SpaceX scores on NASA launch; ‘no cigar’ on rocket sea landing – USA TODAY
SpaceX successfully launched a Dragon cargo capsule into space early Saturday morning. The capsule is filled with supplies, headed for the International Space Station. The launch was crucial following the failed Antares rocket back in October.
A SpaceX rocket boosted a Dragon cargo spacecraft to a bull’s-eye orbit early Saturday, then hit a target in the Atlantic Ocean — too hard, unfortunately.
Unable to slow down enough during its 80-mile descent from space, the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket slammed into a custom-built ship serving as a landing pad and broke into pieces.
“Close, but no cigar this time,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter of the historic landing attempt. “Bodes well for the future tho.”
The highly anticipated landing experiment, aimed at advancing development of a reusable rocket, almost overshadowed SpaceX’s successful 4:47 a.m. launch of more than 5,000 pounds of food, supplies and experiments to the International Space Station, where the Dragon is due to arrive Monday morning.
The delivery is critical to maintaining normal operations for the station’s six-person crew because NASA’s other commercial cargo provider, Orbital Sciences, is recovering from a failed launch last October.
That means NASA will “lean on the Dragon vehicle to supply ISS here for the next little while” until Orbital is ready to fly again, ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini said before the launch.
Lifting off on its second attempt, after SpaceX replaced a rocket part that scrubbed the first try Tuesday, the Falcon 9 streaked northeast from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station into predawn darkness.
Three minutes into the flight, the booster shut off its nine engines and fell away, setting the stage for several engine firings intended to place it on a 300-foot-long platform that SpaceX dubbed the “autonomous spaceport drone ship.”
For the first time, the 14-story rocket stage was equipped with steerable fins to improve its control during the ride down from a peak speed of nearly a mile per second.
The company twice previously had guided boosters to soft landings in the water, where they promptly belly-flopped and were destroyed.
But a soft touchdown on the ship would have represented a huge breakthrough toward recovering and re-flying a rocket, something SpaceX is confident will lower launch costs and upend the industry.
Instead, about nine minutes after liftoff the booster hit the ship — in itself an impressive feat — but was flying too fast.
Musk said the ship was OK; some deck support equipment will need to be replaced.
Darkness and fog prevented SpaceX from capturing good video of the impact, but Musk joked that engineers would reconstruct the event from the data they managed to recover.
“Will piece it together from telemetry and … actual pieces,” he said.
A recovery crew was stationed more than 11 miles from the landing site.
If the ship repairs aren’t too extensive, SpaceX could try to land on it again as soon as its next mission, a satellite launch planned no earlier than Jan. 29.
All the landing drama was of little consequence to NASA, which just wanted its cargo sent to the ISS.
The resupply mission was SpaceX’s fifth of a dozen planned under a $1.6 billion NASA contract.
“We are delighted to kick off 2015 with our first commercial cargo launch of the year,” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said in a statement afterward.
The launch was the first this year from Cape Canaveral and the 14th by a Falcon 9 rocket.
Next up from the Cape is a planned Jan. 20 launch of a Navy communications satellite by a powerful United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.