Their mission was only a partial success.
Back in December 2015, SpaceX made history by engineering the world’s first successful landing of an orbital rocket. On Sunday December 17, they attempted to go one step further. They aimed to launch the Jason 3 ocean studies satellite into orbit before bringing the launch vehicle — Falcon 9 — back to Earth and landing it upright on a floating platform in the Pacific Ocean.
The first part of the mission was a success — they did launch the satellite — but the second portion failed. Falcon 9 crashed as one of its legs failed to lock, which caused it to tip over in a fiery blaze.
Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO, explained what may have happened on Instagram: “Falcon lands on droneship, but the lockout collet doesn't latch on one [of] the four legs, causing it to tip over post-landing. [The] root cause may have been ice buildup due to condensation from heavy fog at liftoff."
This isn’t the first time that SpaceX attempted this type of landing. The first two tries at an ocean platform landing were both failures as well. Musk jokingly nicknamed their crash landings RUD or Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly. In December, they were successful with an upright landing, which brought optimism for this most recent attempt. But, that had been an easier feat since it took place on solid ground.
The advantage of being able to land on a platform at sea rather than on land is that rockets may not always have the necessary extra fuel required to redirect themselves towards a particular location on land. However, an ocean platform can move and position itself where it needs to be for a landing. The second reason for yesterday’s attempted landing site was that SpaceX was unable to get the necessary permission to land in California as they had hoped.
Why does SpaceX keep trying to reuse their rockets even though they have been failing at the recovery? According to Musk, a new rocket costs about $60 million. On the other hand, reusing a rocket would only cost $200,000 — the amount needed to inspect and refurbish a rocket for the next launch.
Furthermore, yesterday’s mission wasn’t a complete failure — in fact, the launch was declared a success. SpaceX put NASA’s Jason-3 into orbit so that it can collect data related to ocean surface levels and weather in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
SpaceX isn’t giving up. The third time wasn’t a charm, but maybe the fourth time will be!