Watch: SpaceX got even closer to landing a rocket on a drone ship—but it still ended in a giant fireball

Commencing countdown, engines on.
Commencing countdown, engines on.
Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls
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SpaceX’s quest for reusable rockets—specifically, to land them on sea-going drone ships—is all about steady improvement.

Today (Jan. 17), the company successfully launched an ocean-measuring satellite for NASA, and attempted to return the first stage of the rocket safely back to earth and land it on an unmanned ship floating off the California coast.

It was a fairly nice landing, but according to SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk, a “lockout collet” on one of the legs failed to engage, tilting the rocket over and causing an explosion.

But that’s definitely an improvement on this test from April 2015:

And on this test from January 2015:

In December, 2015, SpaceX became the first rocket company to land the first stage of a rocket back on earth after launching a satellite payload. That effort came just weeks after Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, successfully landed a test rocket that had flown to the edge of space.

Both companies are pursuing reusable rocket stages because they could significantly lower the cost of space access, opening up new economic possibilities in earth orbit and beyond.