A SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived at Port Canaveral on Thursday, June 29, 2017 after a successful mission from Kennedy Space Center.
The first stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that roared to life at Kennedy Space Center last week gently sailed into Port Canaveral early Thursday, bringing an end to the high-stakes mission that left it charred and tilting on the company’s East Coast drone ship.
The previously flown booster that successfully vaulted a communications satellite labeled BulgariaSat-1 from pad 39A last Friday was tugged into port around 8:30 a.m. on SpaceX’s “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship, which played host for the post-launch landing.
Aside from the rocket, however, was a surprise on the deck of the drone ship: the previously reported “robot” that SpaceX designed to interact with first stages.
The robot’s existence was confirmed by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk during a press conference at Kennedy Space Center in March, who said it was designed to secure first stages and prevent them from sliding around on the deck.
[SpaceX targeting Sunday Falcon 9 launch from KSC for its third mission in nine days]
“We can’t put any people on board if the rocket’s sliding around because it’s too dangerous,” Musk said. “So even in high seas, we can still have a crew board the drone ship and safe the rocket.”
The boosters, which stand 162 feet tall with their four landing legs deployed and 156 feet without them, have to be secured to the deck by crews to prevent movement while traveling through rough seas and weather conditions.
The robot is a large, white piece of equipment with what appear to be continuous tracks, or “tank treads,” for movement. Four cylindrical components that point toward the center of the mostly flat device are presumably used to secure boosters.
SpaceX would not say whether it was used to secure the first stage after Friday’s launch and landing, but photos from the port and in-person observations by FLORIDA TODAY appeared to confirm its positioning directly under the booster.
The BulgariaSat-1 booster wasn’t new – it was recovered from a January launch of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, making it SpaceX’s second attempt at launching and landing a previously flown Falcon 9. The company refers to them as “flight proven.”
The landing attempt on the drone ship stationed off the coast of Florida, however, was questionable even before the launch.
“Falcon 9 will experience its highest ever reentry force and heat in today’s launch,” Musk said via Twitter on Friday. “Good chance rocket booster doesn’t make it back.”
But the booster did pull it off, and despite a brief loss of signal from the drone ship’s cameras due to the violent re-entry, it appeared on SpaceX’s webcast about nine minutes after launch. The charred booster, however, appeared to be tilting.
“Rocket is extra toasty and hit the deck hard (used almost all of the emergency crush core), but otherwise good,” Musk said after the landing.
Dan and Mary Shallow, who were visiting the Space Coast on Thursday from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, happened upon the first stage’s arrival while exploring Port Canaveral. But it was a pleasant surprise for the couple who experienced the space race of the 1960s.
“This is an absolute bonus,” Dan Shallow said. “We grew up when everything was new and exciting with [Alan] Shepard and [John] Glenn and to see now a different piece of a different phase of history is kind of neat.”
Despite two successful launches and landings last weekend – the BulgariaSat-1 launch from KSC and a second launch from Vandenberg last Sunday, making it the company’s quickest flight-to-flight time ever – SpaceX is targeting this Sunday for another Falcon 9 launch from pad 39A.
Weather conditions for the attempt aren’t too favorable – the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron on Thursday said conditions are 40 percent “go” for the 7:35 p.m. launch, citing concerns related to anvil and cumulus clouds produced by afternoon storms.