Elon Musk's SpaceX said its Falcon 9 booster had a "hard landing" and broke a landing leg on a drone ship in the Pacific Ocean minutes after lofting a satellite into orbit.
"Touchdown speed was OK, but a leg lockout didn't latch, so it tipped over after landing," Musk said in a tweet. The company didn't release more details immediately.
The damage left Space Exploration Technologies Corp. short of a clearly successful touchdown on a drone ship. Such a landing would offer greater flexibility, given the potential for land-based space ports to become crowded. Two previous attempts failed, while another had to be called off because of rough seas.
"Definitely harder to land on a ship," Musk tweeted. "Much smaller target area."
The two-stage rocket lifted off in a fog from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at about 10:42 a.m. local time. The payload was the Jason-3 satellite, a project led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and two European partners. Jason-3 will track sea-level change for purposes such as improved hurricane forecasting.
Booster rockets have typically been left to tumble back to Earth after launch, leaving them broken up by the intense heat of re-entering the atmosphere. Landing them upright may help winnow the cost of access to space by a hundredfold, Musk has estimated, because the bulk of launch costs comes from building a rocket that flies only once.
Recycling engines and the Falcon 9's 14-story, aluminum- lithium alloy first stage also may enable SpaceX, already the cheapest launch provider in its category, to further undercut U.S. and European rivals.
SpaceX's primary mission Sunday was to send the Jason-3 satellite into orbit.
"After a successful SpaceX Falcon 9 launch and ascent including two burns by the rocket's second stage engine, the Jason-3 spacecraft has separated and is flying free," said Michael Curie of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in an e-mail.
But SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California, had the secondary goal of sticking the landing on the drone ship. Musk, SpaceX's founder and chief executive officer, was at Base Sunday.
SpaceX first tested the ability of the Falcon 9 to touch down its landing legs on a barge a year ago. In that attempt, the 14-story rocket ran out of hydraulic fluid shortly before it hit the ship and broke into pieces. Another test scheduled for February 2015 was called off because of oceanic conditions. A third attempt last April saw the rocket land too hard to survive the impact.
SpaceX made history last month by landing one of its Falcon 9 rocket stages on land at Cape Canaveral, Florida. But SpaceX has wanted to perfect the landing-at-sea technique, despite the immense technical challenges of trying to slow a rocket traveling roughly 5,000 miles per hour (8,045 kilometers per hour) and land it on a platform bobbing in the Pacific Ocean.
Watch: The successful Florida booster landing:
Musk, in a response to a tweet, said Sunday's landing "probably" would have had the same result if it had been a touchdown on land.
Watch: SpaceX's first attempt at a sea landing fail
The 44-year-old billionaire founded SpaceX in 2002 with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on Mars. In May, SpaceX was certified by the Air Force to compete for military launches with United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. Last week, SpaceX was among three winners in another round of contracts to haul cargo to the International Space Station.
Watch: Blue Origin's space vehicle returns from space
In April, during the last attempt to land on what Musk calls an "autonomous spaceport drone ship," essentially a modified barge that's 91 metres feet long by 51 metres wide.