Last week SpaceX pulled off yet another historic flight by launching and recovering one of its Falcon 9 rockets for a record-breaking third time. But the celebration was particularly short-lived: Days later, a subsequent mission went amiss after the first stage of another Falcon 9 splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean after missing the landing pad at the Kennedy Air Force Base in Florida.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter after the fact and explained that this water landing was nothing more than a slight setback. Company engineers were able to stabilize the booster and recover it in short order. The ordeal also presented an invaluable learning opportunity, as the mid-landing damage control was captured by Falcon 9’s onboard camera as well as various other organizations filming the December 5 launch. One of the amateur videographers following along was Redditor u/Labtec901, who combined and synchronized four points of view into a single video. The compilation video provides the best view available, and offers new insight into to exactly how Lars Blackmore — SpaceX’s principal rocket landing engineer — and his team pulled off the unorthodox landing.
“I thought it was pretty amazing that the control systems were in place to handle a grid-fin-out scenario,” u/Labtec901 tells Inverse. “Seeing the first stage tumble like that made me think there was no way to recover control, but Blackmore’s team at SpaceX is a smart group and their algorithms handled it in stride.”
Musk tweeted that the accident was caused when the Falcon 9’s “grid fin hydraulic pump stalled.” This mechanism is supposed to “manipulate the direction of the stage’s lift during reentry,” according to SpaceX’s description of the rocket. This essentially meant SpaceX lost control of all the first stage’s active surfaces, which might have led to it spinning as it descended toward the water. But the Falcon 9’s onboard computer finessed a landing that was nothing short of improvised perfection.
This was SpaceX’s first failed landing since it began trying to recover its Falcon 9 fleet. But it served as a stunning real-time test of the rocket’s built-in, autonomous landing safeguards.
SpaceX has shown it has what it takes to recover launch vehicles to make space travel cheaper than it has ever been. Now the company has also demonstrated it can do the same when something goes wrong.