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'Close But No Cigar' For SpaceX's Reusable Rocket Landing

Jan 12, 2015 04:28 PM EST
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SpaceX successfully launches its 14th Falcon 9 rocket
(Photo : NASA/Jim Grossman)
SpaceX's F9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a Dragon cargo spacecraft to the ISS. Liftoff was at 4:47 am EST on Jan. 10, 2015. The craft delivered 3,700 pounds of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations and supplies, including critical materials to support 256 science and research investigations on the ISS.

Space Exploration Technologies' (SpaceX) sixth mission to the International Space Station (ISS) was quite a success, marking the private company's fifth official resupply mission under NASA contract with their unmanned Dragon cargo module and Falcon 9 rocket. However, this mission also marked a first attempt at using one of the company's partially-reusable rockets, and that didn't go as well as intended.

SpaceX has of course tested the use of its reusable rocket stages in the past, as reusability is one of the company's primary goals as a private sector space-flight leader.

"If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred," company CEO Elon Musk said in a past statement. "A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space."

Musk even has dreams that SpaceX one day fronts the world's first space-port, with crafts coming and going from Earth's upper atmosphere as frequently as commercial jets.

However, the company is still quite a long way away from seeing this dream become reality.

"Rockets are tricky..." the billionaire entrepreneur famously tweeted back in August after one of SpaceX's developmental-stage Falcon 9 Reusables (F9R) dramatically exploded in a test launch.

The issue was corrected for, and the F9Rs have seen some impressive success since. This encouraged SpaceX to test out one of their latest "X-wing" reusable first stages in a real-but-unmanned mission.

After launching the company's tried-and-true Dragon cargo module towards the ISS on Saturday, the rocket's first stage expended excess fuel in its decent, stabilizing with the intent to safely align back on a floating landing pad so that it could be used again in the future.

Unfortunately, while advance navigation tech allowed the pad ship and drone-guided stage to successfully line up, the mission ended in a much more difficult landing than anticipated.

"The ship itself is fine," Musk later tweeted. "Some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced..."

Unfortunately, the rocket stage didn't exactly survive its landing, either. It was later revealed that the "x-wing" stabilizer fins on the stage simply ran out of hydraulic fuel, making the decent much rockier than expected.

Musk has since announced that the rocket scheduled to fly next month has already been equipped with 50 percent more fluid.

And despite this first attempt being a bust, it turns out that "close" actually does count for more than just 'horseshoes and hand grenades,' as the adage goes.

"It is indeed an incredible success that on such an early attempt they were able to get that first stage... to the intended landing pad, and so close to a successful landing," Jim Bell of Arizona State University's School of Earth & Space Exploration said in a contributing email to Fox News.

"That is the beauty of having a long-term vision and plan, as SpaceX does," he went on to explain. "Each individual test, fully successful or not, provides important input to the next."

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