SpaceX's attempt at landing a rocket on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean ended in failure this morning. After a successful launch, the uncrewed Falcon 9 rocket hit the drone spaceport ship (also known as a barge), but landed too hard, says SpaceX co-founder Elon Musk. The launch, which took place 4:47AM ET, was SpaceX's fifth cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station — the cargo capsule, Dragon, should reach ISS on Monday morning. But the landing was the leg of the mission that was supposed to make history.
Rocket made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard. Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future tho.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 10, 2015
Ship itself is fine. Some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced...— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 10, 2015
Didn't get good landing/impact video. Pitch dark and foggy. Will piece it together from telemetry and ... actual pieces.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 10, 2015
The extent of the damage sustained by the rocket wasn't immediately clear after the failed landing attempt. Musk only mentions the state of the barge, which he said "is fine." The landing was the company's first attempt at making commercial spaceflight significantly cheaper. "Reusability is the critical breakthrough needed in rocketry to take things to the next level," Musk said in October during a talk at MIT. SpaceX believed that it would be able to reuse parts of Falcon 9 in future models, which could help make crewed trips of the the ISS much more accessible — and improve SpaceX profit margins.
Today's failed attempt wasn't a big surprise. Musk has warned in the past that the landing had a 50-50 chance of working out. SpaceX even compared the feat to balancing "a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm" back in December, right before canceling the first planned attempt at landing the rocket (SpaceX aborted a second attempt on January 6th, one minute before the scheduled liftoff). Yet, even though the landing didn't end in success, the fact that the rocket hit its target is extremely encouraging. As Musk puts it, it "bodes well for the future."
Update: Musk took to Twitter later in the day to give some more context on the landing attempt.
Grid fins worked extremely well from hypersonic velocity to subsonic, but ran out of hydraulic fluid right before landing.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 10, 2015
Upcoming flight already has 50% more hydraulic fluid, so should have plenty of margin for landing attempt next month.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 10, 2015
Am super proud of my crew for making huge strides towards reusability on this mission. You guys rock!— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 10, 2015