SpaceX Rocket Puts Historic NASA Launch Pad Back in Business

Unlike any booster NASA has flown, the Falcon 9's first stage then returned around and landed itself back on the ground.

The launch pad where rockets blasted off to put astronauts on the moon and 82 space shuttle crews into orbit re-opened for business Sunday with liftoff of a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster on a cargo run to the International Space Station for NASA.

After delaying a day to assess an issue with the rocket's upper-stage steering nozzle, SpaceX launched its 30th Falcon 9 rocket at 9:39 a.m. EST Sunday from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"It's been a super-exciting day," Jessica Jensen, SpaceX Dragon mission manager told reporters after launch.

"It was really awesome to see 39A roar back to life for the first time since the shuttle era, and it was extremely special that this first launch off 39A was a Dragon mission for NASA headed to the space station," Jensen said.

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The launch complex was built in the 1960s for the Apollo moon program, then revamped for the space shuttles, which flew from 1981 to 2011. After the final shuttle launch in July 2011, NASA looked for a commercial partner to take over the pad and chose SpaceX over Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos' rocket company.

Blue Origin has since started work at another launch pad, located just south of Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and is building a rocket manufacturing plant at KSC's industrial park.

Sunday's launch was the 29th for Elon Musk's SpaceX. The company lost a 30th rocket while it was being fueled for a routine prelaunch engine test on Sept. 1. That accident heavily damaged what had been SpaceX's primary launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

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With its new pad in operation, SpaceX will shift its crew to focus on rebuilding its old pad, which will be used for the company's commercial satellite launches. SpaceX plans to use 39A for its NASA cargo missions, its heavy-lift Falcon rockets and eventually to fly astronauts.

Unlike the 95 previous rockets that launched from 39A, SpaceX's booster flew itself back to Earth, touching down nine minutes after launch at a landing pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It was SpaceX's eighth successful touchdown.

The company plans to launch its first previously flown - or as SpaceX likes to say "flight-tested" - rocket in March, marking another milestone in the storied life of 39A.