Great moments in space cargo history: Sticking the barge landing

As we wrap up this week, we thought we’d end on a celebratory note in the waters of the Atlantic off Florida’s coast. Earlier this afternoon, the privately owned spaceflight company, SpaceX, launched an unmanned cargo capsule from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station using its Falcon 9 rocket — something that’s been done successfully several times before. The exciting and historic part came shortly after the launch.

As the initial booster stage of the Falcon 9 was jettisoned, it did not merely spash down like countless other rockets. Instead, it fired its engines again several times to turn itself around, slow itself down and then land vertically, using a retro rocket burn, on a tiny robotic barge in the middle of the vast ocean. The Falcon 9 had performed this incredibly complex engineering feat on dry land once before last year, but never on such a tiny target that was bobbing and weaving in the ocean swells.

Four other barge-landing attempts had come achingly close to success — most recently, in early March, a Falcon 9 booster landed exactly as planned, but one of its three stabilization legs failed to lock and the booster pitched over, destroying it. In today’s launch and landing, however, the legs performed perfectly and the rocket touched down gently and remained securely upright.

It’s an awesome engineering success that will make future cargo missions far more cost-effective through the reuse of the same boosters without the need for extensive refurbishing, as was the case with the now-retired NASA space shuttle reusable boosters, which used to splash down using a parachute system.

Check out this video showing the last few seconds of the Falcon 9’s powered landing, looking like something from a 1950s sci-fi movie. The precision and computing power required to stick this landing is an inspirational sight for air and space cargo futurists — and the coolest video you’ll see all week.

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