SpaceX has no doubt been building a new center core rocket to replace it, but with the loss of the second center core this morning, that new rocket will be the only one available until a second one can be built.

The center core of the Falcon Heavy rocket is a modified Falcon rocket, however--it's essentially identical except that it has reinforcements on its sides and attachments for the side boosters--, so while it might take time to get a couple more Falcon Heavy center cores assembled and ready to go, it'll certainly go quicker than if it were an entirely different rocket.

The STP-2 mission also saw the attempt by SpaceX to attempt to catch the fairing of the Falcon Heavy rocket's payload bay, something that had never been attempted before, but which SpaceX succeeded at on their first attempt.

Successful Satellite Deployments So Far

But whether the rockets make their way back to Earth successfully is SpaceX's problem. The primary mission of STP-2, the launch of several satellite payloads from universities and other science institutions has been going smoothly.

Two hours into the mission, 23 of 24 satellites have been successfully deployed to low-Earth orbit, with the last remaining satellite to be launched in about an hour and a half from now in medium-Earth orbit to close out an otherwise remarkable mission for SpaceX.

Update: Three and a half hours after launch, SpaceX deployed the last of its 24 satellite payload at an altitude of just over 6000 km, successfully completing this latest flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket--center core drama aside. Onboard were several satellites affiliated with the US Department of Defense, so this mission should open the door for SpaceX to compete for military and other highly-sensitive government satellite delivery contracts that up until now have gone exclusively to United Launch Alliance. 

United Launch Allience, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is the only private commercial space company currently certified to launch the US government's most secretive payloads into orbit. STP-2 was explicitly a test for SpaceX to see how well they performed and is said to have direct bearing on whether SpaceX will receive this highest-level certification from the government, forcing some much needed competition into the bidding process for these Defense Department contracts.

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