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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 crashes & landings – Flights 14, 17, 20, & 23

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After completing the launch of a cargo resupply mission to ISS for NASA, SpaceX attempted landing their Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship. This April 14th Flight 17 video captures their second landing attempt on a floating platform.

Landing a rocket onto a platform in the ocean is super difficult because of the rocket’s vertical, horizontal, and angular acceleration, among many other factors. Yet since 2011, SpaceX has been working on a reusable launch system development program to launch and land their Falcon 9 rocket. Why is this important for space missions? From SpaceX:

A fully and rapidly reusable rocket—which has never been done before—is the pivotal breakthrough needed to substantially reduce the cost of space access. While most rockets are designed to burn up on reentry, SpaceX is building rockets that not only withstand reentry, but also land safely on Earth to be refueled and fly again. Over the next year, SpaceX has at least a dozen launches planned with a number of additional testing opportunities. Given what we know today, we believe it is quite likely that with one of those flights we will not only be able to land a Falcon 9 first stage, but also re-fly.

Click for a closer look at this Falcon 9 First Stage Reusability graphic:


We first watched them test launch and land their Grasshopper low altitude landing demonstrator, and most recently, we’ve been watching Falcon 9’s landing attempts, as shown above and below. SpaceX’s first try was on January 16, 2015: “Close, but no cigar. This time.”

After the April 14th attempt, SpaceX (and Tesla) CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the “Cause of hard rocket landing confirmed as due to slower than expected throttle valve response,” but relinked to the first Falcon 9 Reusable (F9R) test flight in April, 2014, to emphasize the end goal:

Try, fail, learn information from that failure, and then try again. How often does the public get to watch such an ambitious and spectacular learning process?

A December 21st 2015 update from Elon Musk, included in a launch background blog post at

The Falcon 9 rocket we are about to launch has higher performance than the prior version due mostly to increased boost thrust, deep cryo oxidizer and a much larger upper stage engine bell. It also has a number of reliability enhancements, such as a redundant stage separation system and greater structural safety margins.

This should, if all goes well, give us enough performance to deliver eleven satellites to orbit and bring the booster all the way back to Cape Canaveral to Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1).

And then….

See the Falcon 9 Flight 20 First Stage Landing from a helicopter in high-res:

Update: Falcon 9 Flight 23, which included the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, successfully landed its first stage booster on drone ship on April 8, 2016:

And here’s 4K footage of the smooth landing from the chase plane, a very different result than the January 16th and April 14th 2015 crash landings above.

Watch this next: The Chemistry of Rockets – How do rockets work?

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