SpaceX loses the center core of its Falcon Heavy rocket due to choppy seas

While I thought my question How vulnerable could space launch vehicles be to a “lone gunman”? was just my tangential thinking, this answer points out that

The Washington Post tells us that After 2016 rocket explosion, Elon Musk’s SpaceX looked seriously at sabotage.

The SpaceX employee who showed up at ULA’s facility had an odd request: Could he have access to the roof?

The reason, the employee explained, was that SpaceX had still images from a video that appeared to show a shadow, then a bright white spot, coming from the roof. ULA’s building was about a mile away from the launchpad and had a clear line of sight to it.

ULA was incredulous, and refused to let the SpaceX employee into the building. Instead, it called Air Force investigators, who inspected the roof and found nothing amiss.

Other people had theories as well: https://www.theringer.com/2016/10/4/16087232/ranking-potential-saboteurs-of-elon-musks-spacex-venture/

Along the same line of questioning, I was wondering what keeps North Korea or some other Wisenheimer from nudging a SpaceX drone ship from below, knocking the rocket off it's roomba-weld points into the sea, dragging it under water, then towing it away by submarine or other means in order to reverse-engineer its technology in order to build nuclear weapons that are lower cost and reusable.

Finding and pulling a dead rocket body up from the bottom is hard, A freshly dislodged object bobbing in the water would be much easier to grab.

Question: Does the US NAVY guard SpaceX drone ships and make sure bad actors don't abscond with critical technology on the high seas?

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    $\begingroup$ I suspect it woudln't help NK or somewhere similar because they would not have access to the technological infrastructure to copy the designs, or even most features of them -- materials, machine tools, electronics,.... What they want are 1950s solutions. $\endgroup$ Apr 16, 2019 at 6:19
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    $\begingroup$ @SteveLinton Let's see, has NK been ever known to have had technological cooperation or exchanges of restricted technology with other countries? Read up on it a bit before "suspecting" that they haven't. Keywords may include "international sanctions", Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan... $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 16, 2019 at 6:25
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    $\begingroup$ Asking why the navy doesn't might be a more interesting answer, as it is this is a yes/no question. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Apr 16, 2019 at 8:04
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    $\begingroup$ @GdD one step at a time; SE servers have room for a few more follow-up questions should they be necessary. I haven't hit any quota limits yet! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 16, 2019 at 8:12
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    $\begingroup$ A reusable nuclear weapon would be a technological breakthrough indeed! I remember some quote about stuffing all those neutrons back in the shiny uranium sphere. $\endgroup$ Apr 16, 2019 at 11:05

1 Answer 1


Short Answer

Not directly, no. But if you stole one, you likely wouldn't get very far before the US military or Coast Guard caught up with you, making guarding it directly largely unnecessary.

Long Answer

Let's talk about the big picture first. I'm assuming that their navy doesn't openly sail up and grab our stuff in the Atlantic (which has happened elsewhere, but in their backyard, not the United States'). That wouldn't end well at all being right off the US coast. As such, I assume President Weisenheimer want to do this with some plausible deniability if it goes badly.

Logistics are a problem

Assuming you want to steal the rocket, you need to

  • Get close to the rocket
  • Steal the rocket (or the whole drone ship)
  • Get it somewhere to learn what you want to about it (or refuel and use it yourself)

Let's ignore the other issues for a moment. A submarine isn't how you would do it. The rocket isn't going to fare well underwater. It's not designed for that kind of thing. The electronics alone won't last, let alone things like the fuel tanks. SpaceX might have recovered the one that soft landed in the ocean, but that one was left floating and it wasn't in the water for a long time. Unless the offending country here was somewhere close to the US, you're going to have to tow this thing for days or weeks in the ocean. Even if you didn't care and dragged it underwater anyways, you probably won't get very far with it. Your speedy sub is now dragging a rocket behind. Even if you encased it in something, you've got to work much harder to pull it now.

Then you have the problem that you can't move very fast. Even if you put a dive team on the drone ship and steal it too, it doesn't move very fast (it's basically a barge after all). Towing it, or stealing the barge, isn't going to get you very far.

The next best solution would be that you've sailed your larger cargo container ship (that really isn't a cargo ship) up to it and you grab it with a crane, and haul it in. Again, you're not moving very fast and, most importantly, you would be noticed

Global Fishing Watch, a tool launched publicly on September 15, maps out broadcast data that tracks ships using satellites. The tool can track the path of ships over time, and identify suspicious patterns that indicate either overfishing or illegal fishing.

Tracking boats by satellite is so easy a caveman fishing activist group can do it. You think SpaceX or the US government would notice your large boat in the area when the booster disappeared?

The military isn't that far off

SpaceX operates out of Vandenberg Air Force Base on the west coat, and Cape Canaveral Air Force Base on the east coast. There are major US Navy bases all up and down the California and Florida coastlines. Additionally, there's the Coast Guard (although they can only operate in US water). To say that there would be a fast response would be an understatement. All SpaceX would have to do is tell the Air Force that their booster was snatched and people would start looking.

Once you found your culprit, they would probably send a US Navy cruiser out (or a Coast Guard Cutter if it were closer to shore). Remember how I emphasized how slow the thieves were going? Cruisers and Cutters are not slow and they will catch up.

  • $\begingroup$ I've asked "...in order to reverse-engineer its technology..." I guess it's debatable of software stored in the chips of a SSHD will be readable after being in the ocean, if it's been there for a particularly long time, but certainly electronic components, materials, and fabrication techniques can still be gleaned even with water damage. So I think the rocket will fare well enough, for long enough underwater, and a submarine is therefore indeed the right way to do it. But that's just me. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 16, 2019 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh Maybe, but you also doesn't need to have a physical rocket to copy the technology either $\endgroup$
    – Machavity
    Apr 16, 2019 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ I see, they don't guard it (my actual Yes/No question), but if it goes missing and SpaceX reports it, then the US Navy, and/or the Coast Guard will start looking? Also, some feel that the US Coast Guard is not limited to US waters, see answers and comments to Is stopping and searching vessels in Asia-Pacific waters to enforce North-Korean sanctions consistent with the US Coast Guard's mandate? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 16, 2019 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ Even if someone did steal a F9, I don't think it would be that valuable. The F9 is built using reliable, simple, and cheap to manufacture tech and it's not really groundbreaking or super classified. A lot of the value in the F9 are the 'lessons learned' by the engineers during the development and these can't be gleamed by just looking at the final product. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Apr 18, 2019 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Dragongeek couldn't these lessons be gleaned by taking the final product apart and/or analyzing the onboard flight software? No one's going to steal an F9 but I'd imagine Airbus (Ariane), CNSA (China's "NASA"), Blue Origin and others would be more than happy if an F9 was dropped in their laps for a close look. $\endgroup$
    – ben
    Apr 29, 2019 at 21:39

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