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SpaceX launches rocket, but attempt to land booster falls short

SpaceX makes an unprecedented attempt to land a rocket on an ocean barge. 'Close, but no cigar this time.'

Elon Musk’s SpaceX sent a cargo capsule loaded with International Space Station supplies into orbit Saturday morning, but the company’s unprecedented attempt to set down the craft’s first-stage rocket on an ocean barge was rocky and damaged the booster.

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

The Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral at 1:47 a.m. Pacific time.

Within minutes, the cargo-filled capsule separated from the first-stage booster rocket and continued on its way to orbit and rendezvous with the space station.

That was when SpaceX attempted what had never been done: flying the 13-story booster back to Earth and landing it upright on an ocean barge.

The booster made it to the barge, but Musk tweeted that some of the vessel’s equipment was damaged by the impact. “Ship itself is fine,” he wrote. “Some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced.”

“Didn't get good landing/impact video,” he tweeted. “Pitch dark and foggy. Will piece it together from telemetry and ... actual pieces.”

Hawthorne-based SpaceX hopes to one day be able to reuse the first stage, which includes the expensive and powerful engines needed to blast the capsule to orbit. The planned landing and recovery of the first stage is part of Musk’s goal to eventually be able to refly the same spacecraft many times, greatly lowering the cost of space flight.

The cargo capsule, nicknamed Dragon, is loaded with more than 5,000 pounds of much-needed supplies for the space station. It is the first cargo mission since Oct. 28, when a supply ship operated for NASA by another company, Orbital Sciences, exploded off the coast of Virginia just seconds after leaving the launch pad.

Days after that, Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane SpaceShipTwo crashed in Mojave, killing test pilot Michael Alsbury, 39.

The back-to-back disasters unnerved some aerospace analysts, who questioned whether the nascent commercial space industry could recover from the setbacks. Industry observers were watching SpaceX’s latest venture closely.

“Dragon’s health is excellent,” NASA’s launch control announced about 30 minutes after liftoff. “Orbit is right on. … We have a very successful launch.”

The capsule is expected to dock with the space station Monday. The flight will be the sixth time that SpaceX has reached the space station. It is the fifth trip covered by the company’s $1.6-billion contract with NASA to shuttle cargo back and forth from the space station.

Musk tweeted that the company’s launch crew had made “huge strides” toward making the Falcon 9 reusable.

Reusable spacecraft have long been a dream of rocket scientists.

In a typical launch, the first stage booster falls back to Earth after separating from the capsule and the second-stage booster that propels the capsule to orbit. The first stage is burned and damaged beyond repair reentering the atmosphere, before landing in the ocean or remote land areas. It is never used again.

The space shuttle was designed to be reusable, but it was extraordinarily expensive to rebuild and refurbish after each flight.

To land the rocket, SpaceX engineers equipped it with foldable landing legs and fins to help control its descent.

The company towed its football-field-sized barge some 200 miles off Florida’s coast. The unmanned barge, called the “autonomous spaceport drone ship,” was not anchored but had thrusters to keep it in place.

Musk tweeted later Saturday that the company would try the barge landing again on a launch scheduled for February. He said his engineers found that the rocket’s fins had worked well, but had run out of hydraulic fluid just before the landing.

Before the launch, Musk had said the company’s chances of landing the rocket were about 50%. The company described the difficulty of the plan as “trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a windstorm.”

During a question-and-answer session on Reddit this week, Musk was asked how he came up with the 50% chance of success.

“I pretty much made that up,” he wrote. “I have no idea.” He added a smiley face.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

6:17 p.m.: This post has been edited throughout.

2:38 a.m.: This post was updated with new information throughout.

2:27 a.m.: This post was updated with the booster's landing.

This story was first posted at 2:17 a.m.

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