In the clear blue skies at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station stood a towering white cylindrical rod that had 9 Merlin engines that could produce 1.7 million pounds of thrust. Today, the crew aboard the international space station would get their annual Christmas presents along with numerous scientific experiments. This was, CRS -16, the 16th Commercial Resupply Services Mission to the International Space Station. The rocket booster was brand new, fresh from the factories at Space X’s headquarters, Hawthorne California.
As the final preparations were made, mission control in Hawthorne was ready to launch. At 1:16 Eastern Time, the Falcon 9 took off, igniting its engines and soared towards the stars. At T+ 2 minutes and 31 seconds, the second stage and first stage separated. The first stage dropped toward the Earth, beginning its landing procedures. The second stage continued on, like Santa, faring gifts to the ISS. At T+ 4 minutes and 3 seconds, the booster’s grid fins deployed, slowly steering the booster towards Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Everything was going to plan. At T+ 6 minutes and 44 seconds, 3 of the 9 Merlin engines ignited. This would slow the rocket down, enabling it to gently kiss the ground later. However, that didn’t happen. At T+ 7 minutes and 25 seconds, the booster made a sharp 90-degree roll along its longitudinal axis. The booster began spinning out of control. Viewers were displayed with a horrifying live feed stream of turbulence and shaking. Finally, at T+ 7 minutes and 40 seconds, the booster’s feed was cut. The state of the booster was unknown.
Meanwhile, rocket enthusiast filming the landing witnessed the Falcon 9, surprisingly still upright, slowly lowering itself towards the Earth. The landing legs deployed, the Merlin engines ignited, slowing the rocket to a complete halt. Pictures from all over the internet captured the event.
Later, Elon Musk tweeted that all footage would be released in the end. He even tweeted an image of the Falcon 9 rocket. To many viewers surprise, the booster remained intact. Musk later mentioned that the rocket could be reused, although not for any commercial launches, only internal Space X ones.
So after completing more than 25 landings, what happened? Earlier that week, Space X’s SSO-A mission successfully landed a booster that had been used twice. It turns out that the hydraulic system that manipulated the grid fins had failed. One of the grid fins remained in a stuck position, severely limiting the rocket’s ability to maneuver itself. There were no backup systems for the Grid fins as landing the rocket is a secondary mission goal rather than a primary one. In the future, Space X will either install a secondary system or design a more robust system.
However, with Space X losing their landing streak, many are still confident that Space X will be able to land future rockets. Space X has a phenomenal history of overcoming challenges as they constantly find new ways to improve upon their rockets. In fact, no Falcon 9 is built the same way. Each one has its own modifications that improve upon the previous booster.