At 0947 GMT on 10 January 2014 a Falcon 9v1.1 was launched successfully from the Cape Canaveral Air Station, in Florida, USA. On board was the Dragon CRS-5 freighter spacecraft carrying 2,400kg of vital supplies and experiments to the International Space Station (ISS). The supplies were especially needed after the Antares 130 launch carrying a Cygnus cargo craft to the ISS in December ended in explosive failure.
Also aboard the Falcon 9 launch were four cubesats: the Brazilian AESP 14 1U cubesat craft which is being used to examine plasma clouds, PlanetLabs’ Flock 1E-01 and 1E-02 3u cubesat Earth observation satellites launched as a partial replacement for those lost in the Antares 130 explosion.
The main interest in the launch, however, was that it was the first full attempt to land the Falcon 9 rocket’s reusable first stage onto a landing pad 360km downrange in the Atlantic Ocean. In the event, while this part of the flight went well for most of the approach, even making it to the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship floating in the Atlantic Ocean, the landing itself ended in failure as the stage crashed on the side of the barge during a last-ditch attempt to reach the pad.
Elon Musk, head of SpaceX, tweeted after the crash that the aerodynamic control grid fins had run out of hydraulic fluid during the approach. The fins were supposed to give the stage extra control authority as a back up the gimbal steering of breaking engine. A full video of the crash is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHtLAz2C68M
While Musk had put the chance of success of this first landing attempt at no more than 50:50, he was pleased that most of the attempt had worked well. “Close, but no cigar this time,” was his pithy remark after the landing failure. The date of the next landing attempt has not been set but Musk has noted that 50% more hydraulic fluid will be used for the control vanes.
The recently divorced Musk has now stopped development of an all reusable Falcon 9, noting that making a practical reusable upper stage would be much harder to achieve given the mass of a thermal protection system. Instead, SpaceX has elected to concentrate its spare resources on its new SpaceX Heavy launch vehicle, due to be launched later this year, and on the development of a new much larger launch vehicle to support the firm’s “Mars Colonial Transporter” to land mankind on Mars.
Comment by David Todd: Just to reach the landing deck is an achievement and one that bodes well for future successful landings.
CORRECTION: The Brazilian technology test cubesat SERPENS was not on this flight and has been removed from the report.