SpaceX Sticks Rocket Landing in Its First Launch Since Summer Tragedy

The only thing better than a rocket launch is a rocket landing.

Dec 22 2015, 3:15am

Photo: SpaceX/Flickr

SpaceX made history tonight as it successfully landed the first stage booster of a Falcon 9 rocket on land at Cape Canaveral.

Just like the Millennium Falcon returned to flight in the new Star Wars movie, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket—named after Han Solo's fictional spaceship—returned to flight tonight after a six-month hiatus.

The last time SpaceX attempted to launch was June, when its rocket, bound for the International Space Station,exploded three minutes into flight, breaking the company's spotless track record.

This launch is more than a return to flight for SpaceX. The company attempted something that's never been done before: landing the first stage booster on a landing pad at Cape Canaveral.

Previous attempts to recover the first stage have been on one of two floating autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS). SpaceX built the two floating landing platforms, approximately the size of a football field, and named them "Just Read The Instructions" and "Of Course I Still Love You" as a hat tip to science fiction writer Iain M. Banks.

"We could not have asked for a more perfect mission, it was absolutely perfect"

For this mission, SpaceX ditched the ASDS and instead aimed for the giant X painted on a landing pad on Cape Canaveral property. The site, dubbed "Landing Zone 1", was formerly Launch Complex 13 and hosted missile launches until it was deactivated in 1980.

The rocket lifted off on time following a 24-hour delay to increase the odds of landing according to a tweet by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. The delay paid off big time as the rocket not only lifted off on time, but landed right on target.

This mission also saw the first flight of the upgraded Falcon. Named "Full Thrust Falcon," this version of the rocket is the most powerful ever flown. The upgraded booster measures approximately five feet taller than previous versions—229.6 feet high—which translates to about 200,000 pounds of additional thrust. The added oomph not only allowed the Falcon to deliver its commercial payload of 11 ORBCOMM satellites to low Earth orbit, but also included enough fuel for a controlled descent and landing of the first stage.

Standing on the balcony of the media viewing area at Port Canaveral, you could really feel the emotion as everyone waited for liftoff. Bystanders held their breath as the rocket launched and finally exhaled as the vehicle passed through MaxQ, the area of maximum dynamic pressure. Cheers could be heard as the second stage ignited and the first stage headed back to Earth.

The booster lit up the sky and faded away as it completed a series of three burns required to slow the vehicle enough to land. As the rocket approached the ground, two sonic booms echoed through the darkness—a sound that hasn't been heard since the last shuttle touched down in 2011.

In a post launch press conference, Elon Musk expressed his excitement for the launch and landing and what this means for the future of spaceflight. "After liftoff, I went out to the causeway and at first I thought the booster had exploded because I heard the sonic boom right as the stage touched down," Musk said. "We could not have asked for a more perfect mission, it was absolutely perfect, with the booster touching down almost dead center."

Right now, one Falcon 9 rocket costs $60 million dollars to make and SpaceX is cranking out one rocket every three weeks. With fuel costs equaling $200 thousand to fuel one rocket, booster reusability will dramatically reduce the costs of rockets by as much as a factor of 100.

"This means a lot, not just for SpaceX, but for spaceflight in general," Musk said.

Once recovered, this booster will be refurbished and then taken to Pad 39A where a static fire test will be conducted to ensure it is capable of flying again. SpaceX plans to keep this specific booster on the ground, but has plans to fly future returned boosters.