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So Close! Watch SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Rocket Land on a Ship

Image: SpaceX Falcon descent
The first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket descends toward a landing ship in an image captured on Tuesday from a chase plane. SpaceX via Elon Musk

SpaceX came oh-so-close to setting the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket down unharmed on an oceangoing platform on Tuesday, as revealed in an amazing video.

The chase-plane footage shows the rocket firing its Merlin engines as it descends toward an autonomous spaceport drone ship that was christened "Just Read the Instructions." You can see the stage leaning to one side, then the other, just as it lands on the deck.

SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, reports that the rocket stage didn't survive the landing, due to "excess lateral velocity" that led to a tip-over. But you don't see the kaboom in the video clip.

The good news is that the Falcon 9 achieved its primary mission: sending SpaceX's Dragon capsule into orbit with 4,300 pounds (1,950 kilograms) of supplies and equipment for the International Space Station. And Musk says there's an 80 percent chance that the landing maneuver will be successful by the end of the year.

The recovery routine is a key part of Musk's strategy to make rockets more reusable and drive down the cost of access to space.

"If this works, I'm treating myself to a volcano lair," Musk tweeted, referring to Dr. Evil's secret HQ in the "Austin Powers" movies. "It's time."

Update for 5 p.m. ET April 15: A sharper, longer video shows the kaboom:

Update for 5:30 p.m. ET April 15: Defense News quotes SpaceX's president, Gwynne Shotwell, as saying that the company hopes its next rocket landing attempt will take place on land, and not at sea. SpaceX reportedly believes that having the stability of a landing pad on terra firma (vs. the instability of a floating platform) would boost the chances of success.

There's a risk factor, in that any kaboom would occur over land rather than more than 100 miles offshore in the Atlantic, but Defense News quotes Shotwell as saying "the risk of damage to the public [during] ascent is far greater than [during] return."

The next opportunity for a rocket landing could come as early as June, when SpaceX is due to launch another shipment to the space station on a Falcon 9.