After spending more than two years of landing their first stage rockets after launch, SpaceX finally sent one of its used Falcon 9’s back into space. This one took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, yesterday evening to deliver a communications satellite into orbit, to return to Earth and land on SpaceX’s drone landing barges floating in the Atlantic Ocean. It had previously flown during a mission in April of last year.
What makes this flight historic is that it fulfills the SpaceX promise of being able to recover and reuse an orbital launch vehicle. Watch the video below – you’ll see the entire process. Unfortunately the video blanks out during the actual landing, but you can hear the incredible tumult from the attending crowd in Hawthorne, California at SpaceX headquarters when the landing is confirmed.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk appeared on the company’s live stream shortly after the landing and spoke about the accomplishment. “It means you can fly and refly an orbital class booster, which is the most expensive part of the rocket. This is going to be, ultimately, a huge revolution in spaceflight,” he said.
A Critical Milestone
SpaceX has been working on its reusable rockets since 2011, and this is the first time they’ve taken one through the entire planned life cycle. It’s also the first time an orbital rocket has been refurbished and put back into service. Normally, they’re the first part that gets thrown away, usually landing – and sinking – in the Atlantic Ocean. That gets expensive fast. A first stage booster will cost between tens of millions and hundreds of millions of dollars. They might almost just as well soak hundred dollar bills in rocket fuel and light that. With a reusable booster, SpaceX anticipates that they’ll be able to save something like 30% on the cost of each launch, though for a while, until they figure out the best way to go about refurbishing and reusing the 14-story tall Falcon 9 boosters, the margin will be closer to 10%.
With this launch, SpaceX has proven that the most expensive part of an orbital launch vehicle can be recovered and flown again – and the fact that the first stage was recovered in one piece means it can be sent to space for a third time. This puts the scoreboard for SpaceX at 13 landing attempts, 8 successful landings, and 1 booster successfully reused.
Yesterday’s launch was the same vehicle used for CRS-8 on April 8, 2016, which was SpaceX’s eighth cargo run to the International Space Station. The payload this time was a communications satellite for the company SES, based in Luxembourg. The satellite, SES-10, will move to a high orbit at 22,000 miles and deliver communications services exclusively to Latin America. SES had been really vocal about wanting to be the first company to launch on a used rocket, not only for the obvious cost savings, but to cement its place in aerospace history as well.
If SpaceX wants to maximize the economic benefits of its reusable rockets, the best idea is to launch these vehicles as frequently as possible – but before a rocket can launch again, it has to be inspected, refurbished, and tested a few times to ensure that it’s ready for spaceflight. It took SpaceX almost to four months to get this rocket ready for its historic flight, but the company is working to trim down that turnaround time. SpaceX could be getting a lot of practice at that soon, as its launch schedule includes up to six pre-flown Falcon 9’s this year.
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