SpaceX Rocket Botches Landing At Sea After Successful Launch

One out of four isn't bad when you're trying to land a rocket vertically.

18/01/2016 9:16 AM AEDT | Updated 18/01/2016 9:57 PM AEDT

A third at-sea landing attempt proved not to be the charm for billionaire Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX.

On Sunday, SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket into orbit and deployed an international ocean-monitoring satellite, but was unable to safely land its 14-story booster on a drone ship off the California coast.

Sunday's failed attempt comes less than a month after SpaceX made history with an epic vertical landing of a Falcon 9 on land, just 6 miles from where it took off at Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was a moment Musk called "revolutionary" and a "critical step along the way to being able to establish a city on Mars."

Not surprisingly, landing the rockets on floating barges the size of football fields, however, has proven quite a challenge. SpaceX is zero for three in its attempts to do so.

"Unfortunately, we are not standing upright on the drone ship right now," a SpaceX commentator confirmed for the roughly 100,000 anxious viewers who had tuned into a live webcast but were unable to watch the landing attempt because of a last-minute video problem.

In the wake of Sunday's outcome, Musk explained what went wrong on Twitter:

Like previous missions, a successful landing was a secondary test objective, according to SpaceX. The first was to deploy the rocket's payload -- the Jason-3 satellite -- into low orbit, a task that officials said went smoothly.

The Jason-3 is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's newest tool for monitoring global sea surface height. Over the long term, it will help track global sea level rise and provide critical ocean information that forecasters need to predict hurricanes and other severe weather before they arrive onshore, according to NOAA.

"Jason-3 will take the pulse of our changing planet by gathering environmental intelligence from the world's oceans," Stephen Volz, assistant administrator for NOAA's Satellite and Information Service, said in a release. 

A SpaceX goal is to develop rockets that can be reused, ultimately making space flight cheaper. Landing the rockets on floating barges, like the one used Sunday and named "Just Read The Instructions," is safer than landing them on land and has a smaller environmental impact.

In fine form, a SpaceX commentator ended Sunday's webcast Sunday with a subtle tribute to musician David Bowie, who died Jan. 10 at age 69.

"So until we see you next time, I'd encourage you to look forward and to look up, for the stars look very different today," he said, quoting Bowie's 1969 song "Space Oddity."

See below for a the full webcast of SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch.

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