A Blog by Nadia Drake

SpaceX Rocket Makes Spectacular Landing on Drone Ship

GIF of SpaceX rocket landing on an autonomous barge.
The fifth try was a charm for SpaceX, with the first stage section of their Falcon 9 rocket successfully landing on a ship after propelling the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.

SpaceX launched a bouncy house to the International Space Station on Friday—and then successfully turned the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket around, flew it back to Earth, and parked it on a drone ship floating 185 miles (300 kilometers) off the U.S. East Coast. It’s the first time anyone has done this, and it signals a step forward in making spaceflight significantly cheaper.

“The rocket landed instead of putting a hole in the ship, or tipping over, so we’re really excited about that,” said SpaceX founder Elon Musk at a press conference after the landing.

After launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the SpaceX rocket boosted its payload-carrying Dragon capsule toward low Earth orbit, then turned around and headed for home about 4.5 minutes after launch. As it approached the drone ship, named “Of Course I Still Love You,” the Falcon 9 righted itself, slowed down, and landed perfectly.

“The 1st stage of the Falcon 9 just landed on our ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ droneship. Dragon in good orbit,” Space X tweeted, in what must be the most understated announcement of the successful landing to cross our feed.

To space and back, in less than nine minutes? Hello, future.

It’s the fifth time SpaceX has tried to park a rocket on a ship; in 2015, the company successfully set a rocket back down on the ground, but landing at sea is much trickier than landing on…land…because the ocean is a moving beast. Previous attempts failed when earlier rockets toppled over and experienced a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” (i.e., they exploded).

Musk said that before today’s launch, company members were placing the odds of success at 2:1. “We thought it was more likely than not that this mission would work, but still probably have a 1/3 chance of failure,” Musk said. “It’s still quite tricky to land on a ship…it’s quite a tiny target.”

The name of the game here is making spaceflight cheaper by developing reusable rockets that can ferry people and cargo into orbit, instead of spending millions of dollars building new launch rockets. Blue Origin, a company owned by Jeff Bezos, is also working on reusable rocket systems, and has successfully landed its New Shepard rocket on the ground multiple times.

17 thoughts on “SpaceX Rocket Makes Spectacular Landing on Drone Ship

  1. I always have to pinch my self and remind my self we are watching a 15 storie structure land itself on its 3m wide ass..

    Think on just how tall a 15 floor building is and marvel….

  2. Mr. Musk–and the team at SpaceX–don’t make me proud to be an American. They make me proud to be a human being. So excited for the future of our species.

  3. Well done SpaceX team, awesome engineering. Way to go. Admire your invovation and creativity. Society needs your engineering talent and leadership. Congrats.

  4. Plot twist: the clip is reversed. In all seriousness, though, this is sensational! It’s only been a few decades since we put a man in the moon for the very first time, and we’re already engineering rockets which can land on their feet. My goodness, I’m 21 years of age and I used to think that mankind was at the peak of its creativity and ingenuity, but this shows we are far from reaching our full potential.

    1. I’m 58, and well remember being glued to the TV set for the Apollo missions when I was a child. This is seriously comparable to that.

      The Lunar Module was a small spacecraft that landed on a solid surface that is 1/6 Earth’s gravity in a vacuum. Human pilots were needed to guide it to a flat landing spot where there were no boulders or craters that could cause it to tip over.

      The Falcon 9 is a huge rocket that has to land in Earth’s gravity, and has to hit a small target perfectly. It has to cope with wind and waves. Both Falcon 9 and the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship are entirely unmanned and automated. The Falcon 9 flew itself down, and the ASDS had to maintain a precise position to make the landing possible.

      Somebody described it as like hitting a postage stamp with a bullet from a mile away, except that the bullet has to stop on the stamp, and not go through it.

      This could not have been done 50 years ago. The computing power didn’t exist.

  5. Hi Nadia

    I watched this live, but thank you so much for posting in your so-easy-to-find blog. Do you happen to know how this assembly is brought to shore and how long the travel time is? The booster looks incredibly fragile & unstable protruding up from the heaving, seemingly-tiny barge deck…

    Best Regards, Harry

    1. I believe they have a team which comes on this ship after the first stage has landed, and they weld “shoes” to the deck over the pads on the landing legs. That keeps it from toppling over. IIRC it takes about 2 days to get the stage back to land. One of the possibilities being explored is to fuel it on the ship, then fly back to land.

  6. This is great and it was only a matter of time, but the time Earth has is quickly being reduced by the environmental impact. We won’t need landing pads but new destinations.

  7. This really is a big deal, isn’t it- much more so than some of the more obviously spectacular stuff that makes headlines.

  8. Back in the sixties, when I was a child, I watched cartoons with scenes similar to this one. I am amazed that this is really happening. Best regards

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