SpaceX makes aerospace history with successful launch and landing of a used rocket

After more than two years of landing its rockets after launch, SpaceX finally sent one of its used Falcon 9s back into space. The rocket took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, this evening, sending a communications satellite into orbit, and then landed on one of SpaceX’s drone ships floating in the Atlantic Ocean. It was round two for this particular rocket, which already launched and landed during a mission in April of last year. But the Falcon 9’s relaunch marks the first time an orbital rocket has launched to space for a second time.

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.

After more than two years of landing its rockets after launch, SpaceX finally sent one of its used Falcon 9s back into space. The rocket took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, this evening, sending a communications satellite into orbit, and then landed on one of SpaceX’s drone ships floating in the Atlantic Ocean. It was round two for this particular rocket, which already launched and landed during a mission in April of last year. But the Falcon 9’s relaunch marks the first time an orbital rocket has launched to space for a second time.

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.

SpaceX doesn’t save the entire Falcon 9 rocket after each launch though. It saves the first stage — the 14-story core of the Falcon 9 that contains the main engines and most of the fuel needed for launch. About a few minutes after takeoff, the first stage separates from the top of the rocket and makes a controlled descent back to Earth — either landing on solid ground or on one of the company’s autonomous drone ships in the ocean. Prior to tonight’s launch, SpaceX had attempted 13 of these rocket landings and eight vehicles had successfully stuck the touchdown. But as SpaceX slowly acquired a growing stockpile of recovered rockets these last two years, the company had yet to actually reuse one of these vehicles.

Now with today’s launch, SpaceX has proven that part of a used Falcon 9 can successfully launch to space again. And the fact that the vehicle successfully returned to Earth in one piece means that the rocket is poised to launch for a third time. Now SpaceX can boast nine successful rocket landings, as well as a Falcon 9 that has gone to and from space two times now.

“It’s been 15 years to get to this point, it’s taken us a long time,” Musk said. “A lot of difficult steps along the way, but I’m just incredibly proud of the SpaceX for being able to achieve this incredible milestone in the history of space.”

The rocket used for today’s launch was the second Falcon 9 that SpaceX ever recovered. It was the vehicle used for CRS-8, the company’s eighth cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. On April 8th, the rocket sent nearly 7,000 pounds of supplies — including an inflatable habitat module called the BEAM — to the station for NASA. After launch, the rocket then landed on SpaceX’s drone ship, titled Of Course I Still Love You. SpaceX decided to launch this Falcon 9 again first, since the company wanted to save the first rocket it ever landed — a vehicle that sent 11 satellites into orbit for the company ORBCOMM in December 2015. That stage is now on display at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Though today’s launch was historic for the aerospace industry, it was otherwise routine for SpaceX. The Falcon 9 help to loft a communications satellite for the company SES, which is based out of Luxembourg. The satellite, called SES-10, will eventually sit in a high orbit 22,000 miles up and deliver communications services exclusively to Latin America. SpaceX confirmed that SES-10 was successfully deployed shortly after the launch.

SES had been very vocal about its desire to be the first company to launch on a used rocket. And there is certainly financial incentive for customers. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell has said that customers that fly on a used Falcon 9 could eventually get discounts of up to 30 percent. Since the cost to launch a Falcon 9 starts at around $60 million, launching on a used rocket could start at around $40 million. For the first few relaunches, though, Shotwell told Space News that the discounts will be more in the order of 10 percent. Neither SpaceX nor SES disclosed how much money was saved for this flight.

“We did receive a discount. Obviously to fly this there was some interest and there was some incentive to do so,” Martin Halliwell, CTO of SES, said in a press conference prior to the launch. “But it is not just the money in this particular case. It’s really, ‘let’s get this proof-of-concept moving.’ Someone has to go first here and SES has a long history of doing this.”

If SpaceX wants to maximize the economic benefits of its reusable rockets, the best method 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 up to four months to get this rocket ready for flight today, according to Shotwell, but the company is working to trim down that turnaround time. SpaceX could have a lot of practice on that front soon, as it expects to launch up to six pre-flown Falcon 9s this year.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket landed on its ocean platform. Credit SpaceX



SpaceX makes history: It launched a used rocket and then landed it in the ocean

It worked!

Just before 6:30 pm ET, SpaceX -- run by Tesla (TSLA) CEO Elon Musk -- launched a used rocket. It marked the first time in the history of spaceflight that the same rocket has been used on two separate missions to orbit.
After successfully launching a satellite toward geosynchronous orbit -- 22,000 miles into space -- the rocket then returned to Earth and landed on a remotely piloted platform, known as a droneship, in the Atlantic Ocean. It was the company's sixth successful landing on a seaborne platform.

The SpaceX video showed the empty droneship, named Of Course I Still Love You, awaiting the return of the rocket, set against a deep blue ocean background. The video feed cut out momentarily and then came back on to show the rocket standing upright on the platform. The landing took place about eight minutes after launch.

"It shows you can fly and refly an orbit-class booster, which is the most expensive part of the rocket," Musk said on a SpaceX webcast. "This is ultimately a huge revolution in spaceflight."

And shortly after the landmark success, Musk took to Twitter to announce his next goal for SpaceX: To launch a rocket twice in 24 hours.

The launch was a huge step for SpaceX. Reusing rockets is essential for companies like SpaceX that want to drive down the cost of space travel.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket costs about $62 million. Using it more than once can drastically bring down the price of a single launch.

The company confirmed to CNNMoney in August that its client for this trip received a discount on the Falcon 9 sticker price, but it declined to say by how much.

COO Gwynne Shotwell said in an interview that aired on SpaceX's webcast of the flight that reusable rockets are also a huge leap forward for SpaceX's plans to travel to Mars.

"Given the goals of SpaceX are to provide space transportation to other planets, we want to make sure whoever we take can come back," she said.

Obviously, she said, that requires developing rockets that can launch more than once.

SpaceX has been working toward its goal of using recycled rockets for more than a year. It's made 14 attempts to recover the first stage of its Falcon 9 rockets, and so far nine have been successful.

The rocket that SpaceX used during Thursday's mission was previously used in an April 2016 mission to the International Space Station. After launch, it was guided to a landing on the same droneship.

That same droneship, named Of Course I Still Love You, also recaptured the first-stage rocket on Thursday.
But recapturing the rocket was a secondary concern for SpaceX. The primary goal was to deliver a communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit for the company that commissioned this launch, SES.

The satellite -- called SES-10 -- is intended to provide improved TV, radio, telephone and internet coverage for South America. SES says SES-10 will also have "the ability to support off-shore oil and gas exploration."
SpaceX announced about 32 minutes after takeoff that the satellite had been successfully deployed.


SpaceX Launches a Satellite With a Partly Used Rocket

SpaceX launched a commercial satellite into space on Thursday with the boost of a partly used rocket, a feat that may open an era of cheaper space travel.

A Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX — formally Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, based in Hawthorne, Calif. — lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to deposit the payload, a telecommunications satellite that will service Latin America, in the proper orbit.

What was noteworthy was that the first stage, or booster, of the rocket had already flown once before. It could conceivably launch again, since it returned in one piece, landing on a floating platform in the Atlantic.

“It did this mission perfectly,” Mr. Musk said during a SpaceX broadcast of the launch. “It dropped off the second stage, came back and landed on the drone ship. Right in the bulls-eye.”

A commercial flight employing a reused rocket is a stride toward reducing the cost of sending payload to space, for business ventures like satellite companies in particular. For Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX, replicating this flight with reusable rockets on a regular basis would be a crucial step toward his dream of sending people to Mars.

“It means you can fly and refly an orbital class booster, which is the most expensive part of the rocket,” Mr. Musk said.

Until now, almost all rockets have been single use. Once the fuel is spent, a rocket stage plummets to Earth, a quick demise to a complex machine that cost tens of millions of dollars to build.

Mr. Musk has likened that to scrapping a 747 jet after one flight.

The booster for Thursday’s flight had been part of the rocket that carried cargo supplies to the International Space Station for NASA last April. As the rocket’s second stage and cargo capsule continued to orbit, the booster steered itself back and set down on the floating platform, which is playfully named “Of Course I Still Love You.”

After the platform returned to port in Jacksonville, Fla., the booster was refurbished, tested and deemed ready for another flight. SES, the company that owns and operates the satellite launched Thursday, was the first commercial customer for a Falcon 9 in 2013, and it signed up for the first flight with a recycled booster at a discount from the usual $62 million launch price. Neither SES nor SpaceX has publicly said how large the discount was.

Mr. Musk has suggested that rocket launches could eventually be much cheaper because the cost of rocket propellants is less than 1 percent of the full price for a launch. So if a rocket could simply be refueled like a jetliner for another flight, the cost of space travel could drop to a fraction of what it is now.

How that might play out in practice is still unclear. The same reasoning led NASA to develop space shuttles in the 1970s, but the savings never materialized because of the extensive refurbishment of the orbiters needed between flights. “We were pushing a lot of technology,” said Daniel Dumbacher, a former NASA official who is now a professor at Purdue University.

SpaceX, however, has a better chance. The Falcon 9 was designed from the start to be reusable. Its engines, for example, do not offer cutting-edge performance — but that means they are simpler and more robust, and thus easier, faster and cheaper to get ready for the next flight.

“They’ve taken the right first steps,” Mr. Dumbacher said. “This is where you just have to get out and do it.”

Reusable rockets may soon become commonplace. Blue Origin, a rocket company started by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is putting similar emphasis on rockets that can be flown many times, not just once. United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is also looking to incorporate reusability in its next rocket, Vulcan. But instead of landing the entire first stage, the plan is for the engine compartment — the most valuable part — to eject and descend via parachute, to be plucked out of the air by a helicopter.

In the near term, reusable rockets could lower the cost of launching satellites and thus make space affordable to more companies for more uses. Currently, most satellites are used for telecommunications or for observations of the Earth.

For his Mars dreams, Mr. Musk envisions a gargantuan spaceship he calls the Interplanetary Transport System that would someday transport humans. That would be far too expensive to be thrown away, so SpaceX needs to solve the reusability problem.

Perhaps an even greater challenge is finding a way to finance the development of such a large rocket. Today, most of SpaceX’s revenue comes from launching satellites for commercial companies and from NASA contracts to take cargo and, soon, astronauts to the International Space Station.

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