SpaceX booster pulls off last minute save after mid-air fail
Thursday, December 6, 2018, 7:13 PM - In a rather dramatic conclusion to an otherwise by-the-numbers launch, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket suffered a mid-air failure on Wednesday, yet still managed to touch down, reasonably safe and sound, in the waters just off Cape Canaveral.
Wednesday's Dragon CRS-16 cargo launch to the International Space Station looked like it was going to be just another in a long series of successes for private launch company, SpaceX. While the first, and primary, part of the mission - the safe delivery of the Dragon spacecraft to orbit, for its eventual rendezvous with the space station - went off without a hitch, the same could not be said for the attempt to land the Falcon 9 booster rocket afterward.
As fans watched via SpaceX's livestream of the launch and landing, the Falcon 9 booster was going through its normal routines as it plunged back down towards the ground, giving everyone an incredible view of Cape Canaveral from high above, via the rocket's down-pointing camera.
Less than a minute before the booster was set to touch down at Landing Zone 1, however, the view from the rocket suddenly began to pitch back and forth.
Although the video feed from the Falcon 9 cut out at that point, it was clear something had gone wrong. Video from the ground, however, showed what looked to be a fairly normal landing, except for the rocket ending up touching down on the water, rather than land.
Shortly after the landing, Elon Musk posted to Twitter, stating the cause of the problem: "Grid fin hydraulic pump stalled, so Falcon landed just out to sea," he said. "Appears to be undamaged and is transmitting data. Recovery ship dispatched."
Shortly thereafter, Musk added that the hydraulic pumps are not among the landing systems that have redundancies. With this event, though, he said they will likely add backup pumps and lines to rockets that launch in the future.
According to Musk, it was the engines that saved the rocket, stabilizing its spin just before touchdown, and allowing it to make an intact landing in the water.
While this Falcon 9 landing attempt was ultimately a failed one, the water landing was no mistake on the rocket's part. Based on the discussion amongst the space launch community on Twitter, as a safety precaution, a Falcon 9 coming in for a landing at Landing Zone 1 will actually target a point off the coast, first. Then, if all goes according to plan, the rocket shifts its path over, just before touch down, to the landing pad on land.
It's unclear, now, whether this rocket can be re-flown. Although it made an intact landing, there could be damaged components - from both the touchdown and from the contact with sea water - that take this rocket off the roster of future launch vehicles.
The Dragon spacecraft that this booster lofted into orbit, on the other hand, is due to arrive at the International Space Station on Saturday, December 8, at 6 a.m. EST. Alexander Gerst of the ESA and NASA's Serena Auñón-Chancellor will then use the Canadarm2 to grapple Dragon, and berth the spacecraft with the station. Anyone up early on Saturday morning can watch the whole procedure, on NASA TV. The approach and grappling of the Dragon begins at 4:30 a.m. EST, and coverage of the installation of the Dragon capsule to the ISS runs from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. EST.