Thursday, January 15, 2015

Falcon 9 Delivers Dragon, Just Misses Landing

On Saturday, January 10, SpaceX's Falcon 9 flagship rocket launched a supply capsule to the International Space Station for the fifth time under a commercial resupply contract with NASA. The night launch out of Cape Canaveral was flawless in its beauty. Capture (aka catch the dragon with a robotic arm on the ISS) and docking of the capsule went as planned. 

 Image credit: SpaceX / NASA
SpaceX's Dragon CRS-5 being grappled and docked by astronauts aboard the International Space Station, with a little help from Houston Mission Control.

The historic aspect of this mission - landing Falcon 9's upper stage on a barge using technology developed by SpaceX - fell just short of its goal. The rocket reached the drone ship in the Atlantic, but didn't land on point. It crashed and damaged structures on the ship. Still, considering the difficulty of precision-landing a used rocket on a ship in the ocean, it was a bold attempt, a first in the history of rocketry. SpaceX is optimistic they will stick the landing next time.

The technological leap that comes with reliable reusability technology is significant. Capsules that return to Earth have historically landed inside vast target zones, such as the ocean (Apollo) or the Russian tundra (Soyuz), using parachutes and braking rockets. The precise landing spot is uncertain and ground support teams must locate the capsule once it has splashed or touched down. Since the Space Shuttle retirement, these imprecise landings are the only option we have to return astronauts to Earth. Compare that to the precision inherent in landing on a 300-by-170 foot (90-by-50 m) barge, and eventually a pad on land. Yes, a rocket isn't reusable if it reaches a specific spot and crashes on it, but I'm certain SpaceX is on its way to getting it right.

Elon Musk, SpaceX's CEO, posted this series of tweets, with his characteristic understatement and humor:

Update January 16, 2015: 

Late last night, Elon Musk released drone footage pictures of the almost-landing and its aftermath on twitter. These tweets appeared as @ replies to another user, so they are not as visible as his regular tweets and got somewhat less attention than usual. In addition, these images were released the same day as the announcement of the Hyperloop test track construction in Texas, which dominated yesterday's coverage of Elon Musk. Well played, Elon!

I would have called it "involuntary full conversion of an asset" but RUD is good, too! Of course this wouldn't be Elon Musk tweeting without this next tweet. Unlike the others above, it appears in his main tweet stream (not tweets & replies) so it got a lot more attention in terms of FVs and RTs:

A few hours ago, a video of the (crash) landing appeared in SpaceX's main tweet stream:

As someone who has previously critiqued media coverage of SpaceX and its CEO, I noted a change in the tone used by space and science writers to cover the rocket company and its CEO over the past year, and especially today. Gone are the diminutive references and labels of SpaceX as a "scrappy startup". In its place are grudging acknowledgments that SpaceX is, in fact, a major player in the industry, evidenced by descriptors of Elon Musk as, for example, "space boss". I predict this will become "industry leader" within a year.