Elon Musk’s ego took a very minor shot on Wednesday. His company, SpaceX, has had a run of striking success with its rocket launches and mind-boggling landings. But that run ended. After a successful Falcon 9 launch, which propelled SpaceX’s second satellite into orbit, the team hoped to recover the rocket by landing it on its ocean droneship Of Course I Still Love You.
SpaceX just needed to throw the satellite on a course toward orbit, then redirect its Falcon 9 rocket. As a result of this relatively shallow launch, there were fewer re-entry burns to slow down the rocket. Without these re-entry burns, the rocket would combust as it traveled back down to earth. With fewer re-entry burns, it becomes that much more challenging to land the rocket on a droneship.
Musk explained the crash on Twitter this way: “Looks like early liquid oxygen depletion caused engine shutdown just above the deck.”
He noted that the “rocket wasn’t as fast as they thought but it was still hard enough to destroy the primary airframe and accordion the engines” and put the crash into perspective with this tweet: “As mentioned at the beginning of the year, I’m expecting ~70% success rate on landings for the year. 2016 is the year of experimentation.”
Musk, jokester as he is, called the failure a “Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly” in the aftermath of the wreck on Wednesday. But, as the video shows, it wasn’t as bad as previous RUDs. This rocket actually did land, but was very much on fire as it did so:
Still, all hope is not lost. As Kate Tice, a SpaceX process improvement engineer, reminded webcast viewers, the “important thing to keep in mind is that we did receive a lot of really good data from this. As always, these are experimental attempts, and, although we can say that Falcon 9 was lost in this attempt, we did get a lot of really valuable data from it.” Next GTO mission, SpaceX will be armed with this data — and with more powerful landing engines.
In the meantime, Musk is probably thinking that someone just turned up the difficulty level on his video game of life.