SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Rocket Slams Into Autonomous Drone Ship

If at first you don't succeed... try gently landing a rocket on a boat again

At 4:47 a.m. this morning, SpaceX attempted what could have been a revolutionary feat: launching a Falcon 9 rocket and landing part of the vehicle on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean. The lunch was success, but the landing was a bit… rough.

SpaceX is on a mission to reuse its rockets after they’ve been launched as a major cost-cutting technique. It’s a concept many have strived for but no one has achieved. The majority of a rocket’s body is either destroyed after blastoff, or sinks to the ocean bottom—so companies must build brand-new rockets for each and every launch. This makes space travel extremely expensive. Reusing rocket bodies would cut the cost of rebuilding out of the equation and dramatically lower the expense of getting into space. (Affordable space tourism, anyone?)

NASA has a contract with SpaceX as part of the agency’s Commercial Resupply Services program, which requires the company, founded by Elon Musk, to launch numerous cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station. This morning’s launch was another one of those missions, but it was after stage separation—when the first and second stage of the Falcon 9 disconnect—that SpaceX attempted their landing trick.

Autonomous Drone Spaceport

The landing pad awaiting the Falcon 9’s first stage in the Atlantic Ocean

The first stage of the rocket stands about about 14 stories tall and carries the the rocket’s engines and the bulk of its fuel. The second stage, meanwhile, carries the Dragon capsule filled with supplies for the ISS. At a certain point in time after liftoff, the first stage uses up all its fuel and detaches from the second stage, so that it doesn’t add unnecessary weight to the vehicle. Right now, the second stage with the Dragon is still on its way to the space station, and it’s expected to arrive Monday. But the larger first stage fell to Earth this morning.

The idea was to keep this stage in tact for recovery. Reigniting some of the rocket’s engines during during descent, plus the addition of “hypersonic grid fins,” was meant to land the vehicle on a specific target: an autonomous drone spaceport floating in the Atlantic Ocean. While it seems the rocket body hit the landing pad, it did so a little too hard, according to Musk. He says the ship is fine and that it just needs a few repairs; the rocket, on the other hand, is toast.

Wannabe space tourists shouldn’t be too discouraged, though. Before the launch, Musk estimated a 50 percent chance that the landing would be successful (though he later admitted he made up those odds). He also noted the company would use data from this landing to perfect the technique for future launches. So, if at first you don’t succeed… try to land a rocket on a drone ship again. As they say.