SpaceX's 16th cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station was a success on Wednesday, but the Falcon 9 rocket in-use failed its attempt to return on land, instead plunking into the Atlantic Ocean about two miles off the Cape Canaveral coast.
SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk tweeted video footage from the rocket's on-board camera showing the 230-foot-tall first stage booster spiraling through the atmosphere and attempting to emergency-land on the ocean surface rather than Landing Zone 1, the on-ground rocket pad it was intended to stick.
“As much as we are disappointed in this landing, it shows the system overall knows how to recover from certain malfunctions," Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Build and Flight Reliability at SpaceX, said during a news conference after the launch. “The vehicle kept well away from where it could pose the slightest risk to public property.”
The failure was caused by a hydraulic malfunction with the booster's grin fins, the square-shaped honeycombs jutting out of its sides used to stabilize the rocket's reentry to Earth. The booster was still communicating with mission control even as it was bobbing in the water on its side roughly two miles off the Cape Canaveral coast, Musk said.
The botched landing wasn’t “mission critical,” the CEO tweeted, quelling assumptions that the overall mission was a failure.
"Grid fin hydraulic pump stalled, so Falcon landed just out to sea. Appears to be undamaged & is transmitting data. Recovery ship dispatched," Musk tweeted.
Responding to a question on Twitter, he added that SpaceX might still be able to reuse the rocket — which is currently covered in potentially corrosive saltwater — for an "internal SpaceX mission."
Landing fiasco aside, the Falcon 9 successfully lifted off from its launchpad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force station at 1:16 p.m., sending its Dragon cargo capsule on a three-day orbital journey to the International Space Station some 225 miles into space.
There, Dragon will unload 5,600 pounds of supplies to the space station’s six-person crew on Saturday and stay docked until January 2019.
Among the 5,600 pounds of research includes an "barley germination" experiment from Budweiser to test the beer-making process in space. "It could also provide valuable insight for the general agricultural community," Gary Hanning, director of Global Barley Research wrote in a mission news brief.
Wednesday's mission marked SpaceX's 20th launch of 2018, with its final mission of the year targeted for December 18 from the same launchpad, SLC-40, sending a GPS satellite to space for the Air Force.
NASA, as part of its effort to utilize the private sector and wean off Russian-made rockets, selected SpaceX for its Crew Dragon capsule and Boeing for its CST-100 Starliner capsule in 2014 to send humans to space as soon as 2019. SpaceX announced in November it will conduct its first uncrewed test of a Falcon 9 with Crew Dragon in January 2019 from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A.
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