Falcon Heavy's third booster damages drone ship

Booster misses landing target

Two SpaceX rocket boosters land after the launch of a Falcon Heavy rocket.
Two SpaceX rocket boosters land after the launch of a Falcon Heavy rocket.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.- – The only blemish in what otherwise appeared to be a flawless debut by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket Tuesday was the demise of the first stage's center booster.

News 6 partner Florida Today reported after the rocket's 3:45 p.m. launch from Kennedy Space Center, two side boosters returned safely to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for nearly simultaneous, side-by-side, sonic boom-inducing landings that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk described as “epic” and one of the most exciting things he’s ever seen.

But hundreds of miles offshore, the middle booster missed the “drone ship” that was its landing target and hit the Atlantic Ocean at about 300 mph.

“That’s hard,” said Musk.

The fate of the 16-story booster wasn’t certain until Musk confirmed it in a post-launch press conference at Kennedy Space Center.

He said engineers believed only one of three engines fired during a burn designed to line up the landing and slow the rocket’s descent.

The stage only missed the boat by about the length of a football field, but the force of its water impact was enough to "take out" two engines on the nearby drone ship and spray it with debris.

The "center core" was the most challenging part of the Falcon Heavy's development, requiring significant redesign of the Falcon 9 booster's airframe to handle the loads from the side boosters and other stresses during its ascent.

SpaceX hopes to land and recover all three boosters in the future, so that the rocket's upper stage may be the only part of the rocket not recovered and reused (assuming rocket nose cones can be saved as Musk anticipates). 

On the bright side, SpaceX never intended to reuse the first Falcon Heavy center core stage, or the two that did land successfully, because an upgraded version known as Block 5 is due to fly in the coming months.

Musk hopes to share footage of Tuesday's crash landing.

“We got the footage,” he said. “If the cameras didn’t get blown up as well, then we’ll put that out for a blooper reel.”