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.