SpaceX just landed a rocket on a drone ship for the first time

At 4:43 pm EST, SpaceX successfully launched their next resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). In addition to a seamless launch, SpaceX landed the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket on an autonomous drone ship for the very first time.

This was SpaceX’s fifth landing attempt on a drone ship — all previous attempts ended in explosions. Although in December of last year, Elon Musk’s rocket company successfully landed their first rocket, but that recovery took place back on stable ground.

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Today’s rocket recovery was an entirely different beast. Soft-landing a rocket on a drone ship floating in the ocean is inherently more difficult than safely recovering a rocket on land.

Despite this increased complexity, SpaceX chooses to recover rockets on drone ships rather than stable landing pads for missions that require the rocket to move at a high velocity. Depending on the necessary velocity for that particular mission, and the mass of the payload SpaceX is carrying, there may not be sufficient fuel to bring the rocket back to land.

SpaceX first stage landing on Of Course I Still Love You

SpaceX first stage landing on Of Course I Still Love You

For these reasons, a drone ship away from land may be the only option for rocket recovery for certain missions.

Today’s landing took place on SpaceX’s drone ship named “Of Course I Still Love You,” a nod to ships in the late Iain Banks’ science fiction novels.

SpaceX's autonomous drone ship / Image courtesy of SpaceX

SpaceX’s autonomous drone ship / Image courtesy of SpaceX

Recovering a rocket is the first step toward rocket reusability. However, in order to make a subsequent launch cheaper, that same rocket must be able to launch again without much refurbishment.

It’s difficult to truly assess the condition of today’s recovered rocket just by looking at it. Further analysis is required to determine if this rocket can fly again.

While the landing of the rocket is an exciting milestone on the path to rocket reusability, the primary goal of today’s mission is to bring 7,000 pounds of important supplies to the crew on the ISS. This was the eighth of up to 20 missions to the ISS that SpaceX is contracted to fly for NASA.

BEAM inflation on the ISS / Image courtesy of NASA

BEAM inflation on the ISS / Image courtesy of NASA

Most notably, in the trunk of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule for this mission is Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable space habitat known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). BEAM will be attached to one of the nodes on the station and used to demonstrate expandable habitat technology in space.

Dragon is currently on its way to the station now and will arrive on Sunday morning. Eventually, when Dragon leaves ISS to return to Earth, it will bring down trash, critical science samples and failed hardware in need of repair.