With a whole lot of cheering, Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 rocket cleared the tower at Cape Canaveral and began its mission into space history.
After two minutes of tension, the main engines were cut off and cheers erupted from the SpaceX team watching as Falcon 9 prepared to deploy its first stage.
As the second stage headed onward and upward to deploy 11 OrbComm satellites to low Earth orbit, the real work began.
SpaceX was attempting to return the first stage back to ground. Only Jeff Bezos’ company had succeeded, just four weeks ago, and with a much lesser powered rocket.
And SpaceX nailed it. Here’s the moment:
Until now, SpaceX had only attempted to land its rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic, and both times it failed. Here’s Musk today, an hour after touchdown:
11 satellites deployed to target orbit and Falcon has landed back at Cape Canaveral. Headed to LZ-1. Welcome back, baby!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 22, 2015
Four weeks ago, Bezos’ Blue Origin first stage rocket, named New Shepard, flew to an altitude of 100km and made it back in one piece.
That sparked a kind of passive-aggressive Twitter spat between the two, but Bezos was one of the first today to congratulate SpaceX:
Congrats @SpaceX on landing Falcon's suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) December 22, 2015
Note “Welcome to the club”. But the more important thing to note is Musk’s rocket is much, much bigger and more powerful.
Five years ago, a manoeuvre like this was unheard of in the spaceflight industry. But now, SpaceX has done something never attempted before by sending an orbital rocket into space and then bringing it back intact.
Orbital rockets are the most powerful types of rockets because they can generate enough speed and power to send payloads into orbit around Earth – hence “orbital” rocket.
This is a critical capability if you want to transport people to deep space or distant destinations like the moon or Mars, which is exactly what SpaceX has in mind for its fleet of reusable rockets.
Perhaps more importantly, successfully developing a reusable rocket should make spaceflight a whole lot more affordable. And given the US now has two companies in the reusable rocket space – and the rest of the world has none – that’s a very lucrative stream as a new age of spaceflight innovation emerges.
Here’s an amazing image SpaceX tweeted out of all three critical stages in one shot:
Long exposure of launch, re-entry, and landing burns pic.twitter.com/Vw1ZJAtvhy
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 22, 2015
SpaceX is busy now releasing pics of Falcon 9 deploying OrbComm’s satellites:
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