In a dramatic space flight first, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida with a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station, while its reusable first-stage rocket booster returned to earth and successfully landed vertically on a drone ship floating in the Atlantic Ocean. It was the Hawthorne company’s fifth attempt at a sea landing and the first successful one.
Eight minutes and 35 seconds after the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched into space, the first stage booster, the main part of the 23-story tall, two-stage SpaceX rocket separated, turned around and headed toward a landing platform floating in the Atlantic about 185 miles (300 km) northeast of Cape Canaveral making an autonomous touchdown.
A live video feed broadcast on NASA television showed the rocket booster, with its four landing legs extended, descending over the ocean before settling itself upright on the barge-like platform.
The successful landing of the booster at sea marks another milestone for billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and his privately owned Space Exploration Technologies in the effort to develop a cheap, reusable rocket. “The rocket landed instead of putting a hole in the ship or tipping over,” Mr. Musk told reporters at the Kennedy Space Center a short time later.
It is to be noted that four previous at-sea landing attempts had failed.
A Falcon 9 main-stage rocket had achieved a successful ground-based touchdown in December, the first ever during an actual commercial space mission but this is the first time that a landing at sea has been successful.
Phil Plait an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer and author has described why this feat was so technically challenging before. “The first stage booster is moving eastward at about 6,000 kph (3,600 mph) when its engine cuts off (the second stage takes over from there). The booster has to flip over, slow down, put itself on the right trajectory, come in over the floating barge, then relight its engines at just the right amount to kill its velocity and land upright.
Because it’s hundreds of kilometers east of Florida by the time it starts to come back, it helps to have a landing platform out to sea to save rocket fuel.
In December, the booster successfully touched down vertically back at the landing site, and this is the first time it’s been done at sea. SpaceX now has shown it has the flexibility to retrieve the booster under a variety of launch configurations,” he wrote.
Building a first stage Falcon 9 booster is expensive, but cleaning, checking out, refurbishing, and relaunching one is much cheaper. The whole idea behind the reusing of rocket boosters instead of grave-yarding them into the oceans is that it could cut launch costs by up to 30%. This success will give a boost to Musk and his company in the burgeoning commercial space launch industry.
U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the latest accomplishment on Twitter.
Congrats SpaceX on landing a rocket at sea. It’s because of innovators like you & NASA that America continues to lead in space exploration.
— President Obama (@POTUS) 8 April 2016
The reusable rocket booster should arrive back in Florida on Sunday and will be test-fired about 10 times, then likely re-launched, probably on a commercial flight, as early as May, Mr. Musk said.
SpaceX plans to start launching rockets about every two weeks from its sites in Florida and California later this year as the company tackles satellite-delivery orders worth some $10 billion, company officials said.
Roughly half the upcoming missions will leave the Falcon 9’s booster with too little reserve fuel to fly all the way back to the launch site for a return landing, so the ability to land at sea is essential, Musk said.
He estimates each Falcon 9 booster should be good for 10 to 20 launches, possibly up to 100 with minor refurbishment.
The liftoff at 4.43 p.m. EDT (20:43 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Station also marked the resumption of resupply flights by SpaceX for NASA following a launch accident in June 2015 that destroyed an earlier cargo payload for the space station.
The last attempt by SpaceX to send a capsule to ISS ended in the rocket disintegrating moments after takeoff when a strut broke inside the booster, causing a helium tank to explode and rupture the booster’s outer skin. There have been a few Falcon 9 launches since, but this is the first to go back to The International Space Station.
The cargo ship that lifted off on Friday, a capsule named Dragon, is due to reach the space station, the $100 billion laboratory flying about 400 km above Earth on Sunday. It is packed with about 3,175 kg of food, supplies and experiments, including a prototype inflatable habitat.
Built by Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace, the lightweight fabric habitat will be tested to see how it compares with more traditional orbiting enclosures made from metal in the hostile environment of space.