A Familiar Problem Occurred During SpaceX's Successful Mission Today

SpaceX’s 18th mission of 2018 was completed successfully on Thursday afternoon, as Elon Musk’s aerospace company put into orbit a TV satellite for Qatar-based Es’hailSat, and saw the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket land safely on a drone ship floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

The rocket took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 3:46 p.m. and the Es’hail-2 payload will be used to beam broadband internet connection for the Qatar Satellite Company, also known as Es’hailSat.

The most visually stunning aspect of a SpaceX mission isn’t the launch — fiery and majestic as it is —it’s the landing of the first stage of the rocket back on a floating dronenship. But an issue familiar to SpaceX watchers cropped up But an issue familiar to SpaceX watchers cropped up again.

Below is a clip of the SpaceX webcast. As you can see, things don’t quite go to plan.

As the Falcon 9 came closer to the deck of Of Course I Still Love, the live feed from the rocket — and there’s no nice way to put this — crapped out, likely due to the intense force and heat of the rocket descending so quickly. It has always happened with SpaceX droneship landings. But it seems to be getting worse: The last several times a Falcon 9 has landed, the camera feed from the deck of the ship has also shorted out during the actual landing, the feed only to return when the stage is standing rocket stage upright on the deck.

Bemoaning that there’s no video of a rocket that flew to space and back, only to land upright on an autonomous drone ship floating in the ocean, is literally complaining that something amazing happened but you didn’t get to see it. (The amazing thing still happened. But it would’ve been nice to witness it.)

So, complaints about laggy video aside, the Falcon 9’s successful landing marked the 31st time SpaceX has fully recovered a rocket booster, which is astonishing, given the company’s explosive early history. The first stage that flew Thursday had already been to space and back once; it last was used during the Telstar 19 VANTAGE mission in July 2017. That mission took place at night and resulted in a few stunning photos of the launch. As was the case on Thursday, the July 2017 mission also included a drone ship landing.

This image of the Falcon 9 first stage shows the rocket upright on the deck of the autonomous droneship.

One part of the Falcon 9 that couldn’t be recovered Thursday for reuse was the fairing. The massive nose cone that surrounds the payload during launch (and splits in half when the payload is put into orbit) fell back to Earth. It won’t be used again.

The reason the fairing wasn’t recovered was because the SpaceX recovery vehicle, a giant ship named Mr. Steven that is outfitted with a giant net, is on the West Coast.

Musk has said SpaceX will attempt to use the fairing-recovery vessel in December, and reportedly Mr. Steven is heading East: It will be based in Florida.

"Mr Steven" fairing catcher ship.Elon Musk/Instagram

Things haven’t always gone so well for SpaceX, and the company released in September 2017 a blooper reel of sorts, a compilation that showed all the failed attempts at recovering the first stage.

Up next for SpaceX: The SSO-A mission, the 19th of the year. It is scheduled for just four days from now, Monday, November 19, at 10:32 a.m. Pacific time, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California.

That mission will mark the third time a Falcon 9 has been flown. SpaceX says its Falcon 9 rockets are meant to be reflown ten times before being retired. For its next mission, SpaceX will also attempt a drone ship landing, on Just Read the Instructions, which is based in the Pacific Ocean.

Now only if we could see it that landing happen.