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Why It’s So Exciting That SpaceX Finally Landed a Rocket on a Drone Ship

"I'm a boat captain!"

Falcon 9 rocket first stage on drone ship

On Friday, SpaceX made history (again) by landing the first stage of one of its Falcon 9 rockets on a robotically controlled ship (named Of Course I Still Love You) in the middle of the ocean. With the private spaceflight company, along with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, landing rockets previously, let’s take a few minutes to remember what’s so special about this one—aside from the sheer “because we can” of a robot ship playing catch with a space rocket.

It all comes down to practicality, which is what reusable rockets are all about in the first place. Yes, I’m about to explain how the seemingly complicated ocean-based landing system is actually more practical than ground-based landing methods; bear with me. SpaceX’s previous successful landing after launching a satellite into orbit, back in December, set the rocket down on land. Blue Origin’s landings from putting its New Shepard crew capsule just beyond the boundary of space have done the same.

As impressive as it seems to land a rocket back where it started from, it’s also kind of a waste. To get to space, rockets have to be moving pretty quickly—around 2,800 mph in Blue Origin’s case—but to put payloads into orbit and beyond, they don’t go straight up and back down, instead taking a parabolic trajectory that puts them a good horizontal distance away from their initial launch site. To touch back down where they came from—or even on land at all—it’d take a much larger amount of fuel to turn all that momentum around. It’s kind of like how your parents weren’t really going to turn the car around if you didn’t behave, because that’s more trouble than it’s worth—only with rockets and significantly more expensive fuel.

However, with the ability to go through an automated landing at sea, SpaceX’s rockets can be truly reusable and land wherever the optimal landing site happens to be. When the entire point of reusable rockets is saving money, greatly reducing the necessary amount of fuel is a big deal. Saving money might not sound like the most thrilling thing about advancements in space travel, but it’s the real hurdle in making more ubiquitous use of the final frontier, and this is yet another important step towards that dream.

Still, the significance of this landing shouldn’t be overstated, either. All other factors aside, one successful landing after a string of failures doesn’t mean we can suddenly depend on the drone ship landings. Then, you have to remember that the weather was pretty favorable for the landing, and that won’t always be the case. We’ll need reliable success under a variety of conditions. Speaking of success, SpaceX still needs to examine the rocket and test its ability to be reused before declaring a truly successful landing, so it’s best not to get ahead of ourselves, but the landing was a thrilling sight to behold all the same.

If you missed the landing live, you can relive the excitement by watching a replay of the launch event here (high-res footage here), or you can just skip to the landing part below with an excellent (if NSFW—headphones, people) music selection:

the soup I'm a boat captain gif with spacex rocket

Let’s hope for more landings like this to come.

(featured image via SpaceX)

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