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‘Close but no cigar’ for SpaceX rocket bumpy landing

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, SpaceX launched its fifth resupply mission to the International Space Station. At 8:56 a.m. EST, the unmanned Dragon capsule successfully docked at the ISS.

But part of Saturday’s mission flopped. For the first time, SpaceX attempted to recover and reuse Falcon 9, the 14-story rocket that launches supply capsules into space. Its landing was just off target, tweeted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

After the Dragon spacecraft detached, the rocket plummeted to Earth at a speed of 2,900 miles per hour. Falcon 9 opened its deceleration fins, and second set of retropropulsion engines burned to slow its fall onto a 300 foot-long, 170 foot-wide drone barge in the Atlantic Ocean.

That seems like a large target, but it’s pretty small from 150 miles in the air, said SpaceX’s Hans Koenigsmann in an interview with National Geographic. The rockets that hit the barge in previous tests tipped over and fell into the ocean.

Prior to the launch, Musk said the company had a 50-50 chance of successfully landing and recovering the rocket. (He admitted in a Reddit chat later that he had made that number up, and had no idea what their chances of success were.)

Falcon 9 hit the target, but its rough landing damaged the rocket and the unmanned barge.

But Musk said it’s still a good sign that recovery is possible. Normally, these rockets burn up on reentry through the atmosphere or fall into the ocean where they are recovered by ships but never reused. According to SpaceX, reusing rockets could save millions on the cost of space travel.

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