February 24, 2024

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A leader laments the loss of a historic SpaceX rocket

A leader laments the loss of a historic SpaceX rocket
Zoom in / One of the most historic rockets in SpaceX's fleet crashed on Christmas Day while returning to Cape Canaveral, Florida, after its previous mission.

The Falcon 9 rocket that launched NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on SpaceX's first crew mission in 2020 landed for the 19th and final time just before Christmas, then capsized onto its rescue ship during the return trip to Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Known by tail number B1058, this booster was unique among SpaceX's fleet of reusable rockets. She was the fleet commander, flying 19 missions over more than three and a half years. Most importantly, it is the rocket that launched into space on May 30, 2020, on a journey that made history in many ways.

It was the first time a commercial rocket and spacecraft had launched people into orbit, and ended a nine-year gap in America's ability to send astronauts into orbit from American soil, following the retirement of the Space Shuttle. This mission, known as Demo-2 and launched by SpaceX under a contract with NASA, ended the United States' reliance on Russian rockets to send crews to the International Space Station.

SpaceX recovered the booster on one of its offshore landing pads after the historic launch in May 2020, while the Falcon 9 upper stage blasted into orbit with the Crew Dragon spacecraft containing Hurley and Behnken. The rocket then entered SpaceX's fleet cycle for another 18 launches, primarily on missions to deploy Starlink internet satellites.

Hurley, who commanded the Crew Dragon spacecraft on the Demo-2 mission, kept up with the booster's exploits well after its return to Earth. He regularly exchanged text messages with Behnken and Kiko Dontchev, SpaceX's vice president of launch, while the rocket continued to fly.

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“For Bob and me, this supporter has always been very special for so many reasons,” said Hurley, a veteran Marine Corps fighter pilot who retired from NASA's astronaut corps in 2021. He now works at Northrop Grumman.

An inauspicious ending

Hurley told Ars that he would like to see the remains of the booster displayed in a museum alongside the Crew Dragon spacecraft (named Endeavor) that he and Behnken flew in 2020. “In an ideal world, I would love to see Endeavor and at least now part of that booster exists,” he said. At the Smithsonian or in a museum somewhere.”

“It's kind of annoying, but he understands that SpaceX got a lot out of this rocket,” Hurley told Ars. SpaceX also has a lot of love for Hurley and Behnken. The company named two of its recovery ships for payload demonstrations “Bob” and “Dog” “After the astronaut duo.

“SpaceX has a business to run,” he said. “I think, at this point, Endeavor is certainly going to fly more, but this booster isn't, so hopefully they can find a place to display it somewhere. Even part of it will look cool somewhere.” “They can discover something… I think people can get a lot of inspiration from seeing things that are actually flying in space, and being able to get up close to them, I think, is important for a lot of people. People.”

Doug Hurley, right, commanded the Crew Dragon spacecraft on the Demo-2 mission in 2020.
Zoom in / Doug Hurley, right, commanded the Crew Dragon spacecraft on the Demo-2 mission in 2020.

NASA

The 19th launch of this booster on December 23 was just as successful as the previous 18th, with a smooth ascent into space before the nine kerosene-fueled Merlin engines were shut down. The booster reached the highest point of its path — 72 miles (116 kilometers) — before Earth's gravity pulled it back into the atmosphere.

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Two engines burning slowed the rocket as it descended toward a SpaceX drone ship stationed near the Bahamas, and then four carbon fiber legs deployed moments before landing on the target. Then, as usual, the recovery ship began its slow journey back to Florida with the 15-story-tall booster in the vertical position.