It’s news to exactly no one that building a functional rocket is one of the hardest things you can do. And building a reuseable rocket? That’s a whole different story. A million and one things (not literally) can go wrong from the moment of launch to clearing Earth’s atmosphere and eventually delivering smaller spacecraft or cargo into orbit, and then you have to avoid all those problems and a whole lot more on your way back down. Failure can be devastating, astronomically expensive, and did I say devastating?
The above footage, shot by BBC News yesterday, shows SpaceX’s reuseable Falcon 9 rocket descend after successfully delivering an ocean-monitoring satellite into space, and land on one of SpaceX’s un-crewed autonomous drone ships floating in the Pacific Ocean about 299 km (186 miles) south of the launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
But that landing wasn’t perfect, and that’s a big problem when you’re dealing with a structure that’s 68.4 metres tall, 3.66 metres in diameter, and unwieldy as hell.
In the footage, you can see how a problem with one of the Falcon 9’s leg-locking mechanisms causes the whole thing to tip to the side, fall over, and explode in a fiery mess of smoke and flames. I can’t help but think of this:
except instead of a lovesick Valentine, it’s the exact moment when the hearts of a roomful of engineers rip in half.
“It looks like we came in on target as we planned, but slightly harder landing [than desired],” a SpaceX spokesperson announced yesterday. “One of the landing legs may have broken on touch down Unfortunately we are not standing upright on a drone ship.”
“Falcon lands on droneship, but the lockout collet doesn’t latch on one [of] the four legs, causing it to tip over post-landing,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk added. “[The] root cause may have been ice buildup due to condensation from heavy fog at liftoff.”
While this might look like a spectacular failure and a pretty massive set-back for SpaceX, it’s not all doom and gloom. Last month, they not only managed to launch and land the Falcon 9 rocket, but they made history in the process. To cheer everybody up, here’s what perfect looks like: