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SpaceX Fails to Land at Sea for the Third Time

“Even if there is a little fire, it’s not a big deal.”
January 17, 2016, 8:00pm
Today’s SpaceX launch. Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls

For the third time, SpaceX has failed to stick the landing of the Falcon 9 first stage on an autonomous barge.

SpaceX just successfully deployed the Jason-3 satellite into polar orbit, but it was not able to stick the landing of the Falcon 9 first stage on an autonomous barge off the coast of southern California. This marks the third time that the company has failed to soft-land at sea, though it was able to pull off a historic overland touchdown of the stage a few weeks ago at Cape Canaveral.


The wait for news of the attempted landing today was particularly suspenseful due to the rough waters off the coast of southern California. The turbulent conditions kicked out the satellite connection on the barge, which is playfully named Just Read the Instructions, which resulted in the NASA and SpaceX live webcasts crashing for several minutes.

Eventually, SpaceX announced that it had been a "hard landing" that had resulted in damage to the landing legs.

First stage on target at droneship but looks like hard landing; broke landing leg. Primary mission remains nominal → SpaceXJanuary 17, 2016

This outcome is not that surprising considering the immense challenges of blasting a rocket engine to supersonic speeds, slowing it down for reentry, then landing it on heavily unstable boat racked by 15 foot waves. In fact, the hosts of the SpaceX webcast were actively hedging their bets early on with comments like "even if there is a little fire, it's not a big deal."

The moderators of SpaceX's subreddit are, likewise, emphasizing that the landing attempt is secondary to the primary mission of parking Jason-3 in its unusual polar orbit, which was completed successfully.

To that point, the choppy waves are somewhat fitting given that Jason-3 is the newest addition to a longstanding partnership between NASA and CNES [Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales), France's federal space agency, aimed at mapping the topography of Earth's oceans with unrivalled precision.

Together with its precursors Jason-1, launched in 2001, and Jason-2, launched in 2008, Jason-3 will use its altimeter to estimate global sea levels to within a few centimeters. This high-accuracy monitoring distinguishes the Jason (Joint Altimetry Satellite Oceanography Network) satellite constellation as a particularly critical Earth observation project, given that rising oceans are among the most ominous side effects of climate change.

SpaceX will no doubt attempt more oceanic landings in the near future, and hopefully, the company will finally nail this elusive milestone within the next few months. But for now, I think we can cut Elon Musk and his team some slack, considering that it would have been pretty miraculous for the Falcon 9 first stage to have cleanly landed in such problematic conditions.