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, Fla, on 11 Jan 2015 with possible pieces of the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage under tarps.
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.

One of the possible outcomes of today. Falcon 9 sits on the barge, ready to go back home. Image Credit: Reddit user zlsa (zlsa.github.io) CC-BY-SA.
Artist’s concept view of Falcon 9 on the barge, ready to go back home. Image Credit: Reddit user zlsa (zlsa.github.io) 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 prior to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec 3, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
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/kenkremer.com

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
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 – kenkremer.com
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 – kenkremer.com

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

SpaceX Successfully Launches Cargo Ship to Station and Hard Lands Rocket on “Drone Ship”

SpaceX successfully launched their commercial Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship on a critical mission for NASA bound for the space station this morning, Jan. 10, while simultaneously accomplishing a hard landing of the boosters first stage on an ocean-floating “drone ship” platform in a very good first step towards the bold company goal of recovery and re-usability in the future.

The spectacular night time launch of the private SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lit up the skies all around the Florida Space Coast and beyond following a flawless on time liftoff at 4:47 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The nine Merlin 1D engines of the 208 foot-tall Falcon 9 generated 1.3 million pounds of liftoff thrust as the rocket climbed to orbit on the first SpaceX launch of 2015.

The Dragon CRS-5 mission is on its way to a Monday-morning rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS).

It is loaded with more than two tons of supplies and NASA science investigations for the six person crew aboard the massive orbiting outpost.

A secondary goal of SpaceX was to conduct a history-making attempt at recovering the 14 story tall Falcon 9 first stage via a precision landing on an ocean-going landing platform known as the “autonomous spaceport drone ship.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk quickly tweeted that good progress was made, and as expected, more work needs to be done.

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

“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.

“Ship itself is fine. Some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced…”

“Didn’t get good landing/impact video. Pitch dark and foggy. Will piece it together from telemetry and … actual pieces.”

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.

The ‘autonomous spaceport drone ship’ was positioned some 200 to 250 miles offshore of the launch site in the Atlantic Ocean along the rockets flight path, flying along the US Northeast coast to match that of the ISS.

The autonomous spaceport drone ship measure only 300 by 100 feet, with wings that extend its width to 170 feet. That’s tiny compared to the Atlantic Ocean.

Therefore the SpaceX team was successful in accomplishing a rocket assisted descent and pinpoint landing in the middle of a vast ocean, albeit not as slow as hoped.

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.

SpaceX rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the Dragon resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station.   Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
SpaceX rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the Dragon resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann

CRS-5 marks the company’s fifth resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the station during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016 under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

“We are delighted to kick off 2015 with our first commercial cargo launch of the year,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement.

“Thanks to our private sector partners, we’ve returned space station resupply launches to U.S. soil and are poised to do the same with the transport of our astronauts in the very near future.”

“Today’s launch not only resupplies the station, but also delivers important science experiments and increases the station’s unique capabilities as a platform for Earth science with delivery of the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System, or CATS instrument. I congratulate the SpaceX and NASA teams who have made today’s success possible. We look forward to extending our efforts in commercial space to include commercial crew by 2017 and to more significant milestones this year on our journey to Mars.”

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.

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 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.

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

Ken Kremer

Drone Ship at Sea Preparing for Bold SpaceX Rocket Recovery Landing Attempt

Aiming to one day radically change the future of the rocket business, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has a bold vision unlike any other in a historic attempt to recover and reuse rockets set for Jan. 6 with the goal of dramatically reducing the enormous costs of launching anything into space.

Towards the bold vision of rocket reusability, SpaceX dispatched the “autonomous spaceport drone ship” sailing at sea towards a point where Musk hopes it will serve as an ocean going landing platform for the first stage of his firm’s Falcon 9 rocket after it concludes its launch phase to the International Space Station (ISS).

“Drone spaceport ship heads to its hold position in the Atlantic to prepare for a rocket landing,” tweeted Musk today (Jan. 5) along with a photo of the drone ship underway (see above).

The history making and daring experimental landing is planned to take place in connection with the Tuesday, Jan. 6, liftoff of the Falcon 9 booster and Dragon cargo freighter bound for the ISS on a critical resupply mission for NASA.

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.

The “autonomous spaceport drone ship” departed the port of Jacksonville, FL, on Saturday, heading to a point somewhere around 200 to 250 miles or so off the US East coast in a northeasterly direction coinciding with the flight path of the rocket.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage rocket will attempt precison landing on this autonomous spaceport drone ship soon after launch set for Dec. 19, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage rocket will attempt precision landing on this autonomous spaceport drone ship soon after launch set for January 6, 2015, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: SpaceX

The SpaceX Dragon CRS-5 mission is slated to blast off at 6:20 am EST, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Falcon 9 and Dragon have gone vertical in advance of the 6:20am ET launch on Jan. 6, 2015. Credit: SpaceX.
Falcon 9 and Dragon have gone vertical in advance of the 6:20 am ET launch on Jan. 6, 2015. Credit: SpaceX.

The absolute overriding goal of the mission is to safely deliver NASA’s contracted payload to the ISS, emphasized Hans Koenigsmann, VP of Mission Assurance, SpaceX, at a media briefing today (Jan. 5) at the Kennedy Space Center. Landing on the off shore barge is just a secondary objective of SpaceX, not NASA, he repeated several times.

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.

Koenigsmann estimated the odds of success at the landing attempt at about 50% at best according to an estimate from Musk himself.

“It’s an experiment. There’s a certain likelihood that this will not work out right, that something will go wrong.”

The two stage Falcon 9 and Dragon stands 207.8 feet (63.3 meters) tall and is 12 feet in diameter. The first stage is powered by nine Merlin 1D engines that generate 1.3 million pounds of thrust at sea level and rises to 1.5 million pounds of thrust as the Falcon 9 climbs out of the atmosphere, according to a SpaceX fact sheet.

The first stage Merlins will fire for three minutes until the planned engine shutdown and main engine cutoff known as MECO, said Koenigsmann.

The rocket will be in space at an altitude of over 100 miles zooming upwards at 1300 m/s (nearly 1 mi/s).

Then, a single Merlin 1D will be commanded to re-fire for three separate times to stabilize and lower the rocket during the barge landing attempt.

Four hypersonic grid fins had been added to the first stage and placed in an X-wing configuration. They will be deployed only during the reentry attempt and will be used to roll, pitch, and yaw the rocket in concert with gamboling of the engines.

It will take about nine minutes from launch until the first stage reaches the barge, said Koenigsmann. That’s about the same time it takes for Dragon to reach orbit.

He added that, depending on the internet connectivity, SpaceX may or may not know the outcome in real time.

Testing operation of Falcon 9 hypersonic grid fins (x-wing config) launching on next Falcon 9 flight, CRS-5.   Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk
Testing operation of Falcon 9 hypersonic grid fins (x-wing config) launching on next Falcon 9 flight, CRS-5. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

Here’s a description from SpaceX:

“To help stabilize the stage and to reduce its speed, SpaceX relights the engines for a series of three burns. The first burn—the boostback burn—adjusts the impact point of the vehicle and is followed by the supersonic retro propulsion burn that, along with the drag of the atmosphere, slows the vehicle’s speed from 1300 m/s to about 250 m/s. The final burn is the landing burn, during which the legs deploy and the vehicle’s speed is further.”

“To complicate matters further, the landing site is limited in size and not entirely stationary. The autonomous spaceport drone ship is 300 by 100 feet, with wings that extend its width to 170 feet. While that may sound huge at first, to a Falcon 9 first stage coming from space, it seems very small. The legspan of the Falcon 9 first stage is about 70 feet and while the ship is equipped with powerful thrusters to help it stay in place, it is not actually anchored, so finding the bullseye becomes particularly tricky. During previous attempts, we could only expect a landing accuracy of within 10km. For this attempt, we’re targeting a landing accuracy of within 10 meters.”

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec 3, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO, Elon Musk, briefs reporters, including Universe Today, in Cocoa Beach, FL, prior to a previous SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CRS-5 marks the company’s fifth resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the station during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016 under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

The cargo delivery is the entire point of the CRS-5 mission.

The official CRS-5 Mission Patch
The official CRS-5 Mission Patch

The weather odds have improved to 70% GO from 60% GO reported Major Perry Sweat, 45th Weather Squadron rep, USAF, at the briefing today at the Kennedy Space Center.

Following the catastrophic failure of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo freighter on Oct. 28 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Antares launches are on hold.

Therefore the US supply train to the ISS is now wholly dependent on SpaceX.

NASA Television live launch coverage begins at 5 a.m. EST on Jan. 6 at: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/

SpaceX also will webcast the launch at: http://www.spacex.com/webcast/

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

Ken Kremer

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 6, 2015. File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 6, 2015. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com