Skip to navigationSkip to content

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

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen at Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 4 East with the Jason-3 spacecraft onboard, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in California. Jason-3, an international mission led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will help continue U.S.-European satellite measurements of global ocean height changes.
NASA/Bill Ingalls
Commencing countdown, engines on.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

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.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.