HISTORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS AND USED WITH PERMISSION
Two days after a successful launch from California, SpaceX fired another Cape Canaveral Falcon 9 rocket on Wednesday, carrying a Dragon freighter loaded with 5,660 pounds of equipment and supplies to the International Space Station.
But an attempt to recover the first stage of the intensifier ended in failure when a malfunction of the hydraulic system caused the intensifier to turn quickly and tilt around its long axis during the final descent. As a result, the rocket landed well away from the target, settling into a smooth and straight landing in the Atlantic Ocean east of the launch site.
The rocket then tilted, falling horizontally and remaining intact. SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted that the hydraulic problem affected the movement of the four rocket titanium "fins" used to direct and maintain orientation while the propeller first looses its tail back to Earth.
"Pump is a unique string," Musk tweeted, which means the system has no backup. "Some landing systems are not redundant, since landing is considered critical for soil safety, but it is not mission critical. Given this event, we will probably add a backup pump and lines. "
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
A few minutes later, he tweeted the video captured by a camera aboard the rocket.
"The engines stabilized the rocket's rotation in time, allowing an intact landing on the water! Ships on their way to rescue Falcon, "he said.
It was SpaceX's sixth absolute landing crash and the first since June 2016, ending a sequence of 27 successful recoveries. The company's overall record is 32 successful recoveries: 11 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, 1 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and 20 at sea drones.
The new Falcon 9 stages of "block 5" were designed dozens of times with a minimal reform among the launches, a key element in the company's effort to reduce launch costs by recovering and resuming the recovered stages.
The stage released Monday of California was making its third flight, the first of SpaceX. But the rocket launched Wednesday from Cape Canaveral was brand new. It is still unclear what went wrong with the grid or whether the crash will lead the Air Force to reconsider SpaceX's clearance to land at the Air Force station.
But the landing system is designed with the safety of personnel and ground installations in mind. The rocket guidance system initially targets an off-shore "impact point" and only moves the ground target to the landing platform during a final rocket fire and only upon verification that all systems are operating correctly .
Traveling Falcon water landing pic.twitter.com/6Hv2aZhLjM
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 5, 2018
During Wednesday's landing, the flight computer acknowledged the problem of the fin of the grid and never moved the point of impact ashore during the final firing of the engine.
"The important point here is that we have an on-board safety function that ensures that the vehicle does not go ashore until everything is OK, and that worked perfectly," said Hans Koenisgman, SpacerX's vice president of reliability and flight reliability . "The vehicle was far from anything where it could pose the least risk to the population or property.
"Public safety was well protected here," he added. "As much as we are disappointed with the landing, or with the landing on the water, it shows that the system knows how to recover from certain defects."
The mission began at 1:16 p.m. EST (GMT-5) when Falcon 9's nine Merlin 1C engines lit up with a roar and a torrent of fire exhaustion, quickly pushing the 60-meter-high booster from launch complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station .
The take-off came a day late because of the time it took to replace the moldy food bars in a habitat that housed 40 rodents being transported to the medical research station. But it was clear on Wednesday and the countdown had gone to zero without interruption.
At the time of takeoff, the space station was flying 250 miles above the Indian Ocean, south of Australia, but the plane from its orbit was sweeping the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as the Earth spun beneath it. Falcon 9 climbed northeast directly into that orbital plane to allow the planned encounter.
The first stage engines were shut down and the bottom of the rocket dropped two minutes and 23 seconds after launch. The single engine feeding the second stage ignited for a six-minute, 18-second firing to complete the ascent into orbit.
The first stage, in turn, turned and resumed three engines to reverse course and return to Florida. Another burn, four minutes later, slowed the descent back into the low, thick atmosphere.
Long-range tracking cameras provided spectacular views as the stage descended first toward Cape Canaveral. But the television shows of a camera mounted on the rocket suddenly showed that it spun roughly on the major axis.
The rocket's main engine started as usual for landing, and the propeller's landing legs were positioned at low altitude, as they would in a normal landing. Interestingly, the deployment of the landing leg seems to have delayed the rotation of the rocket just before the impact on the ocean.
Although the landing was not successful, the main objective of Wednesday's mission was to deliver the Dragon cargo ship into the proper orbit. And Falcon 9 did just that.
If all goes well, the spacecraft will arrive at the station on Saturday morning, reaching about 10 meters and then waiting while station commander Alexander Gerst, operating the robotic arm of the laboratory, hangs on a claw fixture.
Flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston will take over, operating the remote control arm to pull the Dragon to dock at the Earth-facing port of the station's Harmony module.
The onboard scientific equipment includes an experiment to test robotic refueling techniques using ultra-cold cryogenic propellers, another instrument that will use laser beams to globally measure tree heights to determine the effects of deforestation on carbon dioxide processing and another to develop dressings improve drug delivery.
Still another experiment will study the development of retinal implants intended to restore vision in patients with age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. The Galaxy Space Station Challenge Guardians of the Galaxy is sponsoring experiments with students to develop a UV-activated dental glue that could help astronauts on long-term travel and another by testing a mist-based irrigation system for plants grown in space.
With the dragon in hand, the station crew will focus on a planned spacewalk next Tuesday by cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Oleg Kononenko to inspect the Soyuz MS-09 / 55S ferry that took Gerst, Prokopyev and Serena Auñón-Chancellor in orbit June 6. Kononenko arrived at the station on Monday along with Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques and NASA astronaut Anne McClain.
In late August, the sensors detected a small pressure drop in the station's air supply, which was attributed to a leak in the upper housing module of the Soyuz MS-09 vehicle. An inspection revealed what appeared to be a small hole punched into an inner panel.
Prokopyev sealed the hole with an epoxy-soaked cloth and stopped the leak. Russian engineers have ordered the spacewalk next week to inspect the outside of the Soyuz for any signs of damage that may be related to the hole found inside the spacecraft.
Although the hole appeared to be the result of deliberate action by someone, presumably before the launch, the Russians have yet to make any conclusions.
In any case, the housing module is disposed of before entering the atmosphere and the issue is not considered any kind of security threat when Gerst, Prokopyev and Auñon-Chancellor return to Earth on 20 December.