Miami: SpaceX chief Elon Musk hailed a “revolution in spaceflight” after blasting off a recycled rocket for the first time Thursday, using a booster that had previously flown cargo to the International Space Station.
Experts cheered the launch as a “historic” moment for spaceflight, particularly private industry, as companies like SpaceX and its competitors scramble to lower the cost of space travel.
The slightly scuffed Falcon 9 rocket soared into the sky over Cape Canaveral, Florida at 6.27pm (2.27am Friday UAE), on a mission to send a communications satellite for Luxembourg-based company SES into a distant orbit.
Its tall, columnar portion known as the first stage, or booster, had propelled the unmanned Dragon cargo ship to space in April 2016.
About 10 minutes after launch, cheers erupted at SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California as the re-used rocket powered its engines and landed upright on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean marked with the words “Of Course I Still Love You.”
Falcon 9 first stage has landed on Of Course I Still Love You — world’s first reflight of an orbital class rocket.— SpaceX (@SpaceX) March 30, 2017
The landing marked the ninth successful touchdown of a first stage rocket for SpaceX — six on ocean platforms, or drone ships, and three on land.
It also marked the first time a single rocket booster had ever been launched - and landed — twice.
Incredibly proud of the SpaceX team for achieving this milestone in space! Next goal is reflight within 24 hours.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2017
SpaceX, the California-based company headed by visionary entrepreneur Musk, has for 15 years been honing the technology of powering its boosters back to careful Earth landings on solid ground and in the water.
The goal of the entire effort, Musk has said, is to make rocket parts just as reusable as cars, planes or bicycles.
It is also a key part of his plan to one day establish human colonies on Mars.
“It is an amazing day, I think, for space (and) as whole for the space industry,” Musk said in a video message after the launch.
“It means you can fly and refly an orbital class booster which is the most expensive part of the rocket,” he added.
“This is going to be ultimately a huge revolution in spaceflight.”
Currently, millions of dollars’ worth of rocket parts are jettisoned after each launch.
SpaceX officials have said that reusing hardware could slash costs - with each Falcon 9 launch costing over $61 million - by about 30 percent.
While the exact life of the re-used boosters is uncertain, SpaceX hopes they could be redeployed as many as 10 or 15 times.
SpaceX competitor Blue Origin, run by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, has also successfully landed its New Shepard booster after launch, by powering its engines to guide it down for a controlled, upright landing.
Praise and congratulations for SpaceX poured in on Twitter.
“Congratulations on another historic launch,” the US space agency NASA wrote on Twitter.
“Congrats, SpaceX,” said the Defense Advances Research Projects agency (DARPA).
“DARPA facilitated the first SpaceX launch, and now commercial space is coming into its own.”
As for the cost of Thursday’s launch, Martin Halliwell, chief technology officer at SES, has declined to say publicly the exact amount.
However, he dismissed “naysayers” this week and stressed the historic nature of the launch on what he has described as a “flight-proven” rocket.
“This is obviously hugely exciting,” he told a press conference.
When the mission was announced in August, Halliwell said the deal “illustrates the faith we have in (SpaceX’s) technical and operational expertise.”
The SES-10 satellite was sent to a geostationary transfer orbit, flying as high as 35,000 kilometres above Earth.
The satellite aims to expand television, internet and mobile connections across Latin America.
SES confirmed that the launch had successfully deployed its satellite, and congratulated SpaceX on sticking the landing of the rocket.
SpaceX salvaged half of the $6 million nosecone of its rocket, in what space entrepreneur Musk deemed an important feat in the drive to recover more of its launch hardware and cut the cost of space flights.
Shortly after the main section of SpaceX’s first recycled Falcon 9 booster landed itself on a platform in the ocean, half of the rocket’s nosecone, which protected a communications satellite during launch, splashed down via parachute nearby.
"That was the cherry on the cake,” Musk, who serves as chief executive and lead designer of Space Exploration Technologies, told reporters after launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Measuring 43 feet (13 meters) long and 17 feet (5 meters) in diameter, the nosecone is big enough to hold a school bus. It separates into two pieces, exposing the satellite, about 4 minutes after liftoff.
As a test, SpaceX outfitted the fairing with thrusters and a steerable parachute.
"It’s its own little spacecraft,” Musk said. “The thrusters maintain its orientation as it re-enters and then ... the parachute steers it to a particular location.”
SpaceX has focused most of its efforts and more than $1 billion into developing technologies to recover the Falcon 9's main section, which accounts for about 75 percent of the $62 million rocket. Musk’s goal is to cut the cost of spaceflight so that humanity can migrate beyond Earth.
"I hope people will start to think about it as a real goal to establish a civilization on Mars,” he said.
Landing on ‘Bouncy Castle’
After some debate about whether the nosecone could be recovered, Musk said he told his engineering team, “Imagine you had $6 million in cash on a pallet flying through the air that’s just going to smash into the ocean. Would you try to recover that? Yes, you would.”
Musk envisions deploying a kind of “bouncy castle” for the fairing to land on so it can be recovered intact and reused.
The company plans up to six more flights of recycled boosters this year, including two that will strapped alongside a third, new first-stage for the debut test flight of a heavy-lift rocket.
Originally slated to fly in 2013, Falcon Heavy is now expected to fly late this summer.
"At first it sounded easy. We’ll just take two first stages and use them as strap-on boosters,” Musk said. “It was actually shockingly difficult to go from single core to a triple-core vehicle.”
SpaceX also may try to land the rocket’s upper-stage section, a feat the company has never attempted. “Odds of success low, but maybe worth a shot,” Musk wrote on Twitter on Friday.
Privately owned SpaceX also is developing a commercial space taxi to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, a venture to send two space tourists on a trip around the moon and a Mars lander that is slated to launch in 2020.