SpaceX launches Jason-3 rocket but fails to stick ship landing

Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base this morning, but failed to land its first stage on a ship off the Southern California coast, according to company officials.

The hard landing apparently broke a support leg and the rocket was not upright, SpaceX announcers said. No further details were available.

The company said it had successfully delivered a satellite payload via the second stage of the rocket.

Neither of the two previous attempts to stick a sea landing has succeeded, although the company brought a Falcon rocket stage back to terra firma at Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Dec. 21 in what many hailed as an engineering feat.

The landing target was a drone-operated ship called "Just Read the Instructions," which has a landing pad measuring 300 feet by 170 feet.

SpaceX will need to perfect such ocean landings because some heavy payloads have to be delivered to distant orbits, which requires incredibly high speeds. That leaves little fuel left to guide the rocket stage all the way back to its launch site. Putting satellites into lower Earth orbits leaves enough fuel to return to the launch site.

Why not just jettison the booster rockets, like NASA did in the early space program? Because using the rocket stage over would bring down the cost per launch, a crucial element of Musk's ambitions to corner the civilian space delivery market.

The whole endeavor has been compared to vaulting a pencil over the Empire State building, then getting it to come back and land on its eraser atop a moving target smaller than a shoe box.

Geoffrey Mohan