On its fifth attempt, SpaceX on Friday finally succeeded in landing its Falcon 9 rocket on a barge floating in the sea.
The achievement is a major step forward for the company as it seeks to build a reusable rocket system to significantly reduce the cost of future space missions.
Falcon 9’s historic landing was captured from a distance by a crew aboard a chase plane, though equally dramatic footage (below) came via a camera fixed to the rocket itself.
The rocket nailed the landing in “high winds,” according to a SpaceX tweet, and it’s certainly true that the water looks pretty choppy as the Falcon 9 touches down.
Look carefully and you can see the landing legs deploy just seconds prior to the flawless touchdown – the failure of one of these legs to properly deploy scuppered a previous barge-landing attempt earlier this year, causing the 70-meter-tall rocket to topple over and explode.
“Touchdown speed was ok but a leg lockout didn’t latch, so it tipped over after landing,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted at the time. In a follow-up message he joked that “at least the bits were bigger this time,” suggesting the landing was more controlled than earlier failed barge landings and that the team was heading toward finally nailing it.
A SpaceX spokesperson once compared the feat of landing a rocket back on Earth to “launching a pencil over the Empire State building and having it land on a shoebox on the other side…during a wind storm.”
The team has now achieved perfect touchdowns on both land and water, so its main task now is to ensure it can replicate the perfect landings every time.