Musk’s SpaceX Rocket-Recapture Bid Thwarted by Hard Landing

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SpaceX's Falcon 9 Rocket
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launches at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Jan. 10, 2015. Photographer: Bruce Weaver/AFP via Getty Images

Elon Musk’s SpaceX venture fell short in a first-ever attempt to recapture a rocket for reuse, with a booster’s hard landing on a ship deck coming close enough that the billionaire declared it “bodes well for the future.”

“Close, but no cigar this time,” Musk said today on his Twitter feed.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. sought to guide the Falcon 9 rocket to a soft, vertical touchdown atop an unmanned recovery vessel about the size of a soccer pitch or a U.S. football field, after lofting a load of supplies toward the International Space Station.

The craft “made it to the drone spaceport ship, but landed hard,” damaging some support equipment on the vessel that will have to be replaced, said Musk, who is also chairman of Tesla Motors Inc.

SpaceX’s technology uses propulsion and sophisticated navigation to help recapture components that previously burned up in Earth’s atmosphere or were abandoned to the ocean floor. Musk has said developing reusable craft could cut the expense of spaceflight by a factor of 100, a savings needed to help achieve his goal of colonizing Mars.

The booster’s near-miss after traveling from an altitude of more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) shows the advances may be within reach.

“Overall, I would rate it as a success,” Marco Caceres, director of space studies with Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based consulting firm, said in a phone interview.

Food, Equipment

The rocket in today’s launch carried a Dragon capsule hauling food, equipment and science experiments under a $1.6 billion contract for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Propelled into orbit by the rocket, the 5,200 pounds (2,360 kilograms) of supplies are now heading toward a rendezvous with the space station on Jan. 12.

SpaceX had postponed the resupply mission three times over the past month. It’s the first cargo flight to the orbiting lab since a fiery blast destroyed an Antares rocket operated by Orbital Sciences Corp. in October, a setback for NASA’s use of contractors to ferry supplies.

NASA relies on Orbital and SpaceX to ship supplies to the lab after ending the shuttle program in 2011.

“We are delighted to kick off 2015 with our first commercial cargo launch of the year,” said Charles Bolden, NASA’s administrator, said in a statement. “Thanks to our private sector partners, we’ve returned space station resupply launches to U.S. soil and are poised to do the same with the transport of our astronauts in the very near future.”

Reusability

Rocket makers from France’s Arianespace SA to United Launch Alliance, a Boeing Co.-Lockheed Martin Corp. venture, already are streamlining operations to compete with SpaceX’s $61.2 million price for Falcon 9 launches, the industry’s lowest. Reusing the rocket segment’s nine Merlin engines and aluminum-lithium alloy structure could halve that bill, Caceres said.

“Reusability means that SpaceX is more competitive in a lot of different areas,” Lance Erickson, program coordinator for commercial space operations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, said before liftoff. “The costs go down, the competition goes up and SpaceX is right at the front of this.”

SpaceX had sought to lower expectations for its first rocket recapture attempt, saying on its website before today’s launch that the odds of success were “not great -- perhaps 50 percent at best.”

Shipboard Landing

The company’s target for the touchdown was a ship in the Atlantic Ocean with a platform measuring 300 feet by 170 feet. With the craft’s legs spanning 70 feet, there was little margin for error.

The flight needed landing accuracy of within 10 meters (33 feet), less than the 10 kilometers achieved on two successful water landings last year.

“It is tricky to hit something that small to begin with, but to hit with the right velocity so that it lands perfectly when the barge is moving in the ocean -- that’s a tough challenge,” Caceres said. “They’re not taking the easy way. That’s not the conservative approach.”

SpaceX is trying to determine where the landing went awry. Video of the event was hampered by “dark and foggy” conditions, Musk said on Twitter. “Will piece it together from telemetry and ... actual pieces.”

The rocket “ran out of hydraulic fluid right before landing,” Musk said on Twitter. “Upcoming flight already has 50% more hydraulic fluid, so should have plenty of margin for landing attempt next month.”

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