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SpaceX announces ocean soft landing, lawsuit against Air Force

Elon Musk
Elon MuskPhoto by Alex Wong

Mashable reported on a Friday press conference at which SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced that the first stage of the Falcon 9 that launched the Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station successfully “soft landed” in Atlantic Ocean. This means that the stage touched down on the water in the upright position, with its landing legs deployed, at zero velocity. This feat has advanced the long term goal of the launch company to make its rockets reusable, thus cutting launch costs.

Unfortunately the Falcon 9 first stage subsequently broke up in the water thanks to strong seas. SpaceX was not able to acquire boat big enough to hunt down and recover the stage in safety, The Coast Guard refused a request to send one of its own ships out for safety reasons.

Still telemetry from multiple sources indicate that the landing was successful. SpaceX was able to recover pieces of the rocket, including one of the landing legs, for closer examination. The company intends to repeat the feat as part of an upcoming commercial launch, using a bigger boat to recover the first stage from the water. It may even be possible to refurbish the stage and reuse it.

In the fullness of time, SpaceX intends to land the first stage of the Falcon 9 on land. Musk stated that the first stage constitutes 70 percent of the cost of a launch. If his company can reuse the stage by landing it intact it will be able to cut launch costs considerably. Musk is confident that a landing on land can happen by the end of 2014.

The other announcement at the press conference concerned an action SpaceX is filing in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to force the United States Air Force to rescind a block agreement to buy 36 launches of the EELV launch vehicle from the United Launch Alliance, a competitor of SpaceX. According to Forbes, Musk would like the Air Force to wait until SpaceX is certified to launch national security payloads and then put the contract out on a competitive bid.