This photograph shows the Falcon 9 first stage making a landing attempt. SpaceX will try again this month to land a returning Falcon 9 rocket first-stage to a platform in the ocean.
A repaired and upgraded Falcon 9 rocket not only put SpaceX back in the launch business on Monday, it stunningly demonstrated that with enough time, technical expertise and maybe a little luck, it’s possible to return a rocket booster to the launch site. Here’s a look back at the highs and lows along the way to this historic moment.MORE: Falcon Returns: SpaceX Makes Historic Rocket Landing
SpaceX pulled off an historic first Monday night, launching a network of communications satellites into orbit, and then landing the rocket’s jettisoned main stage back near the launch site. SpaceX gave its customer, Orbcomm, a cut-rate $47 million, two-flight deal, a savings for more than $70 million. Orbcomm, which operates machine-to-machine communications systems, such as between shipping containers and retailers, was an early SpaceX adopter, booking rides on the company’s now-decommissioned Falcon 1 launcher. SpaceX moved Orbcomm to its bigger Falcon 9 rockets for the same price. Landing the booster was the icing on the cake, an experiment conducted at SpaceX’s expense. The touchdown, however, may lead to even better prices for Orbcomm and SpaceX’s other customers in the future, with a new category of launch vehicle in the offing slightly used.PHOTOS: Before Falcon 9, SpaceX Learned From Falcon 1 Flops
Photo: This is a striking timelapse image shows the bright streaks caused by the Falcon 9 launch and its returning first stage booster.
SpaceX founder and chief executive had a nasty surprise on his 44th birthday: a Falcon 9 rocket blasting off to deliver a load of cargo to the International Space Station broke apart about two minutes after liftoff from Florida on June 28. It was the first failure of the Falcon 9, which had flown 18 times previously. The accident, which was caused by a faulty strut in the rocket’s upper-stage liquid oxygen tank, kept the Falcon 9 fleet grounded for six months.MORE: Faulty Strut Likely Caused SpaceX Rocket Explosion
Photo: This image is a snapshot of the dramatic NASA TV footage of the moment when the Falcon 9 rocket exploded moments after lift off on June 28.
Following a series of tests to control booster descent, SpaceX customized a pair of ocean platforms in hopes of bringing a Falcon 9 first-stage back intact, a key step in the company’s quest to develop a reusable launcher, one that could fly for a fraction of today’s going rate. Nailing the landing was “like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a windstorm,” SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk said at the time. During the first attempt to land at sea, in January 2015, the booster hit the target, but landed too hard, primarily because the hydraulic system needed to operate stabilizing grid fins, ran out of fluid. The next attempt, in April, a stuck valve prevented the booster from reacting fast enough to maintain position after a successful touchdown. It toppled over and exploded.VIDEO: SpaceX Releases Amazing (and Explosive) Video of Rocket Landing
Photo: During ocean landing tests, SpaceX proved they could return their Falcon 9 boosters to a precise target, but maintaining stability on touchdown has been a problem.
SpaceX’s early attempts to develop rocket landing technologies included a suborbital testbed called Grasshopper, which was used for low-altitude, low-speed hover and landing tests beginning in September 2012. On its eighth and final flight in October 2013, Grasshopper flew to an altitude of 2,441 feet and landed. A follow-on program, the Falcon 9 Reusable Development Vehicle, or F9R, had a successful debut in April 2014, but crashed due to a faulty sensor four months later.PHOTOS: SpaceX Grasshopper Rocket Takes Giant Leap
Photo: The experimental Grasshopper rocket hovers over its launch site during early tests.
One of the first to offer congratulations to Elon Musk and SpaceX for nailing a rocket landing was Jeff Bezos, fellow billionaire rocketeer who founded his own space company, Blue Origin, in 2000, a couple of years before Musk started SpaceX. “Welcome to the club!” Bezos posted on Twitter, a not-so-oblique reference to his company nailing a landing of its suborbital New Shepard rocket a month ago. After that feat, Musk took to Twitter to offer his own congratulations, also couched with comments about the relative difficulty of landing from orbital versus suborbital velocities. Rocket races, anyone?MORE: Blue Origin Nails Rocket Landing
Photo: Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket achieves touchdown after a successful suborbital launch test.
Cheap, reusable rockets aren’t just good for business. SpaceX founder Elon Musk sees them as an essential part of the technology needed to get to Mars. “Now is the first time in the history of Earth ... where it's possible for us to extend life to other planets," Musk said at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco this month. "That window may be open for a long time -- and hopefully it is -- but it also may be open for a short time," he said. “The wise move is to make life multi-planetary while we can.” A large part of making space travel affordable is reducing launch costs, hence SpaceX’s steadfast efforts to develop reusable rockets. Musk said each Falcon 9 costs about $16 million to build, but fuel for the flight is a relatively cheap $200,000. Slashing costs by that much is a game-changer. SpaceX’s next job will be to assess the condition of the recovered Falcon and then possibly fly it again.MORE: Musk: SpaceX Making 'Progress' Toward Mars Colony
SpaceX returns to Florida this month for its second launch of the year, a commercial mission to deliver a communications spacecraft into orbit.
Luxembourg-based SES said SpaceX is aiming launch its SES-9 satellite on Feb. 24 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
To get SES-9 into its intended orbit, the first-stage of the Falcon rocket will be moving too fast to attempt to land back at the launch site, a feat SpaceX nailed in December. Instead, SpaceX will try again to touch down on a platform floating in the ocean.
“Ship landings are needed for high velocity missions. Altitude and distance don’t mean much for orbit. All about speed,” SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk wrote on Twitter.
“Just not physically possible to return to launch site,” he added.
SpaceX’s three previous ocean landing attempts have failed, although the last one in Janaury came close. After sending the Jason-3 ocean-monitoring satellite on its way into orbit, the Falcon 9 first stage touched down on a platform in the Pacific Ocean, but then one of the rocket’s four landing legs gave way causing it to tip over. The booster exploded when it hit the barge.
Musk said he expects to stick about 70 percent of the rocket landings this year, and improve the system to reach a 90 percent success rate in 2017.
“Definitely harder to land on a ship,” Musk said on Twitter. “Similar to an aircraft carrier vs land: much smaller target area, that’s also translating and rotating.”
The SES launch will be the second of more than a dozen flights SpaceX is planning for 2016.