For the first time since SpaceX began recovering its Falcon 9 fleet, the company failed to land one of its rockets that was meant to touch down on solid ground. Just seven minutes after launching from Florida this afternoon, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was preparing to land on the company’s concrete landing pad back near the launch site at Cape Canaveral. But footage from the booster showed it spinning out of control, and SpaceX commentators confirmed that the vehicle hit the Atlantic Ocean instead.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk blamed the failure on one of the Falcon 9’s grid fins, which are used to steer the booster to its intended landing target. That may explain the spin, which you can see in more detail here. Musk says it’s possible that SpaceX may be able to recover the vehicle, though, arguing it hasn’t been damaged and is still communicating information from the water. He notes that it could be used for some “internal SpaceX mission,” perhaps for an upcoming launch of one of SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellites.
Grid fin hydraulic pump stalled, so Falcon landed just out to sea. Appears to be undamaged & is transmitting data. Recovery ship dispatched.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 5, 2018
Today’s event brings to an end SpaceX’s success streak when it comes to ground landings. The company has two options for recovering its Falcon 9 rockets post-launch: the vehicles can land on a drone ship floating in the ocean, or they can land on one of SpaceX’s concrete landing pads located near where the rockets take off. SpaceX has attempted 12 ground landings, also referred to as RTLS for “return to launch site,” and up until this point, all of them were successful. But now that perfect record is gone.
Engines stabilized rocket spin just in time, enabling an intact landing in water! Ships en route to rescue Falcon. pic.twitter.com/O3h8eCgGJ7— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 5, 2018
SpaceX has had comparatively less success landing rockets on its drone ships, but even then, failures have been rare. The last time the company failed to land a single Falcon 9 booster it intended to recover was more than two years ago on June 15th, 2016. During that attempt, the booster ran out of fuel on the way to the drone ship it was meant to land on in the Atlantic Ocean. In February of this year, SpaceX failed to land the center core of its Falcon Heavy rocket, the larger variant of the Falcon 9 that consists of three boosters strapped together. The two outer cores of the rocket successfully touched down nearly simultaneously on landing pads after the launch, but the middle core ran out of igniter fluid and wasn’t able to reignite its engines during the descent. So it landed in the Atlantic Ocean rather than on a drone ship.
However, these rocket landings are only secondary objectives for each mission, meant to save SpaceX from creating new boosters for every single flight. The primary purpose is to get whatever the Falcon 9 is launching into orbit, and that’s what today’s rocket achieved, despite the fumbled landing. The Falcon 9 was tasked with sending up one of SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsules, filled with food and supplies for the crew of the International Space Station, and that’s what happened. The Dragon successfully made it to orbit and deployed its solar panels to start receiving power. It’s slated to arrive at the ISS on Saturday morning.
Still, a botched ground landing did give some people pause, as it wasn’t clear where the failing booster was going to land. Fortunately, this one landed in the ocean just next to the intended landing site, and the now floating booster apparently poses no safety hazards, according to the Emergency Management Office in Brevard County, where Cape Canaveral is located.
In fact, the Falcon 9 went through what is known as a “safing” sequence when it landed in the water, meaning it vented the propellant from its tanks. This made it safe for people to approach, according to Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of mission assurance at SpaceX. He also notes that the Falcon 9 has a safety feature that prevents the booster from going on land unless the rocket is working as intended. And even if it were on land, the rocket has the awareness to avoid buildings, says Koenigsmann.
“I would say in terms of public safety, the vehicle kept well away from anything… where it could pose even the slightest risk to population or property,” he said during a post-launch press conference. “So public safety was well protected here, and as much as we are disappointed in this missed landing, or landing in the water instead of land, it shows the system overall knows how to recover from certain malfunctions.”
Update December 5th, 3:40PM ET: This article was updated to include new information provided by Hans Koenigsmann.