SpaceX was hoping to nail its fourth experimental landing in a row of a used rocket on a drone ship at sea, but it looks like that streak will remain at three for now.
"It appears as though we lost a vehicle," said SpaceX engineer Kate Tice on the company's live webcast of the Wednesday mission, which actually had a primary charge of hauling two new satellites toward orbit aboard one of the company's Falcon 9 rockets.
That mission was proceeding normally as the webcast concluded just after 8 a.m. PT. But the space nerds of the world were equally or more interested in the secondary mission of the day, which was to successfully land the first stage of the rocket safely on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
About 10 minutes after the Wednesday morning launch, as the Falcon 9 first stage was approaching an autonomous landing pad barge named "Of Course I Still Love You" in the Atlantic Ocean, you could see large amounts of smoke and then the live video feed dropped. SpaceX later confirmed that the vehicle had been lost.
The first stage of the Falcon 9 separated from the rest of the rocket after just a couple of minutes of pushing the whole package out of Earth's gravity well.
Until this decade, all rocket stages typically fell into the ocean, never to fly again. But the Falcon 9 stage instead navigated itself to where it then attempted a soft landing in order to be recovered, re-conditioned and ultimately re-launched.
SpaceX saw its first handful of attempts at the experimental rocket landing at sea end in dramatic explosions before finally getting the process down and sticking the last three in a row. The company has also successfully landed a rocket on dry land at Cape Canaveral following a successful mission.
The whole idea behind retrieving used rockets is part of what SpaceX calls "rapid reusability," which it hopes will drive down to cost of getting to space and enable Musk's far more ambitious goal of becoming a "multi-planetary species." Musk and SpaceX recently unveiled more details about that plan and getting humans on Mars in under a decade from now.