SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft lifted off into clear blue skies today (Dec. 5), carrying more than 2 tons of crew supplies, science investigations and equipment toward the International Space Station — but the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage spiraled down in a failed landing.
According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Twitter, a hydraulic pump on one of the first stage grid fins stalled, so the booster ended up splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean rather than coming in for a landing at a pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida. The rocket landing was not required for SpaceX’s main mission: delivering 5,600 lbs. (2,500 kilograms) of supplies to the space station’s six-person crew.
The Falcon 9 launched its Dragon spacecraft at 1:16 p.m. EST (1816 GMT) from the CCAFS and will catch up with the space station over the next few days before astronauts grapple it with the station’s robotic arm on Saturday (Dec. 8). This mission, CRS-16, is the second time this Dragon spacecraft has made the trip; it also flew to space as part of the CRS-10 mission in 2017. The mission also marks SpaceX’s 20th launch of the year.
SpaceX representatives confirmed the success of Dragon’s trip into orbit, adding that they will use telemetry from the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster to better understand why it’s landing attempt failed.
“The first stage did land in the water,” SpaceX spokesperson John Insprucker said during a live webcast. “Now, the good news is we’ve got a lot of telemetry from it, so we’ll be able to understand what happened and work to improve reliability as we always do here at SpaceX.”
“Second stage went into great orbit, it was really precise,” he added. “Dragon, you saw separate, and now the solar arrays coming out. All told, another great day for SpaceX and NASA.”
The most recent previous landing failure for SpaceX was the core first-stage booster on its debut Falcon Heavy launch; the two side boosters made a flashy synchronized landing, but the central booster crashed. The company’s most recent Falcon 9 first stage landing failure was in June 2016. In February, the core stage of SpaceX’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Falcon Heavy, just missed its landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic.