The commercial satellite that served as the payload for Thursday’s successful launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was not the main attraction – instead, that honor belonged to the partially-reused SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket used to lift it off the ground and into orbit.
For the first time since founder and chief executive Elon Musk announced his intention to create a reusable booster program in 2011, SpaceX once again used the first stage of a Falcon 9 that had previously lifted off and landed, this time to transport a communications satellite into space.
Once it carried its cargo into space, the booster then once again turned around and came back to Earth, where it touched down without incident on a landing platform floating in the Atlantic, the New York Times reported Thursday, meaning that it could be used a third time.
“This is going to be, ultimately, a huge revolution in spaceflight,” Musk said during the launch, according to Bloomberg. He added that the recycled rocket accomplished its mission “perfectly. It dropped off the second stage, came back and landed on the drone ship. Right in the bulls-eye,” the Times added.
Historic liftoff called a ‘milestone in the history of space’
The Falcon 9 used in the launch was the second to have successfully landed following a launch and was used to send a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) last April. The payload of Thursday’s liftoff was a communications satellite developed by a Luxembourg-based company named SES, who had previously worked with SpaceX back in 2013.
In the six years since Must first announced his reusable rocket program ambitions, SpaceX has attempted to nail post-launch booster landings multiple times (sometimes with good results and sometimes with not-so-good results), all with the ultimate goal of reducing the cost of launches by eliminating the need to build costly new rockets after every successful lift-off.
While financial details were not disclosed, reports indicate that SpaceX had given SES a sizable discount for using the recycled rocket, charging the company far less than its normal $62 million fee for a launch. Musk is confident that less-costly rocket launches will become the norm in the future, telling the Times that propellant accounts for less than 1 percent of the launch price.
Seeing his ambitious plans finally come to fruition on Thursday, Musk told the Associated Press, “This is a huge day. My mind’s blown, frankly.” He went on to call it an “incredible milestone in the history of space” and predicted, that it would be “a huge revolution in spaceflight.”
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told Bloomberg that it took the company nearly four months to recover and refurbish the Falcon 9 used in Thursday’s launch, adding that they ultimately hope to reduce that turnaround time to just 24 hours. The latest liftoff was their fourth of 2017, and the recovery of the Falcon 9 marked the ninth time that SpaceX was able to salvage a booster.
Image credit: SpaceX