SpaceX achieved the first soft landing of its Starship spacecraft after a highly anticipated test flight on Thursday, in a major milestone for the project.
SpaceX engineers endured a nervous wait as remotely operated water hoses fought a three-storey tall methane blaze that licked up the side of the stainless steel spacecraft after it touched down on its landing legs at the company’s centre in Boca Chica, Texas.
Elon Musk, the company’s founder, told his Twitter followers that the landing was “nominal”, which is space talk for normal or acceptable.
The ambitious flight test programme has captivated space enthusiasts and scientists around the world, with tens of thousands of people tuning in to live streams covering the build-up to the flight.
Dozens of people watched from a safe distance as the SN15 prototype roared into the skies over southern Texas, before disappearing through a thick layer of cloud.
The prototype then climbed to an altitude of about 10 kilometres, executing the so-called belly-flop manoeuvre and orienting itself for landing.
After a flight that lasted just over six minutes, the Starship prototype landed close to the launch pad.
Bad weather forced the company to abandon the flight attempt twice.
All four previous flight tests have all ended in spectacular fashion.
The last prototype, SN11, took off in March into thick fog before exploding in mid-air during the landing procedure, showering the area with debris.
Another earlier prototype, SN10, landed successfully but exploded soon after touching down after a fire broke out around the cluster of engines.
Starship has been designed to carry humans and 100 tonnes of cargo on future missions to the Moon and Mars.
Last month, Nasa chose SpaceX to build a variant of the spacecraft to deliver astronauts to the Moon as early as 2024.
The $2.9 billion contract is suspended after two rival companies, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Dynetics, lodged a protest.
Under the Artemis programme, Nasa wants to use the Space Launch System rocket to send up four astronauts on board an Orion crew capsule, which will then dock with a lunar space station called Gateway.
A Starship will be waiting to receive two crew members for the final leg of the journey to the surface of the Moon.
A first orbital Starship flight is planned for this year.
The next Starship prototype, SN16, has already been built and is believed to be next to fly.