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It’s ‘harder to land on a ship,’ SpaceX CEO says after rocket explodes on touchdown

“Definitely harder to land on a ship.” So said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk after his Falcon 9 rocket crashed and burned in the company’s third attempt at landing it on a giant barge floating in the sea.

After successfully deploying NASA’s Jason-3 ocean-monitoring satellite on Sunday following a smooth launch from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, all eyes were on whether SpaceX could repeat last month’s flawless Falcon 9 touchdown on land.

The private space company broadcast the launch live on its YouTube channel, but as the Falcon 9 descended upon the barge floating 200 miles off the California coast, the video feed cut out. Minutes later, SpaceX reported that its rocket – an older version of the one used last month – had experienced a “hard landing,” which most observers took to mean only one thing.

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Initially the company said the touchdown had been so hard it broke one of the Falcon 9’s four landing legs, causing the 69-meter-tall rocket to topple over and explode. However, Musk later clarified events, explaining the leg had failed to deploy in the seconds prior to landing, meaning that however gentle the touchdown, it was almost certain to come crashing down.

“Touchdown speed was ok but a leg lockout didn’t latch, so it tipped over after landing,” Musk tweeted.

In another message, he quipped that “at least the bits were bigger this time,” suggesting the landing was more controlled than last year’s two sea-landing efforts that also ended in sizable explosions following heavy landings on the barge’s deck.

Despite the setback, Musk said he felt “optimistic” about a future attempt at landing a SpaceX rocket in this way. Certainly, if today’s failed effort is confirmed to have been the result of a technical problem with one of the landing legs rather than an issue related to the challenge of coming down on a relatively unstable floating barge, then SpaceX should have a decent chance of nailing such a landing next time around.

The Falcon 9 project is part of SpaceX’s ambition to create a reusable rocket system to take space travel into a new era of affordability and efficiency. Having achieved the touchdown on land at the end of 2015, the team is confident of reaching its ultimate goal.