- Aerospace company Elon Musk, SpaceX, successfully launched a refueling ship from NASA to the International Space Station on Wednesday.
- As a cost-saving bonus, SpaceX also attempted to land the 16-story rocket from its Falcon 9 rocket in an area in Cape Canaveral, Florida. .
- However, the videos show the Falcon 9 rocket spinning wildly before plunging into the ocean.
- Musk blamed the anomaly for a faulty pump, but he said the booster is undamaged, being salvaged and can be reused for a future release.
On Monday afternoon, SpaceX successfully launched a 4.6-ton Dragon cargo spacecraft, packed with supplies and experiments for astronauts in orbit.
"Dragon is on his way to the International Space Station. The @_Space_Station crew prepared for early Saturday morning, "SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk, tweeted soon after the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket.
As usual at SpaceX, the company also attempted to land the largest and most expensive part of its Falcon 9 rocket – the 16-story booster, or first stage – back to Earth for renovation and future re-launch. (The re-use of boosters could save SpaceX billions of dollars over the years and lower the cost of accessing space, since orbital rockets usually collide with the ocean.)
But when the giant booster came screaming back to Florida with a little fuel in, a crucial system failed. The tense moment was captured during a live broadcast from SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
About a minute before the booster was scheduled to land on Cape Canaveral – while traveling several hundred miles an hour – it began to rock and spin around and around. The view triggered a mix of oohs and aahs worried about the SpaceX employees they were watching, so the booster's video feed was cut off from the broadcast.
For a moment, it seemed the propeller was flying out of control toward the ground. But the screams soon exploded from the SpaceX staff. Musk later revealed that they were applauding the success of a support plan: the propeller "landed", as gently as an imposing object can, in the Atlantic Ocean.
"Falcon landed just for the sea. It appears to be undamaged and is transmitting data. Shipped recovery ", musk tweeted. He added that the booster will likely be reused for a future "in-house" mission (which probably means launching SpaceX's next-generation Internet satellites called Starlink).
A few minutes later, Musk and others shared some dramatic and dizzying splashdown scenes.
Watch SpaceX's booster spin and then dive into the sea
Musk shared the 45-second clip below, which shows where the live stream is cut.
The footage shows the booster spinning while firing its rocket engines in an attempt to control the spin and land safely – but with no terrain in sight. It comes out of its four landing paws, launches rockets toward the surface of the ocean, dives, sways up, and then falls like a felled tree.
The engines stabilized the rotation of the rocket in time, allowing an intact landing in the water! Ships on the way to rescue Falcon. pic.twitter.com/O3h8eCgGJ7
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 5, 2018
Musk blamed the failure on a hydraulic pump that pushes out one of four propellant titanium grille fins. These waffle-like directional devices assist the rocket itself to go to a landing site as they return to Earth and stabilize the propellant during landing.
As the launch of the CRS-16 mission showed on Monday, failure to deploy a grate fin in time can put the rocket into a bolt, preventing it from heading to a landing site.
"Some landing systems are not redundant, since landing is considered critical for soil safety, but it is not mission critical. Given this event, we'll probably add a backup, "Musk tweeted.
SpaceX was not the only one filming the dramatic moment.
Chris Gebhardt, assistant editor of NASASpaceFlight.com, was recording the booster's return to Cape Canaveral with several others, and helped capture the entire event in front of the cameras.
The clip below shows the view of Gebhardt and the others from the ground. Several sonic crashes of the supersonic descent of the propellant to Earth can be heard before it splashes out of sight beyond a barrier island. (Turn on the sound to hear their comment.)
Do the out-of-control rockets explode?
Uncontrollable rockets usually self-destruct using the so-called automated flight termination system, or AFTS. Such systems are put in place to protect people and equipment in the ground.
But in this case, the self-destruct criteria were not met, and SpaceX was able to perform a gentle landing maneuver in the ocean it had practiced before.
When SpaceX launched the CRS-16 refueling mission on Monday, it ensured that the Falcon 9 rocket struck the ocean if the landing system failed in any way. Just re-firing the propeller engines for a precise landing firing would have pulled them off that path and toward the ground.
If the reinforcement had deviated from the course more than two minutes before the landing, Gebhardt said, he would have exploded.
"A landing on the water is safer than an explosive rocket near the ground," he said Business Insider.
SpaceX is preparing to launch its first spacecraft to transport NASA astronauts, called Crew Dragon, in 2019. If SpaceX rockets behave badly, that could lead the agency to conduct a security review and delay experimental launches.
But in this case, nothing that could be considered critical to NASA's mission – just the convenience of SpaceX – seems to have gone awry.
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