Why Didn’t SpaceX Attempt Recovery of the First Stage Today?

SpaceX SpaceX Falcon 9 preparing for launch.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launched today, but it didn’t attempt one thing that enthusiasts have gotten used to seeing. SpaceX did not attempt recovery of its first stage. No, nothing went wrong. This wasn’t an error and there’s nothing to be concerned about.

Today’s launch included another attempt at returning at least half of the fairing to Earth, guiding it near a recovery boat called Mr. Steven, NASA Spaceflight reported. So far, recovering the fairing has proven “surprisingly difficult,” Elon Musk said. As the fairing halves approach Mr. Steven, the boat is supposed to use four large metal arms to recover the fairing, almost like a giant catcher’s mitt. So far this hasn’t been attempted successfully and half of the fairing was seen near the ship, floating on the water.

The rocket’s first stage, however, will not be recovered, NASA Spaceflight reported. Instead, it was allowed to fall into the Pacific Ocean. The core was outfitted with grid fins, not landing legs, so SpaceX might have attempted a controlled decent into the ocean, like it did with last month’s GovSat-1 launch. But SpaceX isn’t really needing this particular first stage. Today’s core is the B1038.2, a booster that was also used in August’s Formosat-5 satellite launch. It was the last Block 3 Falcon 9 first stage built, before upgrading to a Block 4. And now SpaceX is upgrading to a Block 5, making today’s first stage even more obsolete.

Today’s Block 3 will likely be the last Block 3 flown. Because it’s outdated and has been flown twice counting today, trying to recover it just isn’t feasible or necessary. SpaceX didn’t officially say this, however. The company told Inverse, just like it did on December 23: “These are case-by-case decisions and are based on mission requirements and the needs of our manifest.” The last time SpaceX didn’t attempt to recover the first stage, enthusiasts also speculated as to whether this was because the rocket was an older version of the Falcon 9 and no longer needed.

In 2017, 14 Falcon 9 launches all made landings on drone ships or the landing pad at Cape Canaveral, and only four 2017 launches did not attempt first stage landings, SpaceNews reported.