SpaceX’s CRS-24 mission seemingly went off without a hitch. The company launched a cargo Dragon Capsule to the International Space Station for NASA, and the new booster, B1069, landed on Just Read the Instructions out in the Atlantic Ocean for the 100th successful landing of an orbital rocket booster. The booster sitting on JRTI seemed as if it took a slightly heavier-than-normal landing, but otherwise, all seemed well. It was known that the ocean weather wasn’t ideal, with a moderate rating, but there were still no major signs of issues… yet.
Just Read the Instructions and support ship Doug stayed at the landing zone for multiple days, much longer than they would normally, getting underway on December 23 from the December 20 launch. At that rate, the pair were set to arrive on Christmas.
Then, on Christmas Eve night, the pair slowed to a crawl and then stopped off the coast of Cape Canaveral. While it’s possible the crew just enjoyed too much egg-nog, I doubt it. The duo of ships was joined by another support ship, GO Navigator. The booster has been offshore with few changes until today, when Doug started to move towards Port Canaveral.
Once the droneship and support ship came into view, however, it was clear that something was wrong. The booster has a heavy angle to it. We have seen these tilted boosters before, for SXM-7 and Crew-1. It tends to be a sign of rough conditions at sea that move the booster after landing.
That certainly appears to be the case here as B1069, which landed relatively center on the droneship, is on the edge of the droneship with its tilt.
While a tilt alone is already somewhat worrying, the closer you look the more worrying it becomes. The yellow railing around the side of the ship is bent out of place, showing the force with which the booster hit the railing. The Merlin engines are also damaged, with significant dents on many of the engine nozzles.
There is also at least some damage to octograbber, as can be seen by the bent white sheet metal below the left-most engine bell.
It is clear that booster 1069 will need far more repairs than a typical booster to be able to fly again. Though while we can see some of the damage already, it is possible there is more damage invisible to the naked eye. SpaceX does some inspection of the boosters between flights, and a heavy landing and being rocket by the rough ocean could potentially have caused more damage than is visible from the outside.
The legs themselves are also damaged on the underside, quite possibly due to octograbber colliding with them.
Falcon 9 boosters are meant to support the forces from launch and landing, that is to say, they are meant to withstand strong vertical forces. The forces created by the rough sea state could have stressed the booster in an atypical way. This means it is possible the structure of the booster was torqued in a way that could have damaged welds or the overall rigidity of the structure beyond repair – though this is just speculation.
It is also important, with each of these less-than-perfect booster recoveries, to keep in mind how SpaceX compares to the rest of the industry.
While this B1069 may take significantly more work to ever get it flying again, the rest of the orbital rocket industry is dropping their first stages directly into the ocean. SpaceX has seen massive success with its refurbishment and reuse, recently flying a booster for the 11th time, and has paved the path for reusability that the rest of the industry is now following.