The sixth SpaceX cargo mission to the International Space Station under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services contract lifted off without a hitch on Tuesday afternoon, but once again SpaceX failed to stick the landing.
The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off with its Dragon cargo space craft right on schedule at 3:10 p.m. from the Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. After scrubbing the mission on Monday due to weather problems -- a storm system had moved within the launch pad's 10-mile nautical radius minutes away from completing the countdown, forcing NASA to abort -- SpaceX's Falcon 9 juddered off the launch pad, parting the blue sky until it became a hazy fiery dot on the NASA TV camera.
The first part of the mission was an unbridled success. SpaceX's Hawthorne Mission Control Center in Hawthorne California oversaw a smooth launch -- so smooth there was almost no chatter from NASA in the minutes leading up to, NASA TV announcer Mike Curie noted.
Once the spacecraft got into space, Johnson Space Center took over the handling of the Dragon spacecraft as it separated from Falcon 9 to head off for its scheduled rendezvous with the ISS. The Dragon is carrying 4,300 pounds of supplies including materials for 40 different scientific experiments and an espresso machine for the astronauts. It should dock with the ISS on Friday, according to NASA. It will head back loaded with waste and other stuff in about five weeks.
However, the real show was back on Earth where SpaceX was attempting to land the reusable part of the Falcon 9 rocket vertically on a drone barge floating in the Atlantic Ocean.
The rocket has two stages, a 138-foot tall first stage that burns the first few minutes to lift the rocket about 50 miles up before it breaks off and falls back to earth. The second smaller stage is a 49-foot tall section that carries the Falcon into orbit before also breaking away and dropping back to earth. Normally these rockets are allowed to break up in the atmosphere or drop into the ocean after a launch. If SpaceX ever actually manages to pull this off the company will be shaving millions of dollars off the cost of space travel by being able to reliably recycle rockets.
SpaceX plans call for retrieving the first stage. First, the rocket is equipped with fins that are supposed to slow its descent. Then the rocket is steered toward the drone barge (completely un-crewed with a white and yellow target and the SpaceX logo in the center of it and the admonishment "Just read the instructions" printed on the outer target rim). By this point the rocket has whipped out a set of legs and is traveling at 4.5 mph. And then it lands on the target. At least that's what it's supposed to do.
SpaceX has tried to land the rocket once before in January but a short of hydraulic fluid that destabilized the rocket and it exploded as it hit the barge. On Tuesday they tried again. Before the launch and recovery attempt SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk claimed the odds of success were 50-50.
Either way, the launch itself had to go off without a hitch because SpaceX is competing United Launch Alliance which just unveiled its new rocket, the Vulcan, as Vox pointed out. On top of that SpaceX has been delaying this launch since March out of "an abundance of caution" because of fuel storage problems. (After watching Orbital's rocket launch and then infamously blow up seconds after clearing the launch pad last year everyone apparently got a little more cautious.)
While live video showed the other stage of Falcon 9 separating from Dragon as the two soared above a placid looking globe, the video never cut to the landing barge. Thousands were tuned in to watch the launch but many focused on this potentially historic landing. But then the live feed stayed with Dragon and the second stage of Falcon 9 as the launch progressed. Twitter was buzzing with people asking why there wasn't any live feed from the landing attempt. Even Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal tweeted his surprise when he realized that there wouldn't be any live video of the attempted landing:
Wait, we're gonna see the Spacex landing attempt, right?
— Kai Ryssdal (@kairyssdal) April 14, 2015
Because of that it's unclear what exactly happened, but Musk reported via Twitter that once again the rocket had landed on the drone ship but come in "too hard for survival." SpaceX hasn't yet released video of the impact, but the last attempt in January looked less like landing and more like crashing. It may be a few days before SpaceX releases the video of this attempted landing.
Ascent successful. Dragon enroute to Space Station. Rocket landed on droneship, but too hard for survival.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 14, 2015
While the launch can be counted as a success SpaceX wiped out on the landing once more. If SpaceX or some other company ever manages to land these rockets -- and it's worth noting SpaceX once again made it to the barge with the rocket -- it could revolutionize space flight and open up the final frontier to the many who would love to explore it, but simply haven't been able to afford it. Still, somebody has to prove these rockets can actually land without crashing first.
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UPDATE: SpaceX has posted a Vine video of the attempted landing. It's a very brief clip that shows the Falcon lowering itself down onto the drone barge in what appears to be a fairly smooth landing maneuver. However, the clip cuts off just as the rocket hits the barge, so we don't get to see what actually happened in those final seconds. (Perhaps that precise stopping point is why SpaceX opted to release this tiny repetitive clip instead of posting the attempted landing to Youtube alongside Tuesday's launch footage?)
But anyway, based on this very limited view of the attempted landing, it appears that even though SpaceX didn't successfully land the rocket it's possible -- depending on what happened right after the Vine clip cuts off -- that they got very close. Alas, close isn't good enough when it comes to rocket landings.