SpaceX’s Rocket Landings Have Quickly Transitioned From Mind-Boggling to Routine

One of the toughest engineering problems ever has been almost completely mastered in the matter of a year.

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Aug 15 2016, 4:00pm

Image: SpaceX

Early Sunday morning, I glanced at Twitter and saw that, yet again, SpaceX had successfully launched and landed one of its Falcon 9 rockets. I was surprised not because the company managed to pull off one of the more mind-boggling engineering problems ever devised, but because I had forgotten entirely that SpaceX was even launching that morning. "Cool," I thought. I didn't even bother bringing up the launch with my friends at the bar.

Admittedly, I kind of put SpaceX's impending launch into a separate compartment in my mind—the rocket landed at around 2 AM Eastern time, and I was at a wedding all night. But my blasé reaction is one I've seen all over Twitter, one that I've talked about with my coworkers: SpaceX has completely normalized the idea that once launched, rockets can and should autonomously land themselves on tiny little autonomous platforms floating in the middle of the ocean.

This is of course monumentally important, and has been the plan all along, but it's still kind of insane to think about. A year ago, no company or government had managed to land a vertical takeoff rocket (at least, not a large payload-carrying one like the Falcon 9). SpaceX had failed time and time again and was completely grounded following a failed resupply mission to the International Space Station. You could be forgiven for wondering if SpaceX's idea of landing rockets on drone barges simply wasn't feasible, like yes, you can hit the barge with the rocket, yes, you can make it look like it's almost going to land, but no, choppy waters and the sheer size of a rocket just won't let it happen. Good try, Elon, thanks for the cool explosion videos.

But then toward the end of 2015, SpaceX landed its rocket on a launching pad. And then it landed on the drone ship. Even then, there were questions—would the process be repeatable? Did conditions need to be absolutely perfect to pull it off? Can SpaceX land often enough to make this economically viable?

Sunday, SpaceX landed its sixth rocket. Landing can no longer be looked at as a fluke, it can be looked at as a triumph of science and tinkering. SpaceX's success bodes well not only for the future of reusable rockets, it also bodes well for other moonshots (sorry) involving algorithms. With each failure (and each success), Elon Musk and his team have taken important telemetry data that can be used to fine-tune landing algorithms for future launches, making them more likely to succeed. This is the same try it, check it, improve it process he's doing with Tesla's self-driving autopilot mode. We're learning—maybe unsurprisingly—that real-world data can make these systems much more reliable.

Of course, to truly usher in our reusable rocket future, SpaceX still needs to prove that it can actually relaunch its rockets. But it's already proven that it can take the challenge of landing a rocket and turn it from completely extraordinary into routine and mundane. And that alone is kind of nuts.