SpaceX has finally launched a communications satellite into orbit after repeated delays but the operation’s planned landing on a barge in the middle of the ocean failed and the rocket was destroyed.
The Falcon 9 rocket was first due to launch on Wednesday 24 February, but this was postponed for a day to allow more time to chill the liquid oxygen needed to burn the fuel, amid speculation that bad weather also played a role.
The following Sunday resulted in a further launch delay just two minutes prior to lift-off due to technical issues.
On Friday, the 23-storey-tall Falcon 9 launched from its pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station just before midnight GMT. The operation’s primary goal, putting a Boeing-built satellite into orbit, was successful but the launch vehicle's reusable main-stage booster was destroyed when it failed to land itself on the ocean platform.
"Rocket landed hard," said Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX and Tesla, in a Twitter message more than an hour after blastoff. "Didn't expect this one to work ... but next flight has a good chance."
The ability to return the rocket's main stage safely and reliably to a landing pad at sea has been a key hurdle in Musk's quest to develop a relatively cheap, reusable launch vehicle.
The failure marks the fourth botched at-sea return landing attempt for SpaceX. One of those attempts was nearly successful, with the rocket successfully landing on the barge, although it immediately toppled and exploded once stationary.
A Falcon main-stage rocket has also achieved a successful ground-based touchdown after landing back to Earth following a less demanding launch in December.
Friday’s mission was particularly challenging, with the remit to deliver the 5,721kg satellite into an orbit more than 100 times higher than where the International Space Station flies.
The speed required to achieve that feat meant the rocket was going too fast to even attempt a ground landing.
SpaceX has contracts worth more than $10bn (£7bn) from commercial companies, Nasa and other agencies.