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SpaceX has the coolest Twitter feed.

Earlier today, SpaceX posted this Vine of one of their rockets landing on the deck of floating drone ship, “Just Read The Instructions”. The ship is named after science fiction writer Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels.

The landing wasn’t completely successful. According to Elon Musk, the rocket was moving sideways too fast when it landed, and fell over immediately after touchdown. You can see that more clearly on this video, recovered from the drone ship.

The rocket in question was one of the boosters from the SpaceX Dragon which ferried supplies to the ISS today, (including an Italian espresso machine). Recovering this booster wasn’t officially part of the mission — SpaceX used the launch as an opportunity to test their booster recovery system. This is the second test of that system this year. While the launch wasn’t totally successful, the rocket did land on the drone ship without exploding, which is a big improvement over the first attempt. 

That failure was due to the steering system running out of hydraulic fluid before landing. This lead to a loss of steering control, and a hard landing, which destroyed the rocket. SpaceX has since fixed that issue. So what went wrong this time?

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Moving Toward Re-usability

So why do we care? The big reason is that space is expensive. Right now, the cheapest launch vehicle, the SpaceX Dragon, costs about $1000 per pound to put something into orbit — that’s a lot cheaper than the space shuttle was What's New About the New Space Race? What's New About the New Space Race? It's 2015, and space is cool for the first time in decades. What happened after the moon landing? Where did it all go so wrong? Read More , but still too pricey for most consumers. If we want to make space cost-effective for travel, mining, and internet access Elon Musk vs. Richard Branson: The Race For Cheap Satellite Internet Elon Musk vs. Richard Branson: The Race For Cheap Satellite Internet Over four billion people don't have Internet access. How do we fix that? The answer lies over our heads... Read More , those numbers need to come down a LOT.

Part of the problem is that most of the infrastructure you need to get into orbit isn’t reusable. You can recover the tiny capsules that carry passengers and cargo, but the large boosters used to lift them into orbit are destroyed after every use. That’s the problem that SpaceX is trying to solve, by allowing those boosters to land and be reused for many missions. If they can do it, it could bring that $1000 figure down a lot. Getting the cost of space travel down to just the cost of fuel and maintenance would be a huge win for affordable space travel.

In some ways, SpaceX is trying to solve an artificially hard problem. Landing on a drone ship in open seas is much harder than landing on a flat piece of land that doesn’t tip or blow around. However, the FAA prohibits SpaceX from landing rockets on land, due to safety concerns. As a result, SpaceX is forced to try to land in the ocean, which brings a number of complications with it.

Luckily, SpaceX is still making progress. This landing went a lot better than the last one, and it looks like SpaceX knows what went wrong and has a plan to address the shortcoming. Elon Musk stated before the mission that the odds of success was less than 50%. However, he also predicted an 80% chance that SpaceX would successfully recover a booster by the end of this year.

Either way, if you want to be able to visit the moon or Mars in your lifetime, you should be excited for the prospect of reusable space travel. Elon Musk certainly is.

Are you excited about SpaceX technology? Worried about the dangers of space travel? Just like to see rockets explode? Let us know in the comments?

  1. Evan
    April 21, 2015 at 8:08 am

    I think this is the most important thing going on right now. It could be the breakthrough that makes travelling to other planets routine.

  2. Ed
    April 17, 2015 at 9:23 pm

    This is engineering and research at its best. Can't wait for them to repeat successful landings in the near future.

    For those who ask later:
    1. No, a parachute won't allow for a precision landing and,
    2. A parachute won't work on a Mars landing (which this technology will translate to in the future)
    3. No, you don't want to use airbags or other types of catching mechanisms on the barge or land because, again, this technology will eventually be used to land on Mars
    4. No, not wings either because of too much weight and the whole Mars thing.
    5. Landing in the ocean is not a reasonable method to accomplish reusability. The Shuttle SRBs proved this to be too expensive, plus, there is the whole Mars thing.

    Landing in this fashion will reduce cost, as stated in the article, but will create the technology necessary to land on Mars and takeoff from Mars.

    I can't wait until they get this right. I believe the next attempt could be the one. Plus, I think they are close to getting approval for trying landing attempts on land.

    • Andre Infante
      April 20, 2015 at 12:50 am

      Thanks for the insight, Ed! The mars side of the equation is definitely very relevant to what they're trying to do. According to Musk on Twitter, they feel pretty confident they've tracked down the cause of the failure, and hope for a successful landing in about two months. I'm very excited to see them pull it off. It really is a shame so many new outlets are misreporting these explosions as failures or accidents, instead of as a necessary part of innovative R&D.

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