The SpaceX Falcon 9 V1.1 ended its career on Sunday in much the same fashion as it began, with an on-time launch out of California’s Vandenberg, AFB and a bit more experience gained in the still elusive art of landing a descending booster at sea. Lifting off at 1:42 PM EST out of a very foggy SLC-4W, the last original series Merlin 1-D powered Falcon 9 booster lofted the Jason-3 ocean monitoring satellite on its way to a circularized polar orbit at 1300 kilometers altitude.
Yesterday’s launch was the first of the year for SpaceX, the 21st of the Falcon 9 series overall, and the second successful flight since a failure on June 28th, 2015. Like many such launches however, it may be remembered just as much for its secondary objectives as for the primary mission. Following on the heels of last month’s historic landing of a Falcon 9 first stage at Cape Canaveral as part of the Orbcomm-2 mission, SpaceX sought to extend its streak with an at-sea landing of the Jason-3 first stage aboard a recovery vessel stationed some 200 miles west of San Diego. The vessel, or as company founder Elon Musk likes to describe it, the autonomous spaceport drone ship Just Read The Instructions, once again hosted an oh so close but ultimately unsuccessful landing attempt which suggests that among other things, it may be time to change the ship’s name. As usual, a series of tweets from Musk filled in some of the details from a video stream which froze just as the Falcon 9 approached.
Despite on-board stabilizers, conditions were once again far from ideal, with 12-15 foot seas clearly shifting the vessel as it awaited the approaching booster. While the descending stage appeared to be precisely on target, showing none of the lateral motion which marked the most recent ocean landing attempt, one of the legs apparently buckled, causing it to crumple to the deck, where it was at least still very recognizable as a rocket stage. Subsequent tweets from Musk stated that while touchdown speed was okay, a steel collet, charged with locking one of the landing legs in place had failed, and that the cause was likely ice which built up as the rocket waited on the fog drenched launch pad.
If that turns out to be the case, and failure was not caused by a hard landing as originally thought, then what actually transpired was somewhat the equivalent of a successful airplane approach and touchdown marred by a landing gear collapse. Although the results are the same, the interpretations can be very different, and in this case it may mean that SpaceX could not have come any closer without an achieving an unambiguous success. One suspects that the next effort, which could come as soon as few weeks, could yield precisely that.
One other aspect of the Jason-3 launch which will grow in significance over time is that it was the first SpaceX mission carried out under NASA’s National Launch Services Program (NLS-II) program which is currently dominated by the ULA Atlas-V. Although the Atlas has continued to win NLS awards in recent years, a successful SpaceX debut in the program bodes well both for future awards, as well as for keeping bid prices in check, where every dollar saved means more resources available for science.