SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket crashed on an ocean platform during a ground-breaking attempt to land in a controlled manner, which was meant to become a major milestone in the company’s endeavour to make space launchers as reusable as planes.
The failed landing came after a successful launch of Falcon 9 with a Dragon capsule aboard towards the International Space Station. During the test, the rocket’s 14-storey-tall first stage descended on a floating platform some 320km off the coast of Florida after taking off from Cape Canaveral. However, instead of landing intact, it hit the platform with too much force and broke into pieces.
"Rocket made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard. Close, but no cigar this time," Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, tweeted after the attempt.
Musk later said the failure came as a result of the rocket running out of hydraulic fluid used to operate its steerable fins and reassured that SpaceX is already implementing the lessons learned for future attempts.
"Upcoming flight already has 50 per cent more hydraulic fluid, so should have plenty of margin for landing attempt next month," he said.
SpaceX’s ambition is to develop a rocket that could be easily refurbished and flown multiple times. The company believes such s system would eventually allow cutting down costs of space travel by as much as a factor of one hundred. Spent rocket stages are currently discarded immediately after each flight, meaning new hardware needs to be built for every launch.
SpaceX previously verified its controlled landing concept with a smaller experimental rocket called the Grasshopper. Sunday’s attempt was the first to implement the technology as part of a regular flight of Falcon 9, the current US space launch workhorse.
The company started developing the landing system for Falcon 9 in March last year. It consists of landing boosters, four landing legs and steerable fins to slow down and navigate the rocket safely back to Earth.
The idea to reuse space flight hardware is not completely new. Nasa’s Space Shuttle represented a similar attempt with its solid rocket boosters having been lowered back to the Earth on parachutes after every launch. However, the recovery and subsequent refurbishment proved too costly and demanding, hiking up the overall cost of the Space Shuttle programme.
The Saturday launch was Falcon 9’s fifth to successfully send SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station, part of the company’s $1.6bn contract with Nasa covering an overall 12 missions.
The capsule safely reached its destination on Monday morning.
SpaceX is one of two companies hired by Nasa to fly cargo to the station following the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011. However, the second firm, Orbital Sciences, was sidelined in October after its Antares rocket exploded minutes after lift-off.