This Falcon 9 rocket has been through a lot. The rocket launched from Cape Canaveral on April 8, hauling the dragon capsule with its thousands of pounds of supplies borne for the International Space Station. It successfully dispatched the dragon capsule in low-space orbit, which has since linked up with the ISS, bringing the astronauts the first inflatable capsule that makes setting up space environments much easier. Then, the hard part began.
The 25-story-tall rocket, fresh off hurtling into space, had to turn around and come back home — backward. The rocket backed all the way down to the surface of the ocean, where it made an angled approach to a SpaceX drone ship. With boosters blasting, the rocket lowered itself onto the floating surface, and, for the first time, locked into place. It was SpaceX’s fifth try landing on a drone ship at sea, and the touchdown looked clean and practiced — a far cry from previous attempts.
The huge advantage of landing a rocket vertically is it allows the company to reuse much of the hardware, saving millions on building new first stages for each launch. So the Falcon 9 may have more adventures in its future, but for right now it’s just basking in the glow of accomplishment. An Instagram photo of the rocket, worn and weathered from its flight, but with the SpaceX logo still visible through a layer of soot, reminds us of how insane it is to launch to space and return ready to go back. Two tiny humans to the rocket’s right also offer a great sense of scale.
SpaceX is no doubt enjoying its hard-won victory, but like the Falcon 9 rocket in this image, the company’s goals go well beyond simply launching and landing rockets. With at least a dozen more launches to the ISS in the next couple of years, and, of course, the long-boasted goal of colonizing Mars within a decade, there’s a lot more game left to be played.