SpaceX’s first attempt to land a rocket ends with a crash, but optimism
This weekend saw both a success and a failure for the fledgling commercial space agency, SpaceX. Early Saturday morning the company successfully launched a Dragon cargo ship into orbit, stocked with supplies destined for the International Space station. That was only part of the mission though. The second focus of the launch featured an experimental landing attempt for the Falcon 9 rocket, which didn’t go quite as well.
When a rocket launches, it typically breaks into multiple stages, sending the spacecraft into orbit while the boosters fall back to Earth. The burn, combined with the descent, renders most rockets completely unusable as they fall to the ocean or a remote location over land. Replacing these booster rockets is generally one of the most expensive aspects of launching any spacecraft. The Falcon 9 rocket, however, was designed to be reused, as long as it can be recovered intact.
SpaceX attempted to do something no other space organization has ever done before by trying to land a rocket upright following a controlled and piloted descent. The goal was for the Falcon 9 rocket to set down on a pad floating off the coast of Florida. The attempt was unsuccessful as the rocket impacted with too much speed, crashing into the pad and damaging the rocket. But for a first attempt it shows promise.
“Rocket made it to the drone spaceport ship, but landed hard,” Musk tweeted soon after liftoff, according to the LA Times. “Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future tho.”
The future of space travel is reusability
In order to make commercial space travel financially viable, the companies pursuing it will need to find ways to save as much money as possible without cutting safety corners. If a space company has a reputation for launching unsafe and potentially dangerous spacecraft, it won’t matter how inexpensive the launches are. Improving the cost effectiveness of the rockets is a good way to minimize expenses without sacrificing safety.
The test this weekend saw the launch of a modified Falcon 9 rocket, equipped with retractable landing legs and fins to help control the descent. While the Dragon spacecraft was reaching orbit, the 13-story high rocket was being flown back down to Earth. The rocket aimed for a football length, unmanned landing pad called the “autonomous spaceport drone ship” floating 200-miles off the coast of Florida. The pad was not anchored, but instead controlled remotely by thrusters to keep it in place while giving it a bit of freedom to move as needed.
The landing of the rocket was far from a sure thing, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk claimed prior to launch that the chances of success were about 50-percent. Musk later admitted that he made that figure up, but the company described the landing as “trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a windstorm.”
Given the difficulties, and given that this is the first time this type of landing has ever been attempted, the crash isn’t a setback, just the first in a series of steps. The engineers have already identified the problem – the landing fins worked as intended, but the hydraulic fluid ran out just before landing.
As for the Dragon spacecraft, the launch seems to have been a complete success. SpaceX will try the rocket landing again in February during a scheduled launch.