History made as SpaceX rocket launches and successfully lands on ocean drone

9 Apr 2016

It was a case of fifth time lucky for Elon Musk's SpaceX CRS-8 rocket which launched cargo into space before returning to land on a ship at sea

After multiple failed attempts, a vision for 21st century space travel was finally realised as the world witnessed a SpaceX rocket successfully launch a cargo capsule into space and then successfully return to dock on an ocean-going drone ship.

Witnessing the launch through a live Facebook video feed on Friday 8 April, there was a genuine moment where the world held its breath and there were fears the launch could be another disaster in the sky as flashes occurred and objects appeared to separate.

Minutes later, there were two things to witness: a cargo spacecraft en route to the International Space Station, while the rocket guided itself back down to Earth and landed on a drone ship on the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

What’s it all about?

At 4.43pm local time at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket with a mission of bringing a Dragon cargo capsule loaded with supplies and scientific experiments to the International Space Station. Among them is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), to be attached to the rear port of the Tranquility module for two years in order to test the validity of expandable habitats in deep-space exploration.

The successful launch was a vindication for SpaceX, a private space exploration company headed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, which in the past two years has had a number of unsuccessful launches and landings, including a rocket explosion in July 2015 and a crash landing at sea in January this year. 

On this occasion, Musk joked: “What was different about this [landing] is that the rocket landed instead of putting a hole in the ship or tipping over.”

The billionaires’ space race

The key achievement with this launch is that it shows rockets can be reused once they return to Earth, which can make space launches more frequent and less expensive.

“For half our missions, we will need to land out to sea. Anything beyond Earth is likely to need to land on the ship,” Musk said.

Musk’s SpaceX is in a race against other private ventures to master commercial space travel. Competitors include Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Virgin founder Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

“Reusability is important,” Musk emphasised. “It will take us a few years to make that efficient.”

CRS-8 Dragon Technical Webcast

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years