Take a moment to gaze upon the haunting photo below, which SpaceX published to its Flickr account on Wednesday.
It shows the lower half of the Falcon 9 rocket, also called a booster or first stage, moments before sticking a perfect landing on the (comically named) “Just Read the Instructions” droneship in the Pacific Ocean.
Sharp, backlit shadows – cast by sunlight striking the booster’s landing struts – cut through the noxious fog of rocket exhaust, perfectly and accidentally lining up with the ship’s circular “bullseye” target:
The photo is not only beautiful but doubly meaningful for SpaceX.
In the minutes before it was taken on January 14, the booster launched from Vandenberg, Calif. and pushed a second-stage rocket toward space, helping to deliver 10 new Iridium communications satellites into orbit around Earth at once.
No other company is currently launching payloads into orbit and rescuing (very expensive) sections of their rockets; the norm is to allow tens of millions of dollars’ worth of aerospace engineering fall back to Earth, slam into the ocean, and sink to the bottom. Once SpaceX – or a rising competitor like Blue Origin – proves it can reuse these orbital rocket boosters, the cost of access to space could begin a dramatic downward slope.
But the photo also represents a big sigh of relief for SpaceX, which had a rough year in 2016.
Everything started off well enough: The company successfully launched Falcon 9 rockets and landed five of their boosters. But on September 1, a Falcon 9 rocket exploded into a fireball during a routine launchpad test, destroying a satellite that Facebook had intended to lease. SpaceX founder and tech entrepreneur Elon Musk later called the accident “the most difficult and complex failure” in his company’s history.
By the time an investigation nailed down the cause and a fix, SpaceX had lost a customer, 4 months’ worth of launch window, and a quarter of a billion dollars.
So with the company’s flawless Jan. 14 launch, SpaceX has a lot to celebrate, and the photo is a fitting trophy.
However, Musk and his company are not out of the spaceflight woods yet. This is only the first of 70 launches, worth an estimated $10 billion, that SpaceX has booked in the coming years. The company is also due to debut its more powerful three-rocket Falcon Heavy launch system later this year, launch its first human passengers into space in 2018 aboard the Dragon capsule, and begin blanketing the entire planet in high-speed internet.
At stake? Nothing less than Musk’s human conquest of Mars.