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SpaceX finally nails landing on drone ship, one giant step for reusable rockets

After the first four attempts ended with explosions, Elon Musk's rocket company makes history Friday off the coast of Florida.

A Falcon 9 rocket stands atop a SpaceX drone barge in the Atlantic Ocean.
Video screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

There's a lonely Falcon 9 rocket standing proudly by itself atop an autonomous landing pad barge in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean right now. The rocket is the first in history to complete a space mission and then land in one, recoverable piece at sea.

SpaceX's four previous attempts to use one of its drone barges to retrieve a rocket all ended in dramatic and fiery explosions.

Being able to retrieve and recycle rockets is a big part of the commercial space flight company's plan to drive down the cost of accessing space. Most rockets have typically fallen into the ocean after just one use, never to fly again.

SpaceX successfully launched its Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station atop the Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Friday at about 1:45 p.m. PT. The drone landing took place about 10 minutes later.

The Falcon 9 reached a top speed of over 4,000 miles per hour during launch and then had to be slowed down on its return to Earth and guided to "Of Course I Still Love You," the name of the drone ship landing pad that was waiting off the coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Dragon module is performing a cargo resupply mission to the space station, carrying a number of science experiments -- including a delivery of live mice -- to be received by the space station astronauts.

If the resupply mission goes off without any problems and the Dragon is successfully captured by the Space Station crew on Sunday, it will likely be as important a success for SpaceX as the drone landing. The company's last planned resupply mission exploded just after launch last June.

SpaceX also successfully landed a rocket on land following a successful mission in December.
But landing ashore isn't always practical or possible.