What really happened to GovSat-1’s Falcon 9 first stage?
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A report stating that the Falcon 9 first stage used to launch the GovSat-1 satellite was destroyed by an airstrike has been categorically denied both by SpaceX and the U.S. Air Force.
“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,” said SpaceX spokesperson James Gleeson, in a statement to SpaceFlight Insider and other outlets. “Reports that the Air Force was involved in SpaceX’s recovery efforts are categorically false.”
SpaceX’s statement contradicts the initial reports that appeared on AmericaSpace, which speculated that the Hawthorne, California-based company’s Falcon 9’s first stage was disposed of by way of an airstrike conducted by the U.S. Air Force. AmericaSpace appears to have used information provided by several “trusted anonymous sources” when it claimed the U.S. Air Force had carried out the alleged operation to dispose of the stage.
AmericaSpace has since issued corrections and apologized for its earlier report.
It was later noted that, in actuality, a private company had been hired to dispose of the Falcon 9’s first stage. AmericaSpace later produced a second article correcting its previous ‘reporting’ regarding the stage’s disposal.
SpaceFlight Insider reached out to the principal parties mentioned in the report. In addition to SpaceX, the U.S. Air Force also told SpaceFlight Insider that, “…the initial reporting on AmericaSpace was inaccurate and false.”
GovSat-1 / SES-16 was launched using the first stage that had lofted the NROL-76 mission in May of 2017. The stage was then refurbished and prepared for use launching the GovSat-1 communications satellite, which took to the skies above Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida on Jan. 31, 2018.
SpaceX stated before the GovSat-1 flight that it had no plans to land the stage either on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship,”Of Course I Still Love You” or at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1. However, it was readily apparent that some sort of exercise involving the stage was in the works as it sported both landing legs and the grid fins. SpaceX’s CEO and Founder Elon Musk detailed the reason for this in a statement issued later that day.
“This rocket was meant to test very high retrothrust landing in water so it didn’t hurt the droneship, but amazingly it has survived. We will try to tow it back to shore,” Musk stated via Twitter after the stage had splashed down in the ocean.
Each and every mission is closely followed both by members of the media as well as enthusiasts of the company. It soon became clear that the stage had not, in fact, been towed back to Port Canaveral.
AmericaSpace has since included the following for its part in spreading the misinformation about what proceeded the stage’s splashdown: AmericaSpace apologizes for the error in our reporting that the Air Force carried out the demolition. It was destroyed intentionally, but by a hired company, not the U.S. military.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.