Cape Canaveral: Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket at its landing pad in its first flight since one of its rocket exploded six months ago.
The historic landing is the first time a rocket has launched a payload into orbit and then returned safely to Earth. Its success was cheered as a sign that SpaceX, the darling of the commercial space industry, has its momentum back.
“The Falcon has landed,” a SpaceX commentator said on the live webcast, as workers at its headquarters went wild.
Monday’s flight, initially delayed because of technical concerns, was the second time in a month that a billionaire-backed venture launched a rocket into space and recovered it.
Typically, rocket boosters are used once, burning up or crashing into the ocean after lift-off. But Mr Musk, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal and Tesla, and Jeffrey Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com who has his own space company, have been working on creating reusable rockets that land vertically by using their engine thrust. If they are able to recover rockets and fly them again and again, it would dramatically lower the cost of space flight.
Reusing the first stage, which houses the engine and is the most expensive part of the rocket, was thought impossible by many just a few years ago. But last month Mr Bezos’ Blue Origin flew a rocket to the edge of space, and landed it in a remote area of West Texas.
On Monday, SpaceX’s first flight since its Falcon 9 rocket blew up in June, Mr Musk topped his fellow tech billionaire and space rival, by landing a larger, more powerful rocket designed to send payloads to orbit, and not just past the boundary of what’s considered space. It was a much more complicated feat that was celebrated as another leap forward for Mr Musk and his merry band of rocketeers.
SpaceX’s unmanned and recently upgraded Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral at 8.29pm local time on a mission to deliver 11 commercial satellites into space for Orbcomm, a communications company. A few minutes later, the large booster performed a U-turn and headed back to Earth, using its engine thrust to slow down.
Guided by fins on the side of the rocket, it steered toward the landing pad SpaceX has built on the Cape-Landing Zone 1-and touched down vertically in a dramatic, pinpoint landing.
Previously, SpaceX had attempted to land the first stage on a floating platform Mr Musk calls an “autonomous spaceport drone ship.” Twice the rockets hit the barge, but they came down too hard or at a slight angle, and exploded.
Monday’s landing is yet another breakthrough for SpaceX, which was the first commercial company hired by NASA to ferry supplies to the International Space Station. And it won another contract, along with Boeing, to fly astronauts to the station, as soon as 2017.
Mr Musk is part of a class of billionaires inspired by NASA’s Apollo era and moon landings, who have sunk vast amounts of their great fortunes into their space companies. Early next year, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is slated to unveil a new space craft that’s designed to take tourists just past the boundary of space, where they would be able to view the curvature of the Earth and float around the cabin, weightlessly.
Mr Bezos has a similar ambition, and likes to talk about the day that “millions of people will be living and working in space”.
For every step forward, though, there have been setbacks. Sir Richard’s SpaceShipTwo crashed last year, killing one of the pilots. And SpaceX had been grounded since June, when its Falcon 9 rocket blew up a couple minutes into flight. The company determined that the explosion was caused by a faulty strut that broke, and it since has upgraded its Falcon 9 rocket.
On Monday, it appeared to perform flawlessly.