How SpaceX reusable rockets return to earth from space

These snippets come from my book “Innovate Like Elon Musk.” It’s available on Amazonmy webstore (if you’re in South Africa),, or in South African bookstores (Bargain Books, Exclusive Books, Protea, etc.)

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The Falcon 9 rocket is designed to land its first stage, enabling its reusability. SpaceX has developed two primary methods for landing the Falcon 9 first stage: landing on land and landing on an autonomous drone ship.

Landing on Land:

a. As the first stage approaches the Earth’s atmosphere after stage separation, it reorients itself using its grid fins for stability and control. This maneuver is known as a boostback burn.

b. The rocket performs a reentry burn, firing three of its Merlin engines to slow down and control its descent through the atmosphere.

c. Next, the first stage executes a landing burn, igniting one or more of its engines to decelerate and make a controlled landing.

d. The rocket extends its landing legs just before touchdown to provide stability during the landing.

e. Finally, the first stage lands vertically on a designated landing pad, typically located at SpaceX’s landing zones, such as Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida or Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

Landing on Autonomous Drone Ship:

a. In some cases, due to the mission requirements or the trajectory of the rocket, it may not be feasible or efficient to return to a land-based landing pad. In such instances, SpaceX employs an autonomous drone ship, which acts as a mobile landing platform.

b. The process of landing on a drone ship is similar to landing on land. After stage separation, the first stage reorients itself and performs a boostback burn.

c. As the rocket descends through the atmosphere, it executes a reentry and landing burn, just like in the land-based landing procedure.

d. The drone ship, equipped with specialized landing pads and stabilization systems, is stationed in the ocean at a predetermined location.

e. The first stage carefully touches down vertically on the drone ship, using its landing legs for stability.

f. SpaceX has named their drone ships “Of Course I Still Love You” (OCISLY) and “Just Read the Instructions” (JRTI). It’s important to note that not all Falcon 9 missions include attempts to land the first stage. Certain mission profiles, such as delivering particularly heavy payloads or launching to higher orbits, require more propellant and may not leave enough fuel for the first stage to safely return to Earth. In such cases, the first stage is expended, meaning it is not recovered or reused.