SpaceX fails in third attempt to stick landing on its drone barge

One of the company's Falcon 9 rockets broke a leg in an attempt to land on an autonomous landing pad at sea for the first time -- and not in the good-luck kind of way.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
2 min read

SpaceX's third attempt to land one of its rockets on an autonomous landing pad barge at sea on Sunday did not go as hoped once again. The first two attempts at this experimental landing ended with fantastic explosions as the Falcon 9 rocket failed to stick the landing just right.

Sunday's mission successfully deployed the Jason-3 satellite, which will measure global sea levels, to a polar orbit (meaning it will circle the Earth from north to south instead of traveling parallel to the equator), but the experimental landing of the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that gave it the boost needed to escape Earth's gravity was the main event for most space nerds.

SpaceX broadcasted the entire launch and experimental landing live via its YouTube channel, but as the moment came that the Falcon 9 first stage was expected to touch down on the unmanned landing pad named "Just Read the Instructions," the video feed cut out from the barge, where rough seas with 12- to 15-foot (or 3.6- to 5.5-meter) waves had been reported.

About 20 minutes later, SpaceX reported that the Falcon 9 had a "hard landing" and "one of the landing legs may have broken."

SpaceX Founder Elon Musk later tweeted that "Touchdown speed was ok, but a leg lockout didn't latch, so it tipped over after landing."

Sunday evening he clarified on social media that the landing actually was a soft one and then shared this video on Instagram that shows the rocket slowly tipping over and exploding:

SpaceX successfully landed a Falcon 9 on land at Cape Canaveral after it completed a commercial satellite launch mission, but nailing one of the company's novel drone barge sea landings would mark another historic first.

Throughout most of history, rockets used in space launches have wound up falling into a permanent watery grave in the ocean after just one use. A major part of the SpaceX mission is to make its rockets reusable in order to drive down the cost of getting to space.

Landing the drone on a pad in the Pacific 200 miles west of San Diego required less fuel than if the rocket had to navigate back to land, and allowed that saved fuel to go toward pushing the rocket launch to a higher velocity, according to SpaceX's Frank Tybor.

Updated at 7:45pm adding the embedded Instagram video.