US company SpaceX sent a Falcon rocket soaring toward orbit on Monday night with 11 small satellites, its first mission since an accident last summer.
Then in an even more astounding feat, it landed the 15-storey leftover booster back on Earth safely.
It was the first time an unmanned rocket returned to land vertically at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and represented a tremendous success for SpaceX. The company led by billionaire Elon Musk is striving for reusability to drive launch costs down and open up space to more people.
“Welcome back, baby!” Mr Musk tweeted after touchdown.
“It’s a revolutionary moment,” Mr Musk later said. “No one has ever brought a booster, an orbital-class booster, back intact.”
What’s significant is that this was a useful mission, Mr Musk noted, not merely a practice flight. “We achieved recovery of the rocket in a mission that actually deployed 11 satellites,” he said.
SpaceX employees broke into cheers and chants, some of them jumping up and down, following the smooth touchdown nine minutes after liftoff. Previous landing attempts ended in fiery blasts, but those aimed for an ocean platform.
Mr Musk said he ran outside and heard the sonic boom of the returning booster just as it landed; he assumed it had exploded. He learned the happy truth when he went back into Launch Control and saw video of the standing rocket.
“I can’t quite believe it,” he said. “It’s quite shocking.”
Mr Musk said the landing appeared close to perfect and the company “could not have asked for a better mission or a better day.”
The top officer at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Brigadier General Wayne Monteith, noted that the returning booster “placed the exclamation mark on 2015”.
He said: “This was a first for us at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and I can’t even begin to describe the excitement the team feels right now having been a part of this historic first-stage rocket landing,”
SpaceX employees crammed into company headquarters in California, anxiously awaiting success. They cheered when the first stage separated cleanly and again louder when the rocket landed.