As if launching a rocket into space weren’t enough, on Saturday SpaceX tried to bring one safely back to earth by setting it down on a floating landing pad.
The effort failed, with the rocket crashing into its target. Even so, Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, claimed that the attempt brings the company a step closer to developing a fully reusable launch vehicle—something that could revolutionize the space industry by making launches a lot cheaper.
The Falcon 9 launch vehicle took off successfully early on Saturday morning, sending a capsule off to resupply the International Space Station. The first stage of the vehicle was designed to return to the ground—in this case a heavily modified ship at sea—and land softly using special thrusters.
Musk announced the failed landing on Twitter. “Rocket made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard,” he said. “Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future tho.”
Some equipment on the so-called spaceport ship suffered damage as a result of the hard landing. “Ship itself is fine,” Musk wrote. “Some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced.”
It’s unclear how the failure may affect SpaceX’s timeline for developing such a capability. Before the attempted landing, Musk said there was a 50-50 chance of success.
After releasing the second stage, the boosters of the Falcon 9 first stage oriented the 14-story-tall rocket vertically as it sank back down to earth and controlled its descent. Sticking the landing is tricky because the rocket’s speed must be controlled carefully, and the correct orientation requires very fine control of the vehicle’s thrusters, as well as several hydraulic fins.
Returning a vehicle to the ground this way is not a new idea. The Russian Soyuz space capsule lands on Earth using retro-rockets, as do many space exploration vehicles landing on other celestial bodies. However, it remains an extremely difficult engineering feat, especially with such a large object.
Musk blamed the hard landing on a failure of the four “grid” fins used to steer the first stage on its descent. “Grid fins worked extremely well from hypersonic velocity to subsonic, but ran out of hydraulic fluid right before landing,” he wrote in another tweet.
This is why most previous attempts at reusable launchers have taken the form of space planes like the Space Shuttle or the Air Force’s semi-secret X-37. These vehicles are very complex and expensive. Some rockets have been designed to be recovered via parachute. While this is cheap and reliable, it also takes a long time to recover and recondition the rocket for another launch.
A normal Falcon launch costs roughly $65 million to $70 million—which is already about half the cost of competing services—but that price could drop to between $30 million $40 million, Caceres estimates, if SpaceX can learn to land the launch vehicle.
How many times the Falcon 9 could be reused is not known. It is highly unlikely that a Falcon 9 could be reused 10 times or more.
That would be especially true if SpaceX were to make a completely reusable launch vehicle. Right now, only the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket is designed to be reusable. SpaceX hopes to eventually develop a reusable second stage booster, too.