"Close, but no cigar." That was how SpaceX founder Elon Musk described his company's first attempt at landing the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage on a barge in the middle of the ocean. To be clear, it wasn't a complete disaster: the first stage didn't disintegrate or crash into the water, but it did land too hard on the platform and (according to some reports) broke when it hit the ground. As to what exactly went wrong, Musk revealed on Twitter that the grid fins, which steered the structure onto the platform and stabilized it in the air, ran out of hydraulic fluid right as the stage was touching down. He said the flight next month is already loaded with 50 percent more hydraulic fluid, so the second landing attempt could achieve a result closer to what SpaceX wants.
The company is attempting these barge landings as part of its efforts to develop a reusable rocket. Musk believes that salvaging and reusing the first stage (not infinitely, but for a handful of times) could significantly reduce how much it costs to send a vessel into space. It could, MIT's Technology Review says, bring down a Falcon launch's costs from between $65 to $70 million to between $30 and $40 million. Sure, this first attempt wasn't completely successful, but it really came close, which, as Musk tweeted, bodes well for the future. Despite the first stage's less-than-perfect landing, the Dragon capsule aboard the rocket reached the ISS, bringing with it new supplies and belated Christmas gifts.
Rocket made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard. Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future tho.- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 10, 2015
Ship itself is fine. Some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced...- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 10, 2015
Grid fins worked extremely well from hypersonic velocity to subsonic, but ran out of hydraulic fluid right before landing.- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 10, 2015
Upcoming flight already has 50% more hydraulic fluid, so should have plenty of margin for landing attempt next month.- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 10, 2015