Spaceflight Insider

After hard landing, Falcon 9 first stage back at Port Canaveral

The Falcon 9 first stage is securely docked at Port Canaveral. The journey back from the landing zone, some 400 downrange, took over five days, including over a day loitering just offshore from Cocoa Beach, Florida. Photo Credit: Derek Richardson / SpaceFlight Insider

The Falcon 9 first stage is securely docked at Port Canaveral. The journey back from the landing zone, some 400 downrange, took over five days, including over a day loitering just offshore from Cocoa Beach, Florida. Photo Credit: Derek Richardson / SpaceFlight Insider

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — For the third time, a SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage returned to Port Canaveral via a drone ship after launching toward the heavens from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) five days prior. The booster landed at sea some 400 miles (644 kilometers) downrange less than 10 minutes after liftoff.

At about 11:30 a.m. EDT (15:30 GMT) on June 2, the Automated Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), also known as the Of Course I Still Love You, officially crossed into the port’s channel as it was towed toward the West Turning Basin. The drone ship and booster, on their journey home, were accompanied by three ships called Go Quest, Go Searcher, and Elsbeth III. The latter is the tugboat that regularly pulls the platform to and from the landing area.


There is a noticeable lean from this recovered first stage. The landing over five days prior was about as hard as is survivable by the booster. Photo Credit: Derek Richardson / SpaceFlight Insider

It was pushed to the dock at 12:30 p.m. EDT (14:30 GMT), about an hour after entering the channel. What took less than 10 minutes by rocket, took over five days by drone ship. It technically arrived just on the other side of the horizon, from the perspective of Cape Canaveral, on May 31. However, for as-of-yet undisclosed reasons, the ASDS and accompanying ships loitered for over 24 hours before making the final leg of the trip.

This Falcon 9 first stage was used to launch Thaicom 8 at 5:39 p.m. EDT on May 27 (21:39 GMT). After pushing the second stage and payload at speeds reaching over 5,000 mph (8,000 km/h), the first and second stages separated.

As the second stage finished the job of placing Thaicom 8 into a parking orbit, the first stage rotated nearly 180 degrees to point its nine engines in the boosters direction of travel.

In a stunning sped-up video, the stage can be seen controlling itself via onboard thrusters and grid fins as it began to re-enter the atmosphere. Three engines fired for about 15 seconds to cushion the booster during its re-entry into the atmosphere. A few minutes later, those three engines ignited again in preparation for landing.

Like the last recovery attempt from a GTO mission (May 6), the first stage booster used three engines to slow the stage down much faster than on the first two landing attempts. This was done to minimize fuel loss due to gravity, as the remaining fuel for a recovery attempt was limited.

While the ASDS is technically a ship, its engines are only used to keep the drone ship at a fixed GPS location so that the booster can target and land on the 300-foot (91.4-meter) long deck.

After the rocket had landed, the three nearby ships pulled alongside the ASDS for maintenance crews to board and safe the booster. A tow line was then attached and the drone ship, with the recovered Falcon 9 first stage, was slowly brought back to port.

However, there was concern, upon landing, that the booster might tip over.

“Rocket landing speed was close to design max,” Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and CEO tweeted shortly after the landing to address viewer of the company’s launch webcast that noticed a slight wobbling of the stage.

Musk said that the stage was probably OK, but there was some risk of tipping. This was due to the fact that the contingency “crush core” was used up. He described on Twitter that the crush core was an aluminum honeycomb for energy absorption in the telescoping actuator.

Once the stage was within sight of land, it became clear that the booster had a noticeable lean to it, due to the aforementioned contingency crush core being used up. The ramifications of this are still unclear, but Musk’s tweet implied that the crush core is easily replaceable.

Now that the drone ship and booster are safely docked, the next step will be for a crane to attach a special cap at the top of the 140-foot (42-meter) tall rocket. This will allow for the whole stack to be lifted and moved to shore where it will be set on top of launch mounts, similar to those at SLC-40.

It will take up to a week for teams to first remove the landing legs, and then, carefully, with a second crane, lower the stage from a vertical to a horizontal position where it will be placed on a truck and shipped to the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) and Launch Complex-39A (LC-39A).


A close-up of the nine Merlin engines. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

The company already has three recovered first stages inside the HIF just outside the perimeter fence of the old Space Shuttle launch pad. The first booster recovered is slated to be transported to SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, while the other two will be put through tests. This new stage will undergo similar qualification testing.


Scorch marks can be seen on the interstage where the Grid Fins are located. Photo Credit: Michael Howard

What those tests encompass is a bit unclear. Musk, at a press conference after the April 8 CRS-8 launch (which was the first mission to successfully land a booster out at sea), stated that the booster would likely be tested at LC-39A up to 10 times before being declared fit for reuse. No tests, however, have been performed yet.

The second booster to land at sea, on May 6, was also the first to return after a high-energy trajectory. That mission delivered the JCSAT-14 satellite to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). Upon returning to port, just under a week later, it was clear that there were more scorch marks than on the previous two stages.

Musk, on Twitter, stated that the stage underwent maximum heating and would be their “life leader” for ground tests to ensure future stages will be capable re-launch.

The Thaicom 8 satellite was also delivered into GTO. Therefore, this current stage also underwent extreme heating. Additionally, as reported above, it touched down at near maximum speed survivable for the landing legs.

The first reuse of a Falcon 9 first stage is currently expected to take place sometime this year. According to a report by SpaceNews, SpaceX said that it was planning to meet with insurance underwriters in the next number of weeks to discuss the company’s plans for reuse certification.

Satellite company SES, of Luxembourg, has publicly stated that they want to be the first to launch a payload atop a used Falcon 9 first stage, but they would like a price discount of 50 percent. Other companies have also expressed an interest in launching a payload from a re-certified recovered booster.

The next mission for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled for June 16. It will launch the Eutelsat 117W B and ABS-2A satellites. This will be the second dual-GTO satellite launch that the company has carried out. Both spacecraft were constructed by The Boeing Company and will employ solar electric propulsion to circularize their orbits.

Additionally, the next launch with a subsequent landing at Landing Zone-1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station will be during the CRS-9 mission to resupply the International Space Station. That launch will also see a Dragon sent to the station with an International Docking Adapter in its trunk in advance of next year’s commercial crew activities.


Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider


Derek Richardson is a student studying mass media with an emphasis in contemporary journalism at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. He is currently the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also writes a blog, called Orbital Velocity, about the space station. His passion for space ignited when he watched space shuttle Discovery leap to space on Oct. 29, 1998. He saw his first in-person launch on July 8, 2011 when the space shuttle launched for the final time. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized that his true calling was communicating to others about space exploration and spreading that passion.

Reader Comments

I believe the stage will be lowered from vertical to horizontal. Thanks for another great update!

Just want to says thanks for a great article and photos!

Thanks Derek Richardson for your accurate and informative article in contrast to the internet race to the bottom in journalistic standards.

Yes Daniel the first stage gets hoisted vertically by a big whoppin’ crane to shore. This one will be complicated by the jacks holding UP the Leaning Tower Of Awesome while chains are holding it DOWN. On shore the legs are removed then the booster is laid horizontally on a big whoppin’ truck to ride from the port back to hangar near launch pad. Big whoppin’ = Beyel Bros for now.

That yellow steel beam around the edge kept it from walking off into the ocean as it shifted around on that slippery steel deck as waves moved the ship around. Don’t try to walk on one of those steel decks if there is any diesel spilled on it. You will go down.
That piston attachment area on the rocket body must be pretty strong to not get pushed in with that kind of impact. There is probably a beam attached around the inside to help reinforce that piston attachment area. I wonder how thick the aluminum skin is which makes up the tanks? I’ll guess about 3/16, or maybe even 1/4 inch. That full rocket has to take a lot of force when those 9 engines first reach full thrust on the pad. There is a lot of heavy liquid inside that thing.

Zone small point. The legs didn’t get anywhere near the edge of the ship. It ended up,pretty close to dead centre and there was no slippage or hopping like the last high speed landing.
Agree with slippery diesel decks but there would be no diesel on this one at all. If there had been, it’d be burnt off well and truly.
Wrt the tank wall thicknesses, not sure but it is a semi pressurised vehicle so tank thickness is les than where there is no continual pressurisation.
PS. If you join NSF L2 you can find out the above details – I could but it’s a lazy Sunday night here at present.

Bruce Peters

Bill. The landing looked more or less dead centre, but you are correct that these pictures seem to show it more off centre. Hate to lose one of these bad boys to the Atlantic after such a spectacular landing.

Compliments to Derek Richardson for the article.

Bruce Peters

I still don’t understand why there is such a defined line of separation from the soot about a third of the way up the booster. You’d think the whole booster would be covered in soot.

LOX region of the stage has a film of ice/condensate over it that prevents soot from depositing directly on stage wall.

Bruce Peters

Thanks Chris. I appreciate the information.

The top and bottom third of the booster seem darkened with soot, so does that mean the LOX region is in the middle? If so what are the other regions

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