A most amazing “failure”

Sometimes the mainstream press really does not know what’s going on when it comes to anything techy.

Case in point: earlier this month, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon capsule that was destined to dock with the International Space Station and resupply it. Note: resupplying the space station was the actual mission.

Once the Dragon capsule had been zinged out into orbit, SpaceX then planned an attempt to recover the Falcon 9 rocket rather than letting it go boom, crash, splash as every first-stage rocket since the dawn of the space age has done. That’s what first-stage rockets do — they burn themselves out getting their payload to a certain height, and then they fall back to Earth and die, usually in a watery grave.

Until now. SpaceX has been designing a rocket that can be recovered, refueled, and reused. If it can accomplish this, it will hugely, HUGELY reduce the expense of launches.

Anyway. The Dragon capsule was indeed zinged out to orbit and it did indeed dock with the space station. It is there right now. The mission was a success.

The attempt to recover the Falcon 9 rocket ended with an explosion and many, many rocket pieces. Therefore, the mainstream press deemed this a “failure.” Meanwhile, all of the geeky blogs and space sites were practically vibrating the Intertoobs with their collective glee, because this was a seriously awesome event and a milestone in space exploration.

Let’s take a closer look at this failure, shall we?

First, if you haven’t yet met the Falcon 9, check out this video. In fact, you should check it out even if you have met the Falcon 9, because you’ll want to pay special attention to the four steering fins. They’re important in terms of what happened during this month’s recovery attempt.

This video is of a test launch in which the Falcon 9 was sent one kilometer straight up, and then returned to its launch site with hardly a bump. The first half of the video is from the onboard cam, which is located near the rocket’s nose and gives a perfect view of the ridiculously tiny steering fins. The second half of the video is the same launch, but viewed from the ground.

So, this is the rocket that can launch and then steer itself back to a precision landing. Pretty cool, eh?

But of course that test was only a kilometer of vertical height. In a real launch situation, coming back to a specified landing site after going all the way to the end of the first-stage burn is a little harder — at that point, Falcon 9 is 80 kilometers (50 miles) up and traveling 10 times the speed of sound. It’s also a wee distance from its original launch site, so it’s not a matter of just backing straight down.

Nevertheless, SpaceX gave this a try last year and indeed managed a soft water landing pretty close to where they wanted their rocket to land. And by pretty close, I mean they were expecting a landing accuracy of within ten kilometers (6.2 miles).

For the attempt this month, they used a drone ship: a barge designed to travel to the landing site and hang out there without any pesky humans in the way to get hurt if anything went wrong.

Spacex drone ship

Note that this drone ship is not 10 kilometers long. It’s not even one kilometer long. It’s actually 300 by 100 feet (91 by 30 meters), with wings that extend its width to 170 feet (52 meters).

Keep in mind that the legspan of the Falcon 9 is 70 feet (21 meters). So there’s not a lot of room for error here. In fact, for this attempt, SpaceX was targeting a landing accuracy of 10 meters.

To review: previous attempts were for a landing accuracy of 10 kilometers; this one was for 10 meters. That is an increase in accuracy of 99.9 percent.

So, what happened?

The Falcon 9 landed on the damn drone ship. It went 80 kilometers up, successfully launched the Dragon capsule into orbit, and then flew itself back down to a freaking postage stamp floating in the ocean and landed on it.

Yes, the landing was hard. Yes, it went kaboom. Spectacularly so. But it hit the target. That is amazing!

And the mainstream press said it failed. That’s like an Olympic gymnast doing a high bar routine where he launches himself into twelve consecutive flips (note: not physically possible) but lands on his butt and the judges all frown and say, “He didn’t stick the landing.”

Who the hell cares? He did twelve flips! And the Falcon 9 landed on target.

You know what else is amazing? SpaceX engineers say the reason the rocket didn’t stick its landing is because those little steering fins (remember that video?) ran out of hydraulic fluid right at the very end. The rocket could no longer steer, so it landed at an angle and went boom. Running out of hydraulic fluid is not a hard problem to fix. There’s every reason to think SpaceX is going to stick its landing sometime this year. And that will revolutionize space launches.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, who also runs Tesla Motors in his spare time and is honestly the real-life Tony Stark, called the landing “close but no cigar — this time.” He also tweeted:

Next rocket landing on drone ship in 2 to 3 weeks w way more hydraulic fluid. At least it shd explode for a diff reason.


Repairs almost done on the spaceport drone ship and have given it the name “Just Read the Instructions.”

And then, because he’s cool that way, Elon Musk released a Vine loop of the landing and explosion. WordPress won’t let me embed it, but trust me, you want to click that link. It’s made of just a few recovered frames from the onboard cameras. Musk captioned the individual photos.

Before impact, [steering] fins lose power and go hard over. Engine fights to restore, but…

Rocket hits hard at ~45 deg angle, smashing legs and engine section

Residual fuel and oxygen combine

Full RUD (rapid unscheduled disassembly) event. Ship is fine, minor repairs. Exciting day!

I hope RUD gets embedded in the lexicon of space travel, because it is the Best. Acronym. Ever.

Regarding the mainstream press, I suppose if you didn’t know squat about the limitations of current space launch technology, you’d look at that Vine video and call it a failure. But the rest of us call it breathtakingly awesome. I can’t wait to see the next one.

About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
This entry was posted in astronomy, science, tech, USA. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to A most amazing “failure”

  1. Patti Andon says:

    Amazing. I had to look up where McGregor, TX was. I thought it would be along the coast, but it’s north of Austin. Poor cows. lol

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Karien says:

    “rapid unscheduled disassembly” – I actually lol’d.

    Awesome post and amazing work by these guys.

  3. xenatuba says:

    I am on board with making “rapid unscheduled disassembly” part of the common vernacular. Plus, how cool is that to be that close to success, and to have the RUD be so easily explained and identified (and I’ll bet, corrected!)

    Cruising along in my common vernacular theme… we could add “event” to the end and call it RUDE. Or shorten it, and give the world a new meaning for UD.

    Speaking of space. I heard recently that the space center that went into Houston was originally scheduled to be built in Sacramento, CA, and the the U.S. President at the time (Lyndon Johnson) ordered it to be built in his home state of Texas. That could have been interesting for the area. At the time there were two functional Air Force bases in the area (McClellan and Mather) and good infrastructure.

    • oregon expat says:

      I dunno — “Sacramento, we have a problem” just doesn’t have the same ring.

    • JR says:

      This is somewhat true. I used to teach a course on the architecture of science, and it included a unit on the infrastructure of the U.S. space program. There were about 20 cities on the long list for the Manned Spacecraft Center. I’m not sure when Sacramento was cut, but the brief called for a port city (barge traffic) with commercial jet service, developed industrial facilities, electric and water supply, 1,000 open acres of land, and a nearby university.

      Johnson was the chairman of the National Space Committee, so he probably had some power to force Houston to the top, but the politics involved were REALLY exposed after Houston won the contest–29 of NASA’s 32 subcontracts went to local firms, thanks in large part to the influence of Albert Thomas, who was chairman of the committee responsible for NASA’s budget. Houston was in his congressional district, so…

      The other Texas options were El Paso, Dallas, Corpus Christi, Beaumont, Victoria, Liberty, and Harlingen. I think “Victoria, we have a problem,” would’ve sounded nice.

  4. Power Wench says:

    My mind is boggled! Can’t wait for the next attempt.

  5. JR says:

    I had the same response, only with fewer words. “Uh…did they resupply the space station? Yeah? Then shut up.” Well, my response was slightly longer than that, but I edited out the profanity for your readers.

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