Images Show Falcon 9 First Stage Crash-Landing on Ship


Updated at 12:00 p.m. EST with video.

WASHINGTON — SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk released a series of images Jan. 16 showing a Falcon 9 first stage crash-landing on a ship and exploding after a launch earlier in the month.

In a series of tweets, Musk posted images taken by a camera on the company’s “autonomous spaceport drone ship” Jan. 10 as a Falcon 9 first stage attempted to land there after a launch from Cape Canaveral. The attempted landing was the latest in a series of tests by the company to demonstrate the ability to recover and reuse the first stage.

The images show the stage touching down on the deck of the ship, but at an angle of about 45 degrees. Musk said that grid fins mounted at the top of the stage and used for steering had lost power gone “hardover” and the stage’s engines were only partially able to compensate.

The impact of landing at that angle, he said, smashed the engine section of the stage as well as its landing legs. The stage’s remaining liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants then combined, causing what Musk called a “Full RUD (rapid unscheduled disassembly) event”—that is, an explosion.

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SpaceX released later Jan. 16 a video showing the stage attempting to land on the ship. The brief video showed the stage descending under rocket power at an angle, drifting to one side of the platform before crashing and exploding.

Musk said immediately after the Jan. 10 landing attempt that the grid fins ran out of hydraulic fluid shortly before landing. The next attempt, he said then, would increase the amount of hydraulic fluid available to the fins by 50 percent.

SpaceX spokesman John Taylor confirmed Jan. 15 that the company would make another landing attempt on its next Falcon 9 launch, of the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. That launch, also from Cape Canaveral, is scheduled for Jan. 29. Despite the fiery explosion, Musk said the ship requires only “minor repairs.”

Musk’s series of images were in response to a tweet by John Carmack, the videogame designer and software developer best known in the space industry as the founder of Armadillo Aerospace. That company experimented on a smaller scale with rockets that takeoff and land vertically before going into what Carmack called “hibernation mode” in 2013.

“Clearly the fins worked great to get that demonstrated accuracy — congratulations!” Carmack tweeted to Musk late Jan. 15.

Carmack offered congratulations again Jan. 16 after Musk posted the landing images. “Bravo,” he tweeted. “I used to caution newbie engineers, smug with [simulations], about the ‘inevitable tragic loss of vehicle’ event in their future.”

Musk’s series of images also prompted a response from United Launch Alliance president and chief executive Tory Bruno. He noted his company has a number of employees who worked on the DC-X, a 1990s-era project to demonstrate vertical takeoff and landing technology for future reusable launch vehicles. “Let me know if we can help,” Bruno wrote.