Categories: Commercial Space

Huge Rocket Recovery Strides Accomplished, SpaceX Drone Ship Back in Port

“Huge strides towards [rocket] reusability” were achieved, says SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, following Saturday morning’s (Jan. 10) flawless launch of his firm’s Falcon 9 rocket on a critical resupply mission to the space station for NASA, which also had a secondary objective of recovering the booster’s first stage via an unprecedented precision-guided landing on an ocean-going “drone.”

Despite making a “hard landing” on the vessel dubbed the “autonomous spaceport drone ship,” the 14 story tall Falcon 9 first stage did make it to the drone ship, positioned some 200 miles offshore of the Florida-Carolina coast, northeast of the launch site in the Atlantic Ocean. The rocket broke into pieces upon hitting the barge.

“Rocket made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard. Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future tho,” Musk tweeted soon after the launch and recovery attempt.

The drone ship, along with pieces of the rocket, was towed back to the Port of Jacksonville, FL, this afternoon, Sunday, Jan. 11. Photos captured by locals, and posted today on Reddit, NASASpaceflight and Spaceflight Now, showed the ship was intact with some damage, as reported by Musk.

The SpaceX “autonomous spaceport drone ship” being towed into the Port of Jacksonville, FL, on 11 Jan 2015 with possible pieces of the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage under tarps. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

The goal of the commercial Falcon 9 rocket was to launch the SpaceX Dragon CRS-5 cargo vessel on a mission bound for the International Space Station (ISS). It lit up the night skies all around the Florida Space Coast following a flawless liftoff at 4:47 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

After a two day chase, Dragon will reach the ISS at about 6:12 a.m. EST on Monday, Jan. 12. NASA TV live coverage starts at 4:30 a.m. EST.

The history-making attempt at recovering the Falcon 9 first stage was a first of its kind experiment to accomplish a pinpoint soft landing of a rocket onto a tiny platform in the middle of a vast ocean using a rocket assisted descent.

“Am super proud of my crew for making huge strides towards reusability on this mission. You guys rock!” Musk declared in a later tweet.

Whereas virtually every other news outlet declared the landing attempt a “failure” in the headline, my assessment as a scientist is the complete opposite – and that the experiment was “a very good first step towards the bold company goal of recovery and re-usability in the future” as I wrote in my post launch report here at Universe Today.

Listen to my live radio interview with BBC 5LIVE conducted Saturday night, discussing SpaceX’s first attempt to land and return their Falcon 9 booster.

This was a daring experiment involving re-lighting one of the first stage Merlin 1D engines three times to act as a retro rocket to slow the stage’s descent and aim for the drone ship.

The drone ship measures only 300 feet by 170 feet. That’s tiny compared to the Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX achieved virtually all of their objectives in the daunting feat except for a soft landing on the drone ship.

The grid fins and trio of Merlin propulsive burns succeeded in slowing the booster from hypersonic velocity to subsonic.

The first stage was planned to make the soft landing by extending four landing legs to a width of about 70 feet to achieve an upright landing on the platform.

Artist’s concept view of Falcon 9 on the barge, ready to go back home. Image Credit: Reddit user zlsa ( CC-BY-SA.

The hard landing apparently was caused by a lack of hydraulic fluid in the final stages of the landing

“Grid fins worked extremely well from hypersonic velocity to subsonic, but ran out of hydraulic fluid right before landing,” Musk tweeted.

No one has ever tried such a landing attempt before in the ocean says SpaceX. The company has conducted numerous successful soft landing tests on land, and several soft touchdowns on the ocean’s surface. But never before on a barge in the ocean.

So they will learn and move forward to the next experimental landing, that could come as early as February.

“Upcoming flight already has 50% more hydraulic fluid, so should have plenty of margin for landing attempt next month.”

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters, including Universe Today, in Cocoa Beach, FL, during prior SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Musk’s daring vision is to recover, refurbish, and reuse the first stage and dramatically reduce the high cost of access to space by introducing airline like operational concepts.

It remains to be seen whether his vision of reusing rockets can be made economical. Most of the space shuttle systems were reused, except for the huge external fuel tanks, but it was not a cheap proposition.

So this ocean recovery attempt is a critical first step towards that long term effort.

The Dragon CRS-5 spacecraft is loaded with over 5108 pounds (2317 kg) of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, crew supplies, spare parts, food, water, clothing, and assorted research gear for the six person crew serving aboard the ISS.

Photo of returning SpaceX “autonomous spaceport drone ship” shows possible damage to onboard gear and possibly a few rocket parts under tarps. Credit: Reddit

The launch marked the first US commercial resupply launch since the catastrophic destruction of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft bound for the ISS which exploded unexpectedly after launch from NASA Wallops, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014.

The US supply train to the ISS is now wholly dependent on SpaceX until Cygnus flights are resumed, hopefully by late 2015 on an alternate rocket, the Atlas V.

Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer –

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

A SpaceX Falcon 9 Grasshopper reusable rocket undergoing testing.
Credit: SpaceX
A Falcon 9 Grasshopper conducting VTVL testing. Credit: SpaceX
Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC,, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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