The primary goal of the launch was to send more than 5, 000 pounds (2, 300 kilograms) of supplies, equipment and experiments to the International Space Station aboard the Dragon. That part of the mission unfolded flawlessly.
After the Dragon and the Falcon's second stage separated and went on their way, the 14-story-tall first stage was programmed to try flying itself back to an "autonomous spaceport drone ship" sitting about 200 miles off Florida's Atlantic coast. SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, said in a Twitter update that the stage "made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard."
"Close, but no cigar this time, " he said.
Such a maneuver had never been tried before — and if the procedure becomes routine, it could mark a giant leap toward rocket reusability and low-cost spaceflight. Musk has said making rockets fully reusable could reduce the cost of getting to orbit to 1 percent of what it is today. That would hasten Musk's dream of creating colonies on Mars and making humanity a "multiplanet species."
The Falcon 9 rose into a dark sky at 4:47 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It almost blasted off on Tuesday — but a problem with an engine-steering actuator on the rocket's second stage forced a last-minute scrub. SpaceX replaced the balky part, and Saturday's countdown went smoothly.
Attempt 'bodes well for future'
The landing attempt came about 10 minutes after liftoff. After stage separation, at an altitude of well more than 60 miles (100 kilometers), the first stage relit its rocket engines for three maneuvering burns to slow down the supersonic descent and steer the rocket to a vertical landing on the drone ship.
The first stage was equipped with fold-out stabilizing fins and landing legs to facilitate the maneuver. The robotic drone ship has a 300-foot-long, 170-foot-wide landing platform — and it's designed to stabilize itself, even in heavy seas, thanks to a set of underwater thrusters. But even before the launch, Musk said the chance of success was only 50-50 at most.
You might also like:
NASA Commercial Crew Human Spaceflight Program for Transport to the International Space Station (ISS): SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Contracts, Safety Reviews, History and Update Reports
eBooks (Progressive Management)