Elon Musk's SpaceX failed to complete what would have been its fifth landing of a reusable booster rocket Wednesday, a down note on what appeared to be an otherwise successful mission to deliver two Boeing-built communication satellites to high orbit above the Earth.
"Falcon 9 was lost in this attempt," the company said in its webcast.
As the satellites headed on their way Wednesday, the booster rocket began its descent toward the ocean for a landing on a special floating platform. Video footage of the attempt seemed to show the booster touching down, then flames, before the picture froze.
Lots of ooh’s and ahh’s because there was so much smoke that NO ONE AT SPACEX KNOWS WHAT HAPPENED pic.twitter.com/B7b3VgIJw0
— Sean O'Kane (@sokane1) June 15, 2016
As with previous attempts, SpaceX had said landing the reusable booster rocket would be made more difficult by the fact that it would be falling from higher up. And, the company said, the rocket would have less fuel than normal to control its descent. SpaceX founder Elon Musk later tweeted that it appeared the the thrust in one of three landing engines was insufficient, causing the rocket to come in far too fast. In what he said may have been SpaceX's "hardest impact" ever, the booster ultimately suffered an RUD, or "rapid unscheduled disassembly." Upgrades to compensate for the problem could come by year's end, said Musk.
Ascent phase & satellites look good, but booster rocket had a RUD on droneship
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 15, 2016
SpaceX believes its landing technology represents the future of space exploration. Previous spacecrafts launched by NASA and other companies historically relied on disposable booster rockets, which increased the cost of getting to outer space. By recovering the booster rocket and using it again, SpaceX argues it can significantly cut the cost of missions — an achievement that could make space launches more economical and more common.
SpaceX had successfully landed boosters on land and at sea four times before. But Wednesday's crash-landing is a reminder that pulling off such a task remains a technically challenging feat. Despite the latest setback, SpaceX officials said they had nevertheless gathered a wealth of performance data that will help inform the next attempt.