Space rocketeers at SpaceX just missed a catch on Saturday, failing in a bold first attempt to recycle a used rocket engine by landing it on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
"Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future," said SpaceX chief Elon Musk on Twitter. The touchdown would have been a first for ocean landings.
The landing attempt was made shortly after a flawless 4:47 a.m. (EST) launch of the resupply spacecraft from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The Dragon cargo spacecraft headed successfully to the International Space Station, bearing supplies and science experiments that will be delivered Monday to the orbiting lab. Less than three minutes into its flight, the cargo spacecraft detached from the 14-story-tall first stage of the Falcon 9 Rocket that had launched it into space.
SpaceX mission controllers then tried to land the first stage on a barge floating in the Atlantic Ocean.
The point of the barge landing was to recover the rocket's expensive engines and reuse them. Rocket engines have typically been allowed to burn up on reentry or plummet into the ocean, either for disposal or recovery later by boat.
Rockets firing for stability, the first stage descended toward the barge. According to Musk, the rocket "made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard."
The SpaceX team was not able to recover good video of the crash, but will reconstruct events from radio signals of the flight and pieces of the wreckage.
Playing the Odds
SpaceX chief Elon Musk had given 50-50 odds on the success of the barge landing. ("I pretty much made that up. I have no idea," Musk later noted in a web chat on Reddit.)
"From the ground it might look quite large," said SpaceX's Hans Koenigsmann of the 300-by-170 foot (about 90-by-50 meter) deck of the barge, or Space Port Drone Ship, as Koenigsmann called it at a Monday news briefing. "But from 150 miles or so high it looks very small as a target."
SpaceX had earlier attempted an upright touchdown of a first stage in the ocean after launch, only to see the rocket topple onto its side after setting down. The barge, or "drone ship," suffered only minor damage in Saturday morning's attempted sea landing, according to Musk. "Some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced," he said on Twitter.
The Dragon launch was the fifth of 12 cargo resupply missions that NASA has contracted for with SpaceX at a cost of $1.6 billion.
Even if the the company manages to catch and reuse rocket engines, their costs may not drop much, says space economist Henry Hertzfeld of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Rocket engines are responsible for only about a third of launch costs, he says, and refurbishment might eat up any price savings from reusable ones.
Koenigsmann indicated that SpaceX would attempt more barge landings of rocket stages after future cargo resupply mission launches.
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