Watch: SpaceX falls agonisingly short of nailing rocket landing

18 Jan 2016

From the hubris on land in December to yet more heartache at sea in January: Elon Musk’s SpaceX company has seen another rocket come oh-so-close to nailing its landing on a barge at sea – with the Falcon tipping over and exploding into pieces aboard the droneship.

In the days before Christmas, SpaceX achieved something many thought impossible just a few years ago, successfully landing a rocket back down on Earth after it had dispatched nearly a dozen satellites in space.

The achievement was remarkable and, understandably, drew in quite the audience. This is how it looked from Cape Carnaveral, which was the site of the Falcon 9’s successful land-based attempt.

Gaining sea legs, slowly

SpaceX’s other attempts have been at sea, on trawlers with a landing zone and not much else. Throughout 2015, Musk’s company kept getting it wrong, improving as it went along but never quite nailing the execution.

For example, Musk called a January attempt’s crash landing a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” (RUD) and, in June, a Falcon 9 exploded minutes after take-off, with a two-foot long, one-inch thick piece of metal to blame.

Parts, wind, boat manoeuvres and luck all played their part in failed attempts, but each time a Falcon engine was getting closer to the goal. And it’s a significant goal in that huge cost savings can be made on future missions if rockets can land and be reused.

Thus the jubilation in December:

But yesterday, Musk’s team got so close it’s almost painful to watch. After deploying a satellite in space, the rocket landed bang on spot on the “droneship” it was targeting at sea.

But a leg didn’t work and it slowly started to tip over. Then it exploded.

Still, Musk is putting a brave face on proceedings.

SpaceX rocket image via SpaceX on Flickr

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic