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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