Launched into space earlier today, the first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has returned to earth and successfully landed on a droneship off the Florida Coast.
The landing is the fifth such attempt at a sea landing for SpaceX, the most recent of which resulted in failure when the rocket landed slightly off axis and erupted into a fiery blast.
Today's mission is significant for several reasons. Among the rocket's payload, bound for the International Space Station (ISS), is an inflatable habitat that could someday act as an additional room enabling astronauts to have larger living areas when in space. Having larger living spaces could potentially allow astronauts to extend their range of flight without forcing them to survive in tiny capsules. Equally groundbreaking is the successful retrieval of the first stage of the rocket, opening the door for reuse.
"The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off, carrying an inflatable space module that will be added to the station. NASA hopes this kind of expandable room in space could someday help astronauts get to Mars," reported NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. "As the rocket's second stage carried this cargo into orbit, the first stage did something unprecedented. It turned around, flew back to Earth and touched down vertically on a robotic barge floating off the coast of Florida."
The first stage, often referred to as the booster, contributes to the massive amount of thrust needed to push the rocket into space. Once out of the atmosphere, the first stages are ejected from the rocket and discarded. Often the most expensive part of the entire assemblage, having the ability to retrieve and reuse this stage of the rocket will go a long way to reducing the cost of space travel.
"The rocket landed instead of putting a hole in the ship or flipping over, so we're really excited about that," said SpaceX Founder and CEO Elon Musk. "The whole SpaceX team was super excited. They've all worked incredibly hard to get to this day.... Making the landing and re-flight easy is hard."
If Musk and SpaceX are successful in reusing their rockets, Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, believes the company could see an overall cost reduction of 30 percent for future launches.
"The next step for SpaceX would be to take a good look at this engine and stage and see what needs to be done," Stallmer told the L.A. Times.
Soon after news broke of the landing, President Barack Obama tweeted his praises to the SpaceX team. "Congrats SpaceX on landing a rocket at sea. It's because of innovators like you & NASA that America continues to lead in space exploration," Obama wrote on twitter.
The Flacon 9's payload is scheduled to dock with the ISS on Sunday, delivering nearly 7,000 pound of supplies. This mission is the eighth of 20 that SpaceX is contracted to fly for NASA to the ISS.