– Story updated with new video clip at 12:15 p.m. EST
In the early morning hours of Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015, SpaceX kicked off the United States’ busy 2015 space launch manifest with their fifth NASA-contracted Dragon resupply flight to the International Space Station (ISS). Onboard for the flight to the $100 billion orbiting science research outpost was over 5,000 pounds of supplies, cargo, and experiments for the Expedition 42 crew (and later Expedition 43), including critical materials to support 256 science and research investigations. But SpaceX had another goal in mind, too: a first in their ever-growing list of firsts, and newly released images from the company show just how close they came to accomplishing that goal.
The primary objective was, obviously, to fulfill the customer’s requirements (NASA), delivering payloads to the ISS and, in four weeks, bringing back more than 3,600 pounds of cargo, including crew supplies, hardware, and computer resources, science experiments, space station hardware, and trash. However, SpaceX had a secondary objective, which caught the attention of the public more than the mission itself, and that was to land their Falcon-9 rocket first stage booster on an autonomous barge known as the “Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship” (ASDS), which was positioned roughly 200 miles offshore of the Florida/Georgia border.
The attempt alone was a historic first and, although the rocket did not “soft-land” on the ASDS, it did hit the ASDS, a feat which in and of itself is worthy of respect, especially considering that stabilizing the 150-foot-tall rocket stage in flight—traveling at a velocity of 2,900 mph at separation—has been likened to someone balancing a rubber broomstick on their hand in the middle of a fierce wind storm.
“Rocket made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard. Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future tho,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk via Twitter (@ElonMusk) Saturday morning after launch. “Ship itself is fine, some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced. Grid fins worked extremely well from hypersonic velocity to subsonic, but ran out of hydraulic fluid right before landing.”
Newly released images, courtesy of Elon Musk, show the booster’s moment of impact on the barge.
“Before impact, fins lose power and go hardover. Engines fights to restore, but…,” said Musk. “Rocket hits hard at ~45 deg angle, smashing legs and engine section,” he added.
“Upcoming flight already has 50% more hydraulic fluid, so should have plenty of margin for landing attempt next month,” added Musk, who did not clarify which launch would be the next for another booster landing attempt.
In doing so the company is making strides with developing the technology to land their booster and re-use it, a history-making feat which many expect the company to accomplish this year. Never has it been done before, and the expectation is that once the Falcon-9 is truly reusable it will drive down the costs of access to space dramatically.
Space is simply too expensive for anyone other than governments and companies loaded with ridiculous amounts of cash—a fact Musk would like to see changed within his lifetime, and a change that is absolutely necessary if mankind ever hopes to put boots on Mars or reach other deep space destinations.
LISTEN to our own Dr. Ken Kremer’s live radio interview with BBC 5LIVE last weekend, discussing SpaceX’s first attempt to land and return their Falcon-9 booster.
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