SpaceX rocket landing was ‘close, but no cigar’

SpaceX’s first attempt to land its Falcon 9 rocket back on Earth after a launch failed when the 14-story-tall structure ran out of hydraulic fluid and touched down too hard. The startup did, however, accomplish the tricky maneuver of positioning the rocket for the landing over a platform floating off the coast of Florida.

SpaceX will attempt the landing again after its next launch. The rocket will carry at least 50 percent more hydraulic fluid. If the landing succeeds, it could usher in an era of much cheaper spaceflight thanks to more reusable rocket parts.

The Falcon 9 rocket, and pretty much every other spacecraft to ever launch from Earth, sheds pieces as it climbs into the air. The first stage is the largest, and the first to be shed. It is generally allowed to hit the ocean and break apart. SpaceX has spent

The Falcon 9 rocket's parts, without the jargon.

The Falcon 9 rocket’s parts, without the jargon.

the last year with legs affixed to the Falcon 9, which allowed it to practice softer landings on water in preparation for this first test with a ship.

During an October interview at MIT, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk put SpaceX’s odds of success on the first attempt at around 50 percent.

“(The platform) looks very tiny from space, and the leg span of the rocket is 60 feet, and this is going to be positioning itself out in the ocean with engines that will try to keep it in a particular position – but it’s tricky, you’ve got to deal with these big rollers and GPS errors,” Musk said during the interview.

The Dragon spacecraft continued on toward the ISS after separating from the first stage around 2 minutes and 45 seconds after launch. It will arrive early Monday morning. It is unmanned, but carrying cargo essential to research and life aboard the space station. Its primary payload is the Cloud Aerosol Transport System, a NASA instrument that can sense pollution and other particles in Earth’s atmosphere. It is also carrying 5,101 pounds of food, water and clothing for ISS astronauts, and commercial goods like Planet Labs’ tiny satellites. Its cargo had to be shuffled after Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket exploded in October, destroying other goods bound for the ISS.

CR-5 was originally slated to launch in mid-December, but then was rescheduled twice. The first launch attempt January 6 was aborted just before liftoff due to a technical problem.

This post was updated at 11 a.m. PT to state the rocket ran out of hydraulic fluid.