SpaceX becomes first to re-fly used rocket

Partially recycled Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched and landed, a step toward vastly less expensive spaceflight

SpaceX launched its first “pre-flown” rocket on Thursday, marking the first time anyone has relaunched a booster into space, in what CEO Elon Musk called “a milestone in the history of space”.

“This is going to be ultimately a huge revolution in spaceflight,” Musk said on a SpaceX broadcast of the launch.

He said that accomplishment – to “fly and re-fly an orbital-class booster” – was like finally achieving reliable aircraft rather than throwing away an airplane after every flight.

“It’s taken us a long time, a lot of difficult steps along the way,” he said, “but I’m just incredibly proud of the spaceflight team.”

The success is a step toward vastly less expensive spaceflight, which some hope can revolutionize travel in the solar system and take humans to Mars. While Nasa for decades used reusable spacecraft – its famous space shuttle fleet – the space agency has found that the intense maintenance the shuttles need makes them more expensive than rockets, at least with current technology.

“No one has ever done anything like this before,” SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell said in a company broadcast before the launch. “We’re not one-way trip to Mars people. We want to make sure that whoever we take can come back.”

Under clear skies at the Kennedy Space Center, near Cape Canaveral, Florida, SpaceX launched its partially recycled Falcon 9 rocket at 6.37pm local time. A few minutes later the booster separated from its payload, to raucous cheers from engineers at the space center.

Then the rocket sank downward back toward the earth, burning back through the shield of the atmosphere, on its way toward its destination: a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, called the Of Course I Still Love You.

The equivalent of a 14-story building, the rocket hurtled downward at nearly a mile a second, thrusters firing to slow down, until finally it landed, secure and upright on the ship, to a final burst of applause.

The rocket had already secured its place in SpaceX’s history: in April 2016 it became the first rocket to successfully land on a drone ship in the Atlantic, after a supply mission to the International Space Station. The booster – the nine-engine base of the rocket – was then taken back to the mainland and refurbished.

The booster carried a communications satellite for the Luxembourg company SES, which reportedly received a discount; launches normally cost about $60m each. Reliable, reusable rockets could dramatically lower that cost, making it easier for space agencies and private companies to get satellites, telescopes, supplies and, eventually, people into space.

SpaceX first landed one of its Falcon 9 rockets in 2015, a month after another tech billionaire, Jeff Bezos, and his company Blue Origin landed. A smaller rocket has reached the lower edge of outer space – still far below the orbital zones reached by SpaceX missions. SpaceX has launched and landed eight of 13 attempted rocket launches, with several explosive failures over the years. Blue Origin has launched and landed five rockets, and this month Bezos unveiled a new, larger rocket booster as well as a planned tourist capsule.

Two would-be space tourists have already signed up to travel with SpaceX, Musk revealed last month, without any details about who the “private citizens” were or what “significant deposit” they paid to fly around the moon. He said they are aiming for a 2018 mission, even though SpaceX has yet to test the heavy rocket that would carry people, or to take any humans into space.

Musk’s ambitions have costly risks. One of SpaceX’s rockets exploded on its launch platform last September, destroying the booster, the spacecraft and its cargo – a multimillion-dollar satellite, in part owned by Facebook – setting back the company’s plans to relaunch a used rocket. The explosion also underscored the dangers for human passengers on private spacecraft, and a government audit released this year questioned whether SpaceX could safely resolve rocket problems or realize some of its lofty goals.

Ever optimistic, Musk has said that he believes most rocket parts can be used dozens of times, and that even heat shields could survive more than 10 burning passages through the atmosphere.

Nasa is working on its own new rocket, called the Space Launch System (SLS), whose designs would make it the most powerful rocket yet devised. The agency hopes to use the SLS to send explorer spacecraft and robots into deep space, and humans to an asteroid and Mars.

Contributor

Alan Yuhas in San Francisco

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
SpaceX successfully launches Falcon 9 rocket months after explosion
Engineers burst into cheers when rocket landed on barge in Pacific Ocean, as the launch was SpaceX’s first since September, when rocket exploded on launchpad

Alan Yuhas in San Francisco

15, Jan, 2017 @2:31 AM

Article image
Elon Musk planning SpaceX mission to Mars by 2018
Tesla boss’s SpaceX plans to send an unmanned spaceship, the boldest goal yet in a private space travel industry that counts Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson

Danny Yadron in San Francisco

27, Apr, 2016 @6:48 PM

Article image
SpaceX founder Elon Musk plans to get humans to Mars in six years
SpaceX founder tells meeting of astronautical experts that his only purpose is to ‘make life interplanetary’, revealing plans for reusable ship to Mars

Nicky Woolf in San Francisco

28, Sep, 2016 @6:42 AM

Article image
SpaceX to send two people around the moon who paid for a 2018 private mission
CEO Elon Musk said the private journey would take about a week, nearing the moon’s surface without landing on it

Alan Yuhas in San Francisco

28, Feb, 2017 @7:16 AM

Article image
SpaceX launches and lands Falcon rocket from historic spaceport
Rocket launches from pad that was home to some of Nasa’s best-known missions – then booster gracefully returns to Earth

Alan Yuhas

19, Feb, 2017 @3:22 PM

Article image
SpaceX rocket explosion: Mark Zuckerberg laments loss of Internet.org satellite
The Facebook CEO said he was ‘deeply disappointed’ in explosion of Falcon 9 rocket carrying satellite intended to provide internet coverage to parts of Africa

Julia Carrie Wong in San Francisco

02, Sep, 2016 @6:25 AM

Article image
Elon Musk has ambitious plans for Mars. Are they as crazy as they sound?
The SpaceX founder has become the face of entrepreneurial space exploration – and ambition. What does the established space science community think of him?

Olivia Solon in San Francisco

27, Sep, 2016 @11:00 AM

Article image
SpaceX's booms and busts: spaceflight is littered with explosions and disasters
When Nasa tried to launch a satellite into orbit, the rocket crumpled into smoke and fire. Almost 60 years later, SpaceX is feeling similarly explosive growing pain

Alan Yuhas in San Francisco

01, Sep, 2016 @8:13 PM

Article image
SpaceX rocket successfully lands on ocean drone platform for first time
Falcon 9 rocket takes off with a cargo capsule bound for International Space Station before successfully landing on drone barge in fifth attempt

Alan Yuhas

08, Apr, 2016 @9:07 PM

Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket and Dragon capsule – in pictures

Tuesday's launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral air force station in Florida was the culmination of months of preparation for the first commercial flight to the International Space Station

22, May, 2012 @1:29 PM