back to article SpaceX in ROCKET HOVERSHIP PRANG: 'Close – but no cigar,' says Musk

SpaceX's attempt to land its Falcon 9 rocket on a floating hovership in the Atlantic Ocean ended in failure in the early hours of Saturday morning. Youtube Video Billionaire Elon Musk tweeted about his firm's efforts to recover the rocket, after lift-off and separation from the Dragon private space podule, which is now …

  1. James 51

    Good luck to them. Not sure how much practical benefit there is over a splash down landing in the short to medium term but it's nice to see someone try something new.

    1. Graham Dawson Silver badge

      The benefit is in allowing reliable refurbishing of the engines at low cost instead of hoping that the engines survive immersion in sea water, which in turns cuts the cost of launches, as the engines can be re-used reliably instead of having to be built fresh for each launch.

      On the capsule side, having it land at a designated landing site instead of splashing down would slash the recovery costs to a fraction of their current level. Instead of having to keep a bunch of ships and aircraft on standby to find the capsule, you can just walk up to it and open the door. And you can refurb and re-use it without much effort too.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        It'll be interesting to see how reliable refurbished engines turn out to be compared with single use, and whether overall it's worth the cost/complexity/risk of a reusable first stage. Nice that somebody's able to take a chance and do the experiment to find out.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          "It'll be interesting to see how reliable refurbished engines turn out to be compared with single use,"

          I would expect that current engines are designed as single use motors since they arenot expected to be recovered. When there is a successful and reliable method of dry and soft landing/recovery then the engines will be designed and built for reliable re-use. That will probably cost more per engine, but so long as the number re-uses is more than the build/refurb cost, launch cost goes down. That's not to mention the savings in reusing the entire first stage again.

          1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

            The space shuttle's main engines were designed to be reusable from the start.

            In practice they needed a rebuild not much shorter than building one from scratch and the average life of a component was somewhere under 2 launches.

            They also cost more than the entire SpaceX operation

            1. James Hughes 1


              All the questions above can be answered with a very quick Google search.

              The Merlin engines are said to be capable of 40 cycles without servicing, and Musk has stated that even the servicing after that is only a few replacement parts. They were designed with reusability in mind.

              Benefits of reuse are huge, the 1st stage alone costs >$50M. They are aiming for rapid turnaround (a day or so), so that a huge saving from throwing the stage away each launch.

              Currently trying to land on barge, intent is to return to launch site (except for F9H centre core which will need a barge landing)

              1. Alan Brown Silver badge

                Re: Google?

                "Currently trying to land on barge, intent is to return to launch site (except for F9H centre core which will need a barge landing)"

                The barge landing is to prove precision landing capability before they try for a land-based point. As far as I'm aware there's no intention to return the barge to shore with the rocket onboard even if the landing is sucessful.

                1. James Hughes 1

                  Re: Google? @Alqan Brown

                  The centre core of the F9Heavy will be travelling too fast for return to landing site (without affecting payload too much), and will therefore need to be barge landed, if recovered at all.

            2. Alan Brown Silver badge

              "The space shuttle's main engines were designed to be reusable from the start."

              The SSMEs were a clusterfuck from start to finish(*), which is appropriate as the shuttle was a camel anyway. Refurbing the entire system for flight cost more than building a new expendable launcher but NASA was committed to it because of congressional pork and the same mentality which resulted in $600 hammers and $2000 toilet seats.

              SpaceX is trying for reusable because they believe they can save money. If it doesn't work out, they'll drop it.

              (*) bad design, bad execution, complete change of technology and expected to work at full power from the outset instead of staging up designs as knowledge was gained, coupled with a mentality that it was better to test complete engines - which led to a number of self-destructions on the test stands as bad welds came to light.

          2. Snowman

            The curent engines have been stated to be capable of more than 20 full burns, though the tests between launches would at least cut it down to half that many launches. Though once recovery is in place there will be some math done on what will lead to the most economic operations.

        2. LosD

          Refurbished engines is nothing new, they did it with the shuttle boosters. The new thing is trying to land them instead of recovering them from the sea.

      2. JeffyPoooh

        It's been tried before...

        "And you can refurb and re-use it without much effort too."

        Yeah, just like the concept of the Space Shuttle. Reusable, must be cheaper. $1.2 BILLION per shot.


        1. TonboIV

          Re: It's been tried before...

          October 7 1903: Samuel Langley, no less than the secretary of the Smithsonian Institute and a brilliant man, launched his airplane, the "Aerodrome". He had lots of money from the army and a high tech custom built engine. It fell straight into the Potomac river.

          December 17 1903: The Wright Brothers launched their "Wright Flyer". They were bicycle makers who had taught themselves aerodynamics. They had almost no help. They built their own engine. They used only their own meagre funds. They flew 120 feet. The first in series of ever more successful flights.

        2. cray74

          Re: It's been tried before...

          "Yeah, just like the concept of the Space Shuttle. Reusable, must be cheaper. $1.2 BILLION per shot."

          The flyaway cost of a shuttle launch was about $60 million, including refurbished boosters and new external booster. However, if you launched only a few times per year then you have to pay for 10,000+ workers and a lot of infrastructure that was just waiting for those infrequent launches. Hence, $1.2 billion a launch in the latter years of the shuttle program.

          If the shuttle fleet had sustained 12 launches per year, the cost per launch would've been very different than $1.2 billion.

          1. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: It's been tried before...

            "If the shuttle fleet had sustained 12 launches per year"

            Then the shuttles would have been retired as "end of life" by the mid 1990s.

            The prime mission of Shuttle was to build a USA space station which never happened(*)

            Because it didn't happen, the launcher was left flailing around for a purpose to exist and all the science missions which happened were mainly self-justification and a way to keep a manned program going through the cold war.

            (*) Until the shuttle program was almost at its end anyway.

        3. Robert Heffernan

          Re: It's been tried before...


          Pooh Pooh To You JeffyPoooh.

          SpaceX isn't a government operation. It's a private company with in house manufacturing and is focused on inexpensive space access for a profit.

          It's not some government pork barrel where every company is out to milk it for all the cash it can like the Space Shuttle program was.

          Therefore your argument is invalid.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        This all may seem like a great idea until you consider that every recovery system adds to complexity and mass of the vehicle (and the recycled parts may never launch again). I'm curious whether it does add up economically or it's done just to look cool.

        Besides, not that I want to rain on the parade but all this talk of private space programs bothers me a bit. As if we needed another, more efficient way of funneling and burning public money (yep, in the end someone has to pay for this all and I'll be surprised if Musk and alike were draining their own accounts). And to add insult to injury, with all the talk of global warming all this scientific and commercial goals come at the carbon footprint of 450+ tonnes of burned fuel a pop (just wait until they shoot for Mars). Hopefully they'll show better integrity than Japanese whaling "researchers".

        Anonymous (if this was really possible) just to avoid a stigma of science denier.

      4. James 51

        In the long term yes but in the next ten years/the next generation of rockets will the extra mass that will go into what goes up and goes down again cost more in payload capicity, maintance and reliability that (presumably) simpler single use engines? It's cool and I hope it works sooner rather than later but I wonder if it would be better to put this into the next generation of SpaceX rockets.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      He's no "Dr Evil"...

      Musk has been compared to a James Bond villain for his improbable contraptions and unlikely future-tech proposals. But fictional Dr Evil's tech worked better; the only consistent failure was in the restraint systems holding 007 to meet his fate.

      Musk is like an inept Dr Evil.

      I mean that in a nice way...

    3. Adam 1

      I just hope they have the good sense to check the el reg forums before they waste any more money.

    4. Malmesbury

      The first stage is 80-90% of the value of the whole rocket. If they can just gas-and-go.. well, ask your boss what would happen to the business if you could make 80% of the costs go away....

      Yes this is very high compared to many other launchers. The Falcon 9 uses one modified version of the first stage engines, a copy of the same computers, tankage made on the same tooling etc.

  2. simon 43

    Not a bad result!

    SpaceX have said the experiment was a failure... I still think they did extremely well to bring it back to the 100m wide barge - just repeating that is going to be impressive (then perhaps they can move the landing site to terra firma?).

    It'll be interesting to hear what happened with the landing itself, as I recall reading previous tests (over the water) have achieved a 'hover', the 'hard' landing would tend to indicate that they might not have achieved it (hover) this time around.

    Beer entitlement achieved!

    1. Weapon

      Re: Not a bad result!

      Well the landing was too hard for the rocket to handle, but it was not too hard overall. If it was way too hard it would have sunk the barge. Judging that the barge is for the most part fine, what most likely happened different from a water landing to a surface landing is just that, accounting for the surface. It gets even more iffy since that said surface is floating up and down due to water flow.

      1. James Hughes 1

        Re: Not a bad result!

        It's debatable whether even at terminal velocity the rocket could have sunk the barge (or even punctured the 20mm steel deck). The engines act as crumple zones, and the whole thing doesn't weigh much empty anyway. Top speed of a couple of hundred MPH with no braking burn, but with no braking burn it would miss the barge anyway.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Parachutes... No, other end.

          Attach the big (slow) parachutes to the BOTTOM of the 1st Stage so it dangles upsidedown, add some big flotation inflatables at the optimum spot, and the engines could be kept more or less dry above ocean's surface at splashdown.

          No need for difficult future tech.

          No need for extra fuel to support hovering in to landing.

          Ocean is a bigger target.

          No need to design engines that can withstand their own exhaust flare at landing near a surface.

          1. Jan 0 Silver badge

            Re: Parachutes... No, other end.

            Unfortunately the engines are the heavy bit, the rest of the stage is a float. Only a rigid flotation ring* would keep a top heavy tube safely dry in a heavy swell. In effect, you'd need to take the barge into space.

            * Well the floats could be inflatable, but they'd need a very wide rigid frame to hold them well away from the first stage.

  3. Anonymous Coward

    In the voice of Withnail...

    We want the finest video available to humanity. And we want it here, and we want it NOW!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: In the voice of Withnail...

      Wasn't that Churchill who said that?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: In the voice of Withnail...


    2. DropBear

      Re: In the voice of Withnail...

      Hey, I'd settle for a computer rendered video based on telemetry too...

  4. Mikel


    Was hoping for a perfect landing. Oh well. Next time. Still an amazing feat to come so tantalizingly close.

  5. DryBones


    Citizen! If you know you are going to be shooting video at night in a fixed area, you may want to set up some lights to help capture the action!

    Captain Obvious, AWAY!


    1. James Hughes 1

      It was foggy as well...

      Lights not much help. IR cameras have been suggested, but they would be swamped by the heat from the engine plume.

      TBH, the telemetry is what they need, video would be a bonus anyway.

      Original landing time would have been in daylight had it not been for the scrub on Tuesday.

  6. Mark 85

    A valiant effert none the less.

    I'll be hoisting one for them. I think they're getting closer. I'm not sure what components would need replacing between flights but there's obviously a cost savings in there somewhere or they wouldn't be working on this.

    1. Vulch

      Re: A valiant effert none the less.

      They've got a pretty good idea of what will need to be checked and replaced from the Grasshopper tests. The first few stages to be recovered will be completely dismantled and inspected to confirm that, and to check what has been affected by the stresses of a full bore flight rather than the relatively gentle up and down of Grasshopper and its successors.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hats off though

    Credit where it's due, this was an awesome attempt.

  8. Oli 1

    Great effort by all involved, sad they had the initial issues as was watching it live at work, beer got in the way of watching 2nd time round.

    Bring on the next try!

  9. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Easy does it

    One foot in front of the other... keep breathing.

    1. billse10

      Re: Easy does it

      "One foot in front of the other... keep breathing." - have you been talking to my running coach? ;-)

      But - was thinking same thing. To get the thing to land at the barge, without sinking it, is a step, and not a small one.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Easy does it

        If NASA couldn't land spot-on first time on a Comet, then Space X, with 50 years less experience, done well to be anywhere near the designated spot.

        Well Done!!

        1. Sweep

          Re: Easy does it


  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Yes Mr Director, another successful landing in Area 51 with your payload.

    No , this time we called it a "hard landing". Yes thank you it is very useful having the NASA studio make up the videos for us to release.

    Yes, your clients min-sub docked inside the barge successfully.

    No, payment in plutonium is fine.

    No, no, I don't care how many satellites that prick Brin has, it is kept over 2000 metres below Necker island, and he'll never detect it.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm surprised they got as close to an actual landing as they did.

    I'd think that even at the sub-escape velocity speeds the stage was at when it separated from the capsule, you would need a lot of fuel to slow the stage down as it tried to land. If the fuel is cheap and environmentally benign enough, then this looks like something that SpaceX will be able to markedly improve upon in the future.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: I'm surprised they got as close to an actual landing as they did.

      The rocket is fairly light and not going that fast when it drops it reaches terminal velocity (150-200kph?) as any other falling object without using any fuel

  12. Misky

    And we have Splatdown... damn.

    Still a very good effort considering the task they are trying to accomplish. This is the kind of thing only private enterprise could have come up with. Can you imagine any of the space agencies agreeing in a concept meeting to and engineer who says "The rocket goes up, separates, then drops back to earth with pinpoint precision, but wait it gets better, then it hovers and lands on a boat!"... "OK thanks for the presentation Frank..." *hushed whisper* "is he still taking his medication?"

    1. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

      Its more

      likely Elon Musk was playing Kerbal space program one morning, attatched parachutes to his first stage, then watched it blow up on landing , thought... what if I put on landing legs and kept some fuel back for a soft'ish landing.. and it worked.

      Then ran into his office, called for a big meeting, and said " Guys... I was playing KSP this mornign and had this really really great idea.... "

      And his engineers thought as one.

      "Gawd, hes going to ask us to wear those big head masks and paint ourselves green again"

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      "OK thanks for the presentation Frank..." *hushed whisper* "is he still taking his medication?"

      ...did anyone else read that and "hear" it in Bob Newharts voice?

      1. James Hughes 1

        Musk does apparently play KSP.

  13. Katie Saucey

    Hat's off beer raised

    SpaceX has finally expanded upon, and taken NASA's (also Soviets +others) achievements to the next level, something pesky geopolitics and politicians have stagnated for decades. Even though they smashed their rocket, just hitting the barge seems like a win to me, I seem to recall some Gemini, Apollo and especially Soyuz (23?) landings to be seriously +dangerously off target.

    1. Martin Budden Silver badge

      Re: Hat's off beer raised

      "Hat's off beer raised"

      Do you realise that means "The mouldy beer belonging to the hat has been raised"? Unless you are a grocer, in which case catastrophe averted because apostrophe expected.

  14. Marcus Aurelius

    Why land on a barge?

    If you can have a controlled descent, surely a controlled descent to land would be a much easier prospect - you don't have a small target and you can have your landing zone in the middle of a desert so you can pick up the pieces even if you're a mile or two off.

    1. JeffUK

      Re: Why land on a barge?

      Because a barge can move many hundred of miles around the sea to catch stages that finish their burn at different times/places.

      More practically there isn't a desert to the east of Florida until you get to the Sahara, and the first stage wouldn't make it that far and have enough fuel to control its descent.

    2. Fatman

      Re: Why land on a barge?

      Because, if things get fucked up, you don't have the risk of the damn rocket landing on a bunch of people which could happen if you attempted a land based 'splashdown' so early on in the 'game'

      Remember, they are sailing into 'uncharted territory' WRT landing and re-using the first stage, and accidents are expected. It would be a disaster (metaphorically, as well as literally) if people were killed or severely injured as a result of a catastrophe. SpaceX doesn't have Government Immunity to cover its ass in the event of shitloads of civil lawsuits for 'damages'.

      So, a water landing it should be until they get the bugs out.

      1. Shades

        Re: Why land on a barge?

        What is with all the apostrophes used as unnecessary quotation marks?

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