The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elon Musk’s next trick: Landing a rocket upright on a barge in the middle of the sea.

And now for Elon Musk’s next trick.

The billionaire entrepreneur is on the verge of attempting an audacious maneuver that could make his next space flight notable not just for the takeoff, but for the landing.

Typically rocket boosters have their few minutes in the fiery, 3-2-1 spotlight, propelling the rest of the stages into the great beyond, before petering out and crashing unceremoniously into the sea.

But Musk thinks that ditching one of the most expensive parts of the rocket is an unnecessary waste.

So SpaceX, his startup space company, has designed a rocket he hopes will be able to launch, then return to Earth, touching down softly on the bullseye of a barge floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

Musk, the founder of Paypal and Tesla Motors, said that the odds of pulling off such an unprecedented feat “are not great—perhaps 50 percent at best.” But if SpaceX is able to one day stick the landing of the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket with consistency, it would mark a significant advancement for space flight.

For years, Musk has been working on a way to land and reuse rockets. In two previous launches this year, the company completed soft landings in the ocean, briefly hovering over the water before toppling over.

“Unfortunately, it sort of sat there for several seconds then tipped over and exploded,” Musk said during a forum at MIT in October. “It’s as tall as a 14-story building. When a 14-story building falls over, it’s quite a belly flop.”

On its next trip to resupply the International Space Station, scheduled for Jan. 6, SpaceX aims to land the rocket on a barge 300 feet long by 170 feet wide, using its engine thrust to slow down from a velocity of about 3,000 mph. In tests, the company has practiced launching the rocket hundreds to thousands of feet into the air and then reeling it back down slowly, as if tethered to kite string before landing square on the landing pad.

But stabilizing such a large rocket coming back from a great distance at high speeds isn’t easy —“like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm,” Musk said.

And rocket science is full of complexity and challenges that can foil even the best-laid plans. The launch from Cape Canaveral to ferry cargo to the International Space Station was originally scheduled for Dec. 19 but postponed because of a technical issue with the rocket, officials said.

If successful, it would be a significant achievement, said Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Space Flight Federation.

A reusable rocket “would change the game in space launch,” he said. “It would bring the cost down of launching things to space dramatically, and would open up new markets and new possibilities. While this first attempt should be looked at as mission improbable, if it does succeed, it will be historic.”

The attempt is part of Musk’s plan to develop the technology needed to colonize Mars. There are “no runways on Mars,” as he has said, meaning rockets would have to land using the thrust in their engines.

“You really have to get good at propulsive landing if you want to go somewhere other than Earth,” he said at the MIT forum.

SpaceX, based outside of Los Angeles, Calif., is only 12 years old but has grown quickly and has scored some key victories in a field long dominated by large, traditional contractors. It was the first commercial company hired by NASA to resupply the space station. Earlier this year, it won, along with Boeing, a contract to ferry astronauts to the space station. And it is suing the Air Force to allow it to compete for contracts to launch military satellites into space.

As his company has moved more into the mainstream, Musk has continued to push innovation, with the goal of making humans an “interplanetary species.” One of the main obstacles to that has been the prohibitive costs of space flight, driven in large part by the fact that hugely expensive rocket boosters are typically discarded once they’re used.

The ability to reuse rockets—as commercial airlines repeatedly reuse their aircraft—is ultimately what will make space travel possible, he said.

“Imagine if aircraft were single use, how many people would fly?” he said at the MIT forum. “Nobody’s paying half a billion dollars to fly from Boston to London.”

While SpaceX might not be successful this time, the company has about a dozen other launches for the government and commercial companies scheduled for this year. Musk said, “it’s quite likely” that the company would be able to make a successful landing on one of those.

“I think we’re close,” he said.