“Close, but no cigar”

These were the words that founder of SpaceX (and Tesla Motors as well, of course), Elon Musk, tweeted when the Falcon 9 rocket that was supposed to return to earth with a soft, upright landing crashed instead with a mighty explosion. In a footage that was later released by SpaceX, the rocket could be seen descending at a step angle and hitting the deck of the floating sea platform, setting off the remaining oxygen and fuel resulting in “full RUD (rapid unscheduled disassembly)”, words of Mr Musk himself.

The successful recovery of the rocket is supposed to revolutionise commercial space travel; the ability to reuse rockets means that the cost of sending people into space could be lowered dramatically. Conventional rockets would usually dump its engines and used propellant tanks as they head towards the heavens to reduce weight before they made the leap into orbit. The discards would plummet back down to earth and get decimated, which means that every mission would need to build most rocket parts from naught. SpaceX believes that it is possible to reuse key components of its rockets.

Regardless, Musk seems to be taking the partial failure very well from the tone of his tweets. The rocket did, after all, complete the first stage of its task impeccably, delivering a heavy load of supplies and experiments to the International Space Station without any hiccups. It was the first resupply mission from the US to the platform (orbiting some 400km above earth) since October when SpaceX’s competitor, Orbital Sciences Corporation, lost its Antares supply rocket which went up in a spectacle of smoke and flames just after taking off; millions of dollars worth of equipment that was intended for delivery to the ISS was burned up with it.

The Falcon 9

Considering Musk’s bigger plan, this was simply a small chink. The landing platform did not sustain major damage. They discovered that the cause of the tilt was because the fins used to maneuver the rocket ran out of hydraulic fluid, so they simply need to add more of it for the next test; Musk tweeted: “Next rocket landing on drone ship in 2 to 3 weeks w way more hydraulic fluid. At least it shd explode for a diff reason”. And being able to even hit the 170 by 300 feet barge set in the middle of the vast ocean was an achievement in itself.

We love the idea of us ordinary folks being able to travel to space as easily as getting onto a plane to go on a holiday, so we’re glad to see Musk remaining optimistic about the test; we’ll keep a cigar ready for the next one.

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