They tuned in by the tens of thousands, crowding around their screens the way residents of the Florida Space Coast once jammed the beaches to witness rocket launches at the dawn of the Space Age.
But the audience watching SpaceX’s live web broadcast of its launch from Cape Canaveral on Friday was treated to a show that until just a few years ago was widely discounted as impossible — the vertical landing of the Falcon 9 rocket, which used its engine thrust to slow down and touch softly on a boat in the Atlantic Ocean.
On Sunday morning, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft caught up to the International Space Station. Flying at 17,500 mph, the spacecraft pulled up alongside the orbiting laboratory, and at 7:23 a.m., European astronaut Tim Peake grabbed it using a robotic arm.
“It looks like we caught a Dragon,” he said.
While the main mission was to deliver food and cargo to the station, it was the landing at sea that was hailed as a breakthrough.
President Obama, whose administration followed through with controversial plans to retire the space shuttle and contract out missions to the space station, tweeted his congratulations. And employees at SpaceX, which earlier had made four unsuccessful sea landing attempts, went wild, thrilled at pulling off yet another feat.
Buzz Aldrin cheered on SpaceX. So did Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator who helped spearhead the effort within the agency to help stand up a new commercial space industry by awarding lucrative contracts to help companies develop their spacecraft.
They understood the significance of the landing for the commercial space industry: that being able to recover rockets — instead of discarding them into the sea, as was the practice for decades — could help to dramatically lower the cost of spaceflight and eventually open it up to the masses. In December, SpaceX landed its first stage on a landing pad it had built at Cape Canaveral.
But this time, the event — and that extra bit of daring by landing it on a boat — reverberated well beyond the space community. Actress Mia Farrow and director Jon Favreau tweeted their congrats. On her MSNBC broadcast, Rachel Maddow started off the segment by saying, “So here’s an incredible thing that happened today. You just kind of have to see it. It’s amazing.”