SpaceX plans to try again Sunday to land a Falcon 9 rocket after it dispatches a Dragon cargo ship toward the International Space Station.
The company, founded and run by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, has come close during two previous attempts to vertically land the first stage of a Falcon booster on a platform floating in the Atlantic Ocean, northeast of its Cape Canaveral, Florida, launch site.
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During the first try in January, the rocket ran out of hydraulic fluid needed to maneuver small, foldable steering fins. The rocket, which is as tall as a 14-story building, crashed into the landing platform and exploded.
SpaceX tried again to land a Falcon in April and nearly nailed it. The supersonic descent through the atmosphere was successful, but about 10 seconds before touchdown a valve that was controlling the rocket's final braking burn had a glitch that caused it to throttle down a few seconds later than planned. The 67,000-pound stage, now traveling at nearly 200 mph, lost control for a moment. It recovered, but not in time to prevent the rocket from tipping over, causing another fireball.
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Landing attempt three is expected around 10:30 a.m. EDT Sunday. The Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a Dragon cargo ship, is slated to lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 10:21 a.m. As the capsule flies away from the rocket's upper-stage to begin a 40-hour trek to the station, Falcon's discarded first stage should have flipped around, made two engine burns, deployed grid fins, released landing legs and lit a single engine for a precision, controlled touchdown.
"We learned things," from the previous attempts, Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president for mission assurance, told reporters during a prelaunch press conference.
"SpaceX pushes innovation and part of that is to learn from your experiments, your trials. You look at the data, you evaluate this and then you make correction. That's ultimately how you succeed, in my opinion, to make a safe landing in the end," he said.