Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) plans to attempt the first powered vertical landing of a Falcon 9 first stage onto a specially built flat-top barge in the Atlantic in early December.

"We actually have a huge platform that’s being constructed in a shipyard in Louisiana right now," says SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Speaking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department’s AeroAstro Centennial Symposium on Oct. 24, Musk says the platform measures 300 ft. x 170 ft. This will provide a landing area of 51,000 sq. ft., or around 10,000 sq. ft. less than a U.S. Navy Iwo Jima Class LPH amphibious assault ship.

"We’re going to try and land on that on the next flight," Musk says, referring to SpaceX’s fifth cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS), currently set for Dec. 9. The mission, marking the 14th Falcon 9 launch, will attempt to recover the first stage after slowing to a gentle descent following boost-back burns and supersonic retropropulsion from the first-stage main engines. Although Musk believes there is less than a 50% chance of success on this attempt, he remains optimistic that the company will recover and then reuse a first stage for a future flight in 2015. "There’s at least a dozen launches that will occur over the next 12 months. I think it’s quite likely, probably 80 to 90% likely, that one of those flights will be able to land and refly."

A possible landing on a barge would be an interim step towards bringing back the Falcon 9 first stage to a landing on shore, most likely at a location close to the launch site at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SpaceX has to convince not only range safety officials that it is safe to bring back the stage for a precisely controlled landing, but also the space launch market itself. As part of this process, and in addition to the platform landing tests, SpaceX continues preparations to test a second, more capable, reusable Falcon 9 first-stage testbed at higher altitudes, incorporating lessons learned from the first vertical takeoff and landing vehicle that was lost on Aug. 22 during a test flight over Texas. The F9R Dev1 was destroyed when the vehicle’s auto-termination system activated shortly after lifting off from SpaceX’s rocket test site in McGregor.

SpaceX’s first successful "soft landing" recovery of the Falcon 9 first stage took place on April 18 after the launch of the company’s third cargo resupply mission to the ISS. The cargo flight was the first opportunity for SpaceX to evaluate the design of the foldable landing legs and upgraded thrusters that control the stage during its initial descent. The April tests of the F9 and F9R Dev 1 followed an unsuccessful recovery attempt on Sept. 29, 2013, when the first upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 was launched from Vandenberg AFB, California.