SpaceX, a rocket propulsion company founded by Elon Musk (Tesla Motors, Paypal), has been developing a reusable launch vehicle for the delivery of materials to orbit efficiently and for low cost. Currently, the cost of putting one pound of stuff in orbit is about $15,000, largely as the rockets used to deliver these payloads (the Delta and Atlas series rockets) are not reusable and are destroyed completely after launch.
What SpaceX has been working on is a launch vehicle that gets the stuff up there then lands itself automatically on a barge out in the middle of the ocean. Imagine balancing a broom handle on your palm. Now imagine that traveling at thousands of miles an hour. Now imagine your other hand is moving up and down on 30 foot waves and how you have to toss the supersonic broom handle–which weighs over 100,000lbs and is over 150 feet tall–to your other hand and catch it straight up and ever so gently.
You can imagine that this is not an easy task. Here is a Vine of the first landing attempt.
No cigar indeed. Post-mortem: ran out of fuel and hydraulic fluid for manipulating the grid fins that stabilize the rocket. So they tried again today. This was the result.
Much better. Unfortunately it had slightly too much horizontal velocity and tipped over. Still an enormous improvement, and this rocket delivered supplies to the ISS as a bonus.
Already the Falcon 9 has decreased per pound low Earth orbit launch costs by a factor of 3 without the landing capability. I cannot wait until economical launch vehicles finally put the serious development of space within reach.
More on the Falcon 9
More on the first test of the lander (includes a post-mortem)