Space & Innovation

Falcon Returns: SpaceX Makes Historic Rocket Landing

The third attempt at a historic reusable-rocket milestone was the charm for SpaceX.

The third attempt at a historic reusable-rocket milestone was the charm for SpaceX.

The private spaceflight company brought the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket back to Earth for a soft touchdown tonight (Dec. 21), pulling off history's first-ever rocket landing during an orbital launch. (Blue Origin, the company led by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, landed its New Shepard booster successfully last month, but that occurred during a suborbital test.)

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The Falcon 9 blasted off at 8:29 p.m. EST today (0129 GMT on Dec. 22) from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, tasked with delivering to orbit 11 spacecraft for the satellite-communications company Orbcomm. The two-stage Falcon 9 separated, and then the rocket's first stage performed a series three "boostback burns," coming down for a pinpoint touchdown at Cape Canaveral. [How Reusable Rocket Launch Systems Work (Infographic)]

SpaceX's mission control in Hawthorne, California, erupted in raucous cheers when the first stage came into view of a camera near the landing site - then went even more nuts as the booster stage slowed and touched down successfully at SpaceX's "Landing Zone 1," a facility previously used by the Air Force for rocket and missile testing.

SpaceX had tried to land Falcon 9 first stages twice before, both times on an uncrewed "drone ship" hundreds of miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. On each occasion - once in January 2015, and then again in April - the booster stage hit its target but came in a little too hard and crashed on the ship's deck.

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Today's landing was a milestone moment for SpaceX, which aims to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets as a way to open the heavens to exploration. Such technology could slash the cost of spaceflight by a factor of 100, potentially making Mars colonies economically feasible, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said.

Mars settlement is no idle dream for Musk; he established SpaceX back in 2002 primarily because he wants to help humanity become a multiplanetary species, Musk has repeatedly said.

Today's launch was the first for SpaceX since June 28, when a Falcon 9 broke apart less than three minutes after blasting off from Cape Canaveral, scuttling the seventh uncrewed cargo mission the company is flying to the International Space Station for NASA. (SpaceX holds a $1.6 billion deal to make at least 12 such flights with the Falcon 9 and its robotic Dragon capsule.)

The June failure was likely caused by a faulty steel strut in the Falcon 9 upper stage. Musk has said that, going forward, the company will test every one of the hundreds of such struts that go into each Falcon 9.

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SpaceX has also been revamping the Falcon 9 since the accident, adjusting its stage-separation system and electronics, among other features, Musk said.

"I think it's a significantly improved rocket from the last one," he said on Dec. 15 during a talk at the annual winter meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Today's launch was originally scheduled for Sunday night (Dec. 20), but analyses showed that lifting off tonight provided a 10 percent better chance of landing success, Musk said.

The 11 satellites that launched aboard the Falcon 9 all deployed successfully, and will complete a 17-spacecraft Orbcomm network in low-Earth orbit.

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The first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket made a successful return to Earth on Monday night, making a powered landing and landing in a specially designed landing area at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Dragon spacecraft onboard, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on March 1, 2013. The launch was the second SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services mission for NASA. After delivering its bounty of fresh food, supplies and experiments to the orbiting outpost, the Dragon capsule completed its mission when it splashed down off the Baja California coast on March 26, 2013. Here's a photo diary of some of the Dragon's voyage to low-Earth orbit and back.

A view of the approching SpaceX Dragon capsule over a backdrop of Earth before the spacecraft berthed with the station on March 3, 2013.

A view of the approching SpaceX Dragon capsule over a backdrop of Earth before the spacecraft berthed with the station on March 3, 2013.

The space station's robotic arm reaches out to grab the approaching SpaceX Dragon capsule that is loaded with fresh food and other cargo for the orbiting outpost's crew.

A close-up shot of the SpaceX Dragon's berthing point that the space station's robotic arm uses as an attachment to pull the spacecraft in.

The space station's robotic arm guides the SpaceX Dragon capsule during berthing operations on March 3, 2013.

A photo out of a cupola window of the SpaceX Dragon being berthed by the space station's robotic arm shortly after capture on March 3, 2013.

The space station's robotic arm slowly inches the SpaceX Dragon capsule closer to the orbiting outpost's Unity module.

The docked SpaceX Dragon capsule hangs above the Earth shortly after berthing operations.

A view of the SpaceX Dragon capsule attached to the space station's Unity module.

A photo out of a cupola window of the docked SpaceX Dragon and Space Station Remote Manipulator System or Canadarm2 robotic arm.

Inside the International Space Station's Cupola, Expedition 34 Flight Engineer Tom Marshburn assists fellow crew members during capture and docking operations.

Expedition 34 Commander Kevin Ford looks up toward the arriving SpaceX Dragon spacecraft during capture and docking operations.

Inside the International Space Station's Cupola, Expedition 34 Flight Engineer Tom Marshburn assists fellow crew members (out of frame) during capture and docking operations with the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft on March 3, 2013.

Fresh fruit, along with other food and supplies, arrived aboard the unmanned spacecraft on March 3, 2013. Here, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield eats some of the produce.

From foreground to aft, Expedition 34 Flight Engineers Tom Marshburn of NASA and Roman Romanenko and Evgeny Tarelkin of Roscosmos can't hide their delight over the arrival of fresh food and supplies that were delivered by the SpaceX Dragon.

Expedition 34 Flight Engineer Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency juggles some tomatoes that were delivered by the SpaceX Dragon capsule on March 3, 2013.

NASA TV screengrab of the space station's robotic arm releasing the SpaceX Dragon capsule before reentry on March 26, 2013.

Artist's impression of the SpaceX Dragon capsule reentering the Earth's atmosphere.

The Dragon's three parachutes are spotted by SpaceX recovery ships shortly before splashdown on March 26, 2013.