Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, on Wednesday experienced a setback in trying to develop reusable spacecraft when one of its rockets crashed while attempting to land on a barge at sea.
After successfully lifting off around 10:29 a.m. from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and delivering a pair of commercial satellites into space, the first stage of the Falcon 9 booster touched down in a cloud of smoke on the so-called droneship in the Atlantic Ocean before undergoing a "rapid unscheduled disassembly," or RUD, according to SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk.
In messages on Twitter, Musk said the problem appeared to stem from a lack of thrust on one of the landing engines. The mission required a high-orbit delivery, which meant higher reentry velocity and heat -- and a harder landing.
"Looks like thrust was low on 1 of 3 landing engines. High g landings v sensitive to all engines operating at max," he tweeted. "Upgrades underway to enable rocket to compensate for a thrust shortfall on one of the three landing engines. Probably get there end of year."
Musk added, "Maybe hardest impact to date. Droneship still ok."
Of course, SpaceX has already successfully landed a rocket three times on the ocean barge -- and once on land. The company is seeking to develop reusable rockets to lower launch costs.
In April, the Hawthorne, California-based company won its first military contract, a nearly $83 million agreement from the Air Force to deliver a GPS III satellite into orbit using a Falcon 9.
SpaceX is competing against United Launch Alliance LLC, a Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture that for years has dominated the U.S. military market. The company is also developing manned spacecraft for NASA. The same day the Air Force contract was announced, the firm unveiled plans to send its Dragon spacecraft on a mission to Mars by 2018.