Help Shape the Future of Space Exploration

Join The Planetary Society Now  arrow.png

Join our eNewsletter for updates & action alerts

    Please leave this field empty

Jason Davis headshot v.3

Watch the Incredible 'Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly' of SpaceX's Falcon 9 Rocket

Posted by Jason Davis

16-01-2015 10:01 CST

Topics: commercial spaceflight, future technology, rockets

Last Saturday, SpaceX made an ambitious attempt to land the spent core stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on an autonomous drone ship landing pad in the Atlantic Ocean. CEO Elon Musk placed the odds of success at just 50 percent, later clarifying that the 50-50 estimate was just a guess. The experimental landing effort occurred during the company's fifth paid Dragon spacecraft cargo run to the International Space Station. Dragon arrived safely at the station on Monday morning.

Following first stage separation, the Falcon 9 used a series of engine burns to adjust its course for landing. While the rocket made it to the landing pad, the grid fins used to control its descent ran out of hydraulic fluid. The stage lost control and crashed. All in all, it was an impressive feat, and SpaceX intends to try again until they stick the landing.

SpaceX released this Vine video of the landing this morning:

Late last night, Musk tweeted four images of the rocket impacting the landing pad, taken by a camera aboard the drone ship. Here is a video combining all four frames:

SpaceX / Elon Musk via Twitter / Animation by Jason Davis

Falcon 9 Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly
This animation was created using four photos of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket impacting its autonomous drone ship spaceport. The photos have been cropped and edited for color matching.

And here's the above video in a lower-resolution animated GIF:

Falcon 9 impacts the drone ship

SpaceX / Elon Musk via Twitter / Animation by Jason Davis

Falcon 9 impacts the drone ship

Musk called the event a "rapid unscheduled disassembly," a possible tongue-in-cheek reference to NASA and other rocket providers' penchant for using obtuse terminology to describe rocket disasters.

Here are all four of Musk's tweets, along with an explanation of each frame. 

See other posts from January 2015


Or read more blog entries about: commercial spaceflight, future technology, rockets


Nimo: 01/16/2015 01:24 CST

"rapid unscheduled disassembly" seems a little bit ugh, how to appropriately say this, underestimating the extant that it doesn't work. I mean, if elon musk was going for the award for the most spectacular failed rocket launch, he totally get's first place, he showed up Orbital Science's dinky explosion and not even the russians failed rocket looked that intensely bad, but it kind of goes to reinforce what people have been saying - that Elon Musk is all talk and taking public tax money away from NASA for the sake of 'free market competition' isn't really worth it.

pizza the hut: 01/16/2015 01:42 CST

@Nimo Huh? Failure how? You do realize the primary mission was a success right? You know, the important part... They succeeded in guiding a nearly spent 1st stage to within a few meters of the target landing....and it was also not tumbling wildly out of control by the looks of it. This has only been attempted 2 other times and its still a work in progress. I have no idea what piece of coal was lodged up your backside, but you should think about having it removed.

lilserf: 01/16/2015 01:45 CST

Nimo, you seem to be underestimating the engineering achievement on display here, regardless of the final landing. Returning the first stage of a rocket, through supersonic deceleration, to an area 300x100 feet, in any kind of controlled flight, is absurdly hard (and as far as I know, has never been done before). Previous tests were trying to hit an area 10km wide - this is orders of magnitude more precise than that. Not to mention the fact that this attempt didn't cost NASA a dime - SpaceX has a contract to deliver Dragon capsules to the ISS. They delivered the capsule, then conducted this landing experiment afterward purely as an R&D step towards eventual full reusability. The launch cost NASA the same amount whether SpaceX performed this test or not. In the end, this was planned all along as a low-success-chance next-step in SpaceX's work toward a fully reusable first stage. They learned something from it, and the next attempt will have a better chance of success. For lots of technical detail, see

dixonpete: 01/16/2015 01:47 CST

Exactly, this was the first ever attempt at a rocket landing after a successful mission. It represents amazing progress. But haters gotta hate eh?

Sean: 01/16/2015 02:04 CST

@Nimo It also helps to read the words when attempting to understand a story. FWIW - the video has nothing to do with a rocket 'launch' either.

dar7yl: 01/16/2015 04:26 CST

This was a very successful experiment. The unsuccessful experiment is the one that meets 100% of its objectives and gives no new information.

dwightlooi: 01/16/2015 04:43 CST

Let's put a few things into perspective... The Minuteman III ICBM has a CEP of 200m that means that 50% of the missiles fired will put the MIRV warhead within 200m of the aimpoint. The other 50% will fall outside of that circle. The Trident II SLBM has a 90 m. What SpaceX is doing is putting not 50% but 100% of the spent boosters within a box 100 m x 30 m about 300km downrange after it has sent it's payload on the way to orbit, turned 180 degrees, did a supersonic retro burn, re-entered the atmosphere, guided itself with fins at supersonic speeds, performed a hover burn, and then set it down gently at near zero velocity oriented perfectly upright. That is a guidance feat that has never been done before -- militarily or in space flight by any country at any time in human history. This is arguably harder than landing a probe on Mars. That they were successful in every way expect the zero velocity and perfectly upright part on the first attempt with hardware in this configuration is miraculous!

ethanol: 01/16/2015 06:15 CST

Others have appropriately criticized Nimo's confusion between launch and landing, but I thought that this part of his comment also deserves some attention: "taking public tax money away from NASA for the sake of 'free market competition' isn't really worth it." This represents an unfortunately common misconception about the new commercial contracts, and about what preceded them. Whether they had a major part in design (space shuttle) or a minor part (Atlas V) NASA has always, at least in the modern era, built vehicles and carried out launches through contractors, paid out of its budget. What's changing is the nature of the contract, and the new system actually holds the launch provider to a higher level of responsibility, generally at a lower cost. People complaining that now we pay these corporations to launch things into space - instead of NASA- long for a era which never existed. What you are actually advocating is a return to the good old days of costs+ contracts with monolithic launch providers.

KarenMichelle: 01/18/2015 12:37 CST

SpaceX had a wonderfully successful multi-purpose launch 6 days ago. CRS-5 - The SpaceX Dragon resupply capsule was delivered to orbit and mated to the ISS. "Filled with more than 5,000 pounds of supplies and payloads, including critical materials to support 256 science and research investigations that will occur during Expeditions 42 and 43. Science payloads will enable model organism research using fruit flies and will study flatworms to better understand wound healing in space. A special science payload is the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System which will monitor cloud and aerosol coverage which directly impacts global climate. The mission also delivers an IMAX camera for filming during four increments and tools that will be used in future EVA’s to prepare the station for the installation of the new international docking adapters. After four weeks at the space station, the spacecraft will return with more than 3,600 pounds of cargo, including crew supplies, hardware and computer resources, science experiments, space station hardware, and trash." Additionally, and of great interest to space access customers all over the globe, was the very 1st attempt to land an expended 1st stage on a ocean-going landing platform. There are so many 1st in this 2nd phase of the mission as to defy the odds. The landing happened with a bit of a bang [with an accompanying explosion] as the hydraulic fluid needed for the upper 1st stage stabilization fins ran out of fluid. This bodes well for a future landing attempts with the next CRS resupply launch. The future of space launches is being made quietly by SpaceX. The 1sts that will change access to space include, landing a 1st stage [anywhere], guided descent of a 1st stage to the surface, the use of a ocean landing platform, a dry landing [model] as oppose to a salt water landing which destroys the expensive merlin engines, an erect landing on legs, and in the near future, after being refurbished, reusing the 1st stage versus using a new assembly. We've been looking at this access model since the Sci Fiction movies of the 50's and now it is on our doorstep. Congratulations, SpaceX and God Speed.

MichaelB: 01/18/2015 07:10 CST

I agree that "Unscheduled Disassembly" is an interesting term for crash (i'll be sure to use that term sometime). But I disagree that it was was a failure it seems to me that it was a success in that it proved that the concept is sound. I'm not a rocket scientist (sic) but it may help to at sometime in the decent to deploy drone chutes to reduce the fuel consumption and work of stabilizing the booster.

Klapaucius: 01/19/2015 10:31 CST

The term itself may very well come from the game "Kerbal Space Program" which was praised by Mr. Musk in the past. Exploding rockets and such events are not unknown in that game, maybe a tad bit more often than in real life. Regardless, the achievments of SpaceX so far and their visions of space technology are impressive. When I saw their first video about the reusable core and second stage concept it looked like the usual CGI magic any marketing guy can come up with... two years later and they are _this_ close to the first major milestone. I can't find words. If anyone will build the spaceship I dreamt about in when I was 8 in my lifetime it's SpaceX. Maybe I should start secretly dreaming about something bigger in hope they will build those for my kids. :)

Doucet: 01/20/2015 08:13 CST

Well, not everything works first go around, and without the hydraulic fail I believe this would have been a success. Good attempt ladies and gentleman of SpaceX. Not an easy job to do...I'm excited to see future attempts.

Bob Ware: 01/22/2015 10:17 CST

Congratulations to SpaceX! They learned so much on this APOLLO 13 class mission, "A successful failure" and they let the world see it. The problem is understood and can be easily fixed. This flight is a true success! The accomplishments were listed above so I do not need to repeat them. SpaceX had a great success with this flight! @MichaelB -- the parachute idea sounds great to assist in the landing as a fuel saver however stabilization by parachute doesn't happen and that approach would burn more fuel trying to offset the chutes drift. Also, the exhaust heat would be detrimental to the chutes. You don't want melting chute to clog RCS (thruster) ports. That mess would also affect the flight characteristics of the booster (1st stage). SpaceX's steering veins (fins) are the answer to FCS (Flight Control Surface) needs.

Leave a Comment:

You must be logged in to submit a comment. Log in now.
Facebook Twitter Email RSS AddThis

Blog Search

Planetary Defense

An asteroid or comet headed for Earth is the only large-scale natural disaster we can prevent. Working together to fund our Shoemaker NEO Grants for astronomers, we can help save the world.


Featured Images

Jupiter from Juno at Perijove #4
Jupiter in approximate true color during Juno perijove 4
More Images

Featured Video

Class 9: Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune

Watch Now

Space in Images

Pretty pictures and
awe-inspiring science.

See More

Join The Planetary Society

Let’s explore the cosmos together!

Become a Member

Connect With Us

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more…
Continue the conversation with our online community!