After the successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on April 18, most eyes were on the Dragon cargo capsule that was on its way to resupply the space station. But once its primary job was done, the first stage of the rocket was about to make an attempt at the first ever powered booster landing in the ocean.
Usually, after stage separation, the spent first stage of any rocket system will drop to Earth, break apart or end up at the bottom of the ocean never to fly again. Expendable rocket systems such as these only help to boost costs as new rockets have to be built from scratch for every launch.
It’s a bit like a brand new FedEx truck making one delivery and then getting scrapped. Of course, launching stuff into space is more complex than terrestrial delivery systems, but SpaceX’s founder and CEO Elon Musk believes there must be a better way.
And it looks like we may be glimpsing a new era for space commercialization and cheaper access to space.
April’s Falcon 9 rocket booster included prototype landing legs that were designed to open as the falling first stage dropped toward the Atlantic Ocean. But rather than an uncontrolled splashdown, it has been confirmed that the booster managed to right itself and use the remaining fuel to slow descent and make the splashdown less damaging.
The booster could not be retrieved sadly — rough seas destroyed the spent rocket booster — but as the above video shows, the first stage did indeed fire as hoped and the landing legs opened as designed.
“I’m happy to confirm that we were able to do a soft-landing of the Falcon 9 boost stage in the Atlantic,” Musk confirmed after analyzing data from the launch.
The video recording was retrieved from an on board camera, but the original data was fairly scrambled. SpaceX engineers have tried their best to recover the data, but it can still be hard to see what is going on. However, it is clear that the landing legs successfully folded out and the descent appears to have been a controlled, powered landing.
SpaceX has reached out to video professionals for help, providing the original video data — perhaps an even clearer view of the Falcon 9 booster soft landing awaits.