Before dawn on Friday morning, SpaceX launched a rocket carrying a Japanese communications satellite.
The mission was a total success, with the JCSAT-14 spacecraft safely reaching orbit about 30 minutes after the 1:21 a.m. ET launch.
Even more impressive, however, is that SpaceX successfully landed its Falcon 9 rocket booster on a drone ship floating a couple hundred miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The rocket carried the satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), which is approximately 25,000 miles above Earth.
But right before that, the SpaceX team did something incredible: It replicated its amazing April 8 feat of landing the first stage of the 229-foot-tall rocket on a robotic drone ship.
It’s only the second time in history that this has happened.
A difficult mission
The May 6 rocket-landing attempt was much more difficult than the previous one, too.
Lofting the satellite into GTO on Friday consumed far more liquid oxygen and kerosene fuel than the April 8 launch, which carried cargo and an inflatable room to the International Space Station (ISS) some 250 miles up — about 100 times closer to Earth.
You can see the JCSAT-14 satellite being released into orbit in the GIF below.
The nature of this launch means the first stage of the rocket was traveling thousands of miles per hour faster and had less fuel to attempt a landing on the drone ship, delightfully named “Of Course I Still Love You.”
SpaceX wasn’t very optimistic about sticking the booster landing. The company considered it a bonus mission it didn’t have to pull off, but one that would go a long way in achieving its long-term vision for spaceflight. It even stated that the extreme velocity and re-entry heating of the Falcon 9 made “a successful landing unlikely.”
Translation: We thought our rocket would most likely explode into bits when it tries to land itself.
But it worked!
You could hear the tension in the room at SpaceX mission control over a live webcast as the rocket came in for a landing.
The livestream flashed bright, everything invisible for a moment… And then things cleared, the rocket safely upright aboard “Of Course I Still Love You.”
Previously, Musk had expressed some distant hope that there might be a 50/50 chance of sticking the landing before the launch.
So after the landing he was thrilled.
Is that a bit of bragging?
Yes, but he certainly earned the right.
Why sticking the landing — again — was huge
This 229-foot-tall Falcon 9 rocket is a very odd bird.
Most rockets cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, yet are rendered as garbage the moment they launch. Instead of being recycled, they crash into the ocean and sink to the bottom after lofting a payload into orbit.
But SpaceX had already successfully landed the lower stage of a Falcon 9 rocket both on land and, most recently, on the “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship.
Tonight’s attempt was a much more difficult one.
This ocean landing has been attempted on about five separate occasions in the past year, with only one success prior to this one. This was the fourth Falcon 9 flight of this year.
The last time they attempted this landing after delivering a satellite into GTO — similar to this JCSAT-14 mission — the rocket landed hard and exploded on contact with SpaceX’s other drone ship, called “Just Read the Instructions.”
On another two occasions, it wasn’t possible to try and land the Falcon 9, since one rocket exploded shortly after launch and high seas prevented another landing attempt.
This time, SpaceX showed us a glimpse of the future.
Each Falcon 9 costs about $62 million. That SpaceX can land part of that hardware, clean it up, and refuel it for a future launch, makes this a history-making event, especially since this landing was significantly more difficult than the last one.
A second successful landing under more difficult circumstances helps demonstrate that we’re even closer to an era of spaceflight that’s radically less expensive.
spacex launch may 6 2016