Spaceflight Insider

Video: SpaceX shows ‘how not to land an orbital rocket booster’

A Falcon 9 rocket shortly after the CRS-6 landing attempt in April 2015. Photo Credit: SpaceX

A Falcon 9 rocket shortly after the CRS-6 landing attempt in April 2015. This was one of many landing failures in SpaceX reusable launch system development program. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has landed a Falcon 9 first stage successfully 16 times since December 2015. Seven of those have been at Landing Zone-1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, while the rest have been on ocean-going platforms in either the Pacific or Atlantic. But that was after years of tests and “rapid unscheduled disassembly” events – otherwise known as explosions.

The test program started in 2012 with low-altitude hops of the Grasshopper test article at SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor, Texas. These became progressively more ambitious, culminating in a 2,440-foot (744-meter) flight lasting 79 seconds in late 2013.

While Grasshopper utilized a Falcon 9 version 1.0 core, the next test article used a version 1.1 core. Dubbed “F9R”, it flew successfully four times and tested steerable grid fins that would be used on actual recovery attempts. The fifth flight of F9R ended with an explosion on August 22, 2014.

SpaceX’s recovery program continued with soft-landing attempts over the ocean. The first of these was deemed a failure as aerodynamic forces caused an uncontrollable roll in the first stage as it returned to Earth. Importantly, however, the primary mission – the launch of the CASSIOPE spacecraft in September 2013 – was a success.

Three more soft-landing attempts were made successfully; however, each booster was destroyed as soon as it tipped over and hit the surface of the ocean.

The first landing attempt on an ocean-going platform – called an automated spaceport drone ship – also failed. That occurred in January 2015 after the CRS-5 mission. SpaceX tried four more times over the next 14 months before getting it right in April 2016 during the CRS-8 mission. That particular booster went on to become the company’s first re-flown first stage during the SES-10 mission in March 2017.

The following SpaceX video is a compilation the various landing failures the company has had.

Video courtesy of SpaceX



Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

Reader Comments

I love seeing the SpaceX landings on a dime. Exciting to see the successes.

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