SpaceX's Falcon 9 Rocket Still Doesn't Have Its Sea Legs

SpaceX's first successful mission into orbit and the subsequent landing of its reusable Falcon 9 rocket will go down in history as a watershed moment in space exploration and travel, but it was only one step in a long and rocky path to the stars. This morning's Falcon 9 launch got the Jason 3 oceanographic satellite into space, but the booster's landing didn't go precisely as planned.

As we covered in our live blog of the low Earth orbit mission, SpaceX's primary mission to deliver the satellite was successful, and the satellite's solar panels deployed perfectly -- the rest is up to NASA there. But the landing of the Falcon 9, the part that saves millions of dollars and makes delivery of material into space 100 times cheaper than previous methods, didn't quite work perfectly.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 -- an older v1.1 version (yep, that's right, rockets have versions these days) -- delivered the satellite successfully, but one of its landing strut legs did not lock after deployment -- with the end result that after landing on the barge, the rocket tipped and fell over. So close. This is the third sea landing that the Falcon 9 has unsuccessfully attempted; the first landing was hard, and the second was harder still and the rocket itself was destroyed.

The picture above doesn't look like the prettiest thing, but the Falcon 9 is at least in one piece -- and that's a big step forward. It sounds like a relatively small hardware problem caused the accident, so I'd be quite confident of SpaceX's next sea landing being successful if no other unexpected incident occurs.

The rationale behind sea launches and landings is that they allow both a faster launch and a faster landing, allowing for high velocity missions -- large payloads, or higher orbits. Musk specifically pushed the point on Twitter, saying that it's not for flexibility or fuel saving; because the drone ships can move, there's no need to zero out the lateral motion of a landing rocket during landing -- like a plane landing on an aircraft carrier. This was actually the final launch of the v1.1 platform; all future SpaceX launches will use the Falcon 9 v1.1 Full Thrust.

Fun fact: the autonomous spaceport drone ship that SpaceX used for this attempt was named Just Read The Instructions, after one of the starships in the late science fiction author Iain M Banks' Culture novels; the second is named Of Course I Still Love You. (There's actually a third, but it's also called Just Read The Instructions.) Yes, Musk is a sci-fi nerd -- as, you would expect, are a lot of the staff at SpaceX.

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    SpaceX's Falcon 9 Rocket Still Doesn't Have Its Sea LegsWithout being too pedantic, they did have to cope with rough seas. So if it did land on the barge, it would have been a technical masterpiece. So given they're still in the early phase of learning, I'd say they are ahead of the curve.

    Last edited 18/01/16 12:02 pm

      Oh, definitely! We're nit-picking about landing a goddamned space rocket, I get that :)

    Yes, let's ignore the fact that Blue Origin re-landed a booster weeks before Space X did. Blue Origin had way better video coverage of the event, too. Yes, Falcon 9 is a much bigger rocket but the fact is that it's first successful landing was not a watershed moment, their party had already been spoiled by Blue Origin.

    As for ship names, whilst it's nice to pay homage to one of the finest sci-fi writers of our time, might it not have been even cooler to come up with their own names, following in the Banks tradition? Mind you, it isn't actually appropriate to use those kinds of names, which are chosen by the ships themselves, not given to them by their owners.

      Blue Origin's relanding isn't anywhere NEAR the same league that SpaceX's is in. It's suborbital vs LEO -- massive massive difference. The Verge actually has a great post about it.

        It's the second stage booster that gets it to LEO, which is not recoverable. The reusable first stage only gets it to a bit over 90km, roughly where Blue Origin landed their launch vehicle from. Blue Origin also has plans for a two-stage orbiter that will use the same first stage they landed last year.

        The main difference would have been that the Space X booster would have been going really fast at separation, where the Blue Origin rocket would have been stalled. But I think we can all agree that getting back from 90km out isn't really the trick, as long as it doesn't burn up, it's what happens in the last few hundred feet of the descent that's impressive.

    Why not land it on a cushioned barge instead of trying to land it standing up, you'd think it'd be easier to land it so that It fell on its side. It'd even make it easier to transport and remove from the barge.

      I think trying to do that would be harder than verticle unless you're talking about a controlled crash. Having it land verticle saves the integrity of the vehicle.

      To answer this question go get a few straws from Mc Donnalds.

      Straw 1: hold the straw between the index fingers of your hands . Slowly apply pressure till it buckles. You will note that it will take a surprising amount of load before buckling. That's because it shape is good at vertical loading ...

      Straw 2: Next do the same except lightly hold the ends between thumb and index finger on opposing hands. Slowly bring your spare index finger in and apply a light load to the Center of the straw. You will find that it will take a fraction of the force to buckle the straw under side loading..

      The straw and the nearly empty 15 story F9-S1 are very similar beasts. They are both hollow tubes built to tackle the loading longitudinally not laterally.

      Due to its size (I will repeat the fact that it stands 15 stories tall) even the act of falling is likely to create enough lateral force in the structure to cause damage. And that's before all that mass makes contact with the ground. I highly doubt you could cushion it enough to prevent any side loading damage... Like distortion of the cylindrical shape, popped rivets. (Does it even have rivets!??) and so on.

      Becides regardless of if you allow it to fall on a cushioned surface, you still have to bring it down with almost 0 -Z in the first place. (I.e. With as smaller vertical speed as possible) If you can do that (they've done it twice now) then, why would you risk inevitable structural damage by making it fall over?

    Still don't know why they don't use parachutes to slow it down rather than use the rockets to slow it down. I know it can't land with the parachute because it would be next to impossible to steer but using the chute to slow it down and then cut the chute away and land with the rocket.

    I'm sure there is a perfectly good reason, I'd just like to know what it is.

      Just a guess, but I'd say a parachute would seriously affect the accuracy of the landing point. Land in the ocean, plenty of room to bob around in while waiting for pickup, landing on a barge, tiny little spot to land on, you need to come out of planetary insertion, right on top of the target.

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