One very good thing that happened this week was SpaceX’s successful Falcon Heavy test launch, and subsequent jaw-dropping dual rocket landing. But it’s easy to forget that Falcon Heavy wasn’t the only rocket SpaceX launched in 2018, and the fate of the booster that sent Luxembourg’s GovSat-1 into orbit is being met with far more intrigue.
The Block-3 Falcon 9 rocket that sent GovSat-1 into orbit on January 31st was never supposed to land safely. Instead, since the rocket was an older model due to be retired anyway, SpaceX decided to use it to test a new, more fuel-efficient landing technique. Since the company wasn’t expecting the landing to work, it didn’t bother sending out one of its drone landing ships, opting to drop the booster directly into the ocean, successful landing or not.
As it turned out, the rocket did pull off the landing successfully. Elon Musk tweeted shortly after that the rocket had come down relatively unscathed, and that SpaceX would try to tow it back to shore shortly after:
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. pic.twitter.com/hipmgdnq16
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 31, 2018
According to Mike Killian of AmericaSpace, that never happened. He quotes anonymous sources who say that the floating booster was blown up by a US Air Force strike. The Air Force would not confirm the report one way or another, and redirected any inquiries to SpaceX, which hasn’t issued a statement yet.
However, a photo on social media does clearly show the GoSearcher, the SpaceX support ship that performs recovery of landed boosters, returning to port a week after the landing without any booster.
— Tom McCool (@Cygnusx112) February 7, 2018
Why would SpaceX blow up its own rocket? Well, recovering it is likely harder than just hooking a line on. Pressure vessels inside the rocket would need to be made safe, which could be difficult to do when it’s floating. If the booster suffered partial damage during its landing, that could also make recovering it impossible.
Assuming that SpaceX determined bringing the booster back wasn’t feasible, the company still needs to get rid of the waste. A rocket that size floating in the ocean poses a danger to shipping and wildlife, so, without any better options, SpaceX may have told the military that it was time for some free target practise.