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SpaceX rocket recovery effort fails

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX sent a supply ship soaring flawlessly toward the International Space Station on Saturday, but the booster rocket ended up in pieces in the Atlantic following a failed attempt to land on a barge.

“Close, but no cigar this time,” the company’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, announced via Twitter shortly after the unprecedented touchdown effort.

Despite the high-profile flop in the dark ocean, Musk said he was encouraged. The 14-story booster managed, at least, to fly back to the floating platform from dozens of miles above the Earth.

“Rocket made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard,” he said in a tweet. “Bodes well for the future tho.”

He’s already planning another landing test next month.

Musk, who also runs electric car maker Tesla Motors, maintains that recovering and reusing rockets is essential for bringing down launch costs and speeding up operations.

Until Saturday, no one had ever tried anything like this before.

The modified barge – nearly the size of a football field – was positioned a couple hundred miles off Florida’s northeastern coast. The platform was spared serious damage from the impact, although some equipment on deck will need to be replaced, according to Musk. A recovery ship with SpaceX staff was a safe 10 miles away.

SpaceX’s primary mission was delivering more than 5,000 pounds of station supplies ordered up by NASA, including hasty replacements for experiments and equipment lost in the destruction of another company’s cargo ship last fall, as well as extra groceries. Belated Christmas presents were also on board for the six station astronauts.

“Hurrah! A #Dragon is coming to visit bringing gifts,” Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti said in a tweet from orbit.

Without interfering with the $133 million delivery, Musk had fins for guidance and landing legs installed on the first stage of the unmanned Falcon rocket.

Once separated from the upper stage of the rocket, the main booster reignited as planned for the flyback. Automatic engine firings maneuvered the booster down toward the autonomous, modified barge. The Air Force maintained the ability, as always, to destroy the booster if it strayed off course.

There was no good video of the “landing/impact,” Musk said, noting the “pitch dark and foggy” conditions. Brief TV images from booster cameras, broadcast by NASA, showed only water bubbles.

Later in the day, Musk said the fins on the rocket ran out of hydraulic fluid right before touchdown.